Why YA Fantasy?
By David Michael Williams
Honestly, I never cared much for the concept of young adult (YA) fantasy when I was that age.
Or, more precisely, I didn’t understand why it needed to be its own genre. Didn’t we already categorize books by reading level and age appropriateness?
Forbes’ Best Young Adult Fantasy Novels of All Time (https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2019/09/29/the-best-young-adult-fantasy-novels-of-all-time) includes The Hobbit, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and A Wrinkle in Time. I read those when I was a preteen—years before anyone would have called me a “young adult.”
Even if we stretch YA to include adolescents, I was reading books classified simply as “Fantasy” when I was a teenager. Maybe YA fantasy didn’t yet exist as its own subgenre back in the day. More likely, I never noticed a difference between tales featuring young, plucky adventurers and those starring more veteran heroes.
The idea of YA fantasy made even less sense to me when it became clear that readers who had advanced beyond the “young” demarcation of adulthood were devouring short stories, novels, and series branded as YA. For example, the primary fans of the Twilight series spanned females age 13 all the way up to 50. One stat proclaims that approximately half of YA fantasy readers are, in fact, adults.
Talk about a misnomer.
Who cares what it’s called?
Before I dive any deeper into defining YA fantasy, let me just say this: I never thought to write books for teenagers—or, at least, not stories specifically geared toward them.
Even when I started building my first fantasy setting, the world of Altaerra, and writing the storylines that would eventually build into my sword-and-sorcery series, The Renegade Chronicles, I wanted to tell tales that wouldn’t be too juvenile—books that would be shelved alongside the “adult” novels I myself was reading at age 15.
Sure, many of my main characters were in their early 20s, but theirs wasn’t a coming-of-age story, but rather a complex saga exploring good, evil, and unlikely alliances. And after all, I conceived many of these ideas as a teenager, so why wouldn’t other teens enjoy Rebels and Fools, Heroes and Liars, and Martyrs and Monsters?
Never mind that a 20-something David had refined those plots, and 30-something David made even more edits before publication.
After all three books of The Renegade Chronicles were published, I quickly learned that even though some teen readers appreciated—and I daresay enjoyed—my sprawling fantasy epic, it was not YA fantasy.
Here are a variety of reasons why younger readers might get turned off:
Vocabulary — I didn’t shy away from leveraging esoteric elements of the lexicon, including terminology of my own creation.
Length — The books themselves were significantly longer than other fantasy books that teens were used to reading.
Character count — I included a lot of characters, some major and many minor, whose subplots upped the complexity of the narrative.
Fatalities — The Renegade Chronicles take place during a war. People die in wars; therefore, characters die in my books—more than are likely to perish in true YA fantasy books.
When parents tell me their children love fantasy and ask about The Renegade Chronicles, I always ask what they are currently reading. In many cases, they aren’t yet ready for my series, which I describe as being nestled nicely between Harry Potter and Game of Thrones.
What about attempt #2?
I eventually wrote another book that took place in Altaerra, something of a standalone prequel to The Renegade Chronicles.
Once again, I didn’t put much stock in whom I was writing for; I simply wanted to tell a new story with a decidedly different approach. Consequently, Magic’s Daughter focuses on a smaller cast of characters, a more confined setting, and fewer subplots. The reader follows aristocratic Selena Nelesti from age 14 to young adulthood.
Did you catch that? “Young adulthood”! If anything I had written to date qualified as YA, surely it was this book. Right?
For the reasons listed above, Magic’s Daughter is, in fact, YA fantasy. However, I didn’t go into writing that book with a specifically YA mindset. As a result, there are still several mature themes interwoven (which might make it “older” YA) and a relatively high character count.
The story is not dumbed down. Nor should it be. But because of my reactive approach to choosing this genre/subgenre, I can’t help but feel I somewhat shoehorned Magic’s Daughter into the YA arena. Or maybe I just fell into it.
Either way, I would not make that mistake again.
How about one more try?
After stepping away from fantasy to create a definitely-adult paranormal thriller series (The Soul Sleep Cycle), I returned to my first love with a single goal in mind:
Write a fun fantasy novel that my teenaged son, who doesn’t read much, would enjoy.
My new story would very much be about teenagers who are on the verge of growing up (e.g. going to high school). I would write this book for teens from the start. If adults could also appreciate it, so be it, but God help me, I was going to write an intentional YA fantasy novel this time.
But first I had to make sure I knew how.
Research to the rescue! After scouring numerous sources—and ignoring the inherent contradictions among them—I decided that if I were to write YA fantasy, I should cover these bases:
The subject matter should resonate with my protagonists and target readers: primarily teenage boys between the age of 13 and 17 (in my case).
Consider including any and all of the following themes: friendship, getting into trouble, romantic interest, family life, and “coming of age.”
Focus on the challenges of youth. Think like a teen!
Reach wider audiences by featuring characters of diverse backgrounds.
Don’t think of YA fantasy as “adult fiction that’s been dumbed down,” but make sure characters’ voices are authentic to their identities and life experiences.
Don’t be afraid to tackle heavy topics, but don’t preach either.
Be sure there is a hopeful (if not completely happy) ending.
Ramp up the pace whenever possible.
Get feedback from real-life teenagers.
Aim for a word count between 55,000 and 80,000.
Many YA novels, including YA fantasy novels, capitalize on the intimacy afforded by a using present tense and the first-person point of view.
With those as my guiding principles, I did my best to color inside the lines, so to speak. I ended up much closer to the 55,000-word mark than 80,000, but that didn’t bother me. Again, I wanted to reach young readers who might not have the same attention span as their bookworm friends.
I also opted to write in third-person limited POV, passing the narration from main character to main character at the start of every chapter.
I didn’t preach. I didn’t get too gritty. Whenever I questioned whether I was being too simplistic—or really just was tempted to increase complexity in the style of my adult fantasy novels—I reminded myself whom I was writing for.
If the change didn’t make the book more fun, I didn’t do it.
Any reservations I might have had about going “all in” on a YA fantasy novel evaporated when I received the feedback from my teen beta readers. They loved the characters. They appreciated the speedy pace. Best of all, they had fun reading it.
Even if The Lost Tale of Sir Larpsalot doesn’t become the next Hunger Games, I’d say this is a happy ending.
David Michael Williams has suffered from a storytelling addiction for as long as he can remember. His published works include the sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels of The Renegade Chronicles and The Soul Sleep Cycle, a genre-bending series that explores life, death, and the dreamscape. Learn more at david-michael-williams.com.
The Lost Tale of Sir Larpsalot
As the first day of high school creeps closer, five friends agree to one last LARP before splitting the party and ending their geeky game forever.
But the real adventure is just beginning…
Mistaking the teens’ costumed characters for actual warriors, a sorceress summons Sir Larpsalot, Elvish Presley, Brutus the Bullheaded, Master Prospero, and Tom Foolery to her world to complete an impossible quest. To succeed, they must become the heroes they only ever pretended to be.
And if they can’t find a way to win, it’s GAME OVER for real!
Paperback and Kinde editions available on Amazon.com here!