Thursday, September 16, 2010

Young Protoganists in Adult Fiction

Everyone expects to see a young protagonist in YA, but what about adult fiction?

Here is the trouble with writing from instinct. My novel Tower of the Mountain King features a central protagonist who is fifteen. Now in this bronze-age/iron-age Celtic neo-Ireland, this is old enough to be standing in the front ranks. Making young Lathel the central character in this adult novel made sense to me - and it was a gut instinct thing.

I have read plenty of heroic fiction that begins with young protagonists. David Gemmell has written many, the best example of which may be Sword in the Storm. Then there is The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart, which is an absolute classic, and sits on my all-time-favourites shelf.

The choice made sense to me, and I considered that it should increase the reader engagement, with a sense of Lathel being the underdog.

Which only increased my surprise when a major Australian editor, who shall remain nameless, declared that adult books required adult protagonists, then continued to advise me to consider marketing it as YA. After a few startled days, I compiled a list of reasons why I considered it an adult manuscript, and also a list of books that were clearly adult, yet had young protagonists. There was never a response to this email, which either indicates they had lost interest and did not bother reading it, or perhaps that this was not the real reason they rejected the manuscript in the first place.

So what do you think? Can you think of some other examples where a young protagonist has worked in adult fiction? Did you think that it sometimes doesn't work? Or should not be attempted? In which case why?

17 comments:

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I'm not surprised, Chris.

You'd think an editor in a publishing house would know about historical accuracy. Or perhaps they were only following the marketing rules.

YA aged protagonist for YA books.

George RR Martin's Fire and Ice series did have child protagonists, but there were also adult VPs.

Brendan said...

A number of Raymond Feist's books have protags that at least start off young.

There is something appealing about the story of discovery of young adults in books. So much changes for them and their life always seems to be full of possibilities. Everyone can empathize and fantasize with and about them making them ideal story fodder.

Ben Godby said...

Besides the simple truth of young protagonists appearing in adult fiction basically all the time, it's also the case that many, many adults enjoy reading YA. In other words... adults don't seem to have any problem with young protagonists. There might be something to be said the other way, but even though I'm not young anymore I can recall reading books about old people when I was kid and not hating it.

I think you were wise to write what you feel in your gut. That's how the best fiction is produced, whatever that editor may think.

-bn

Anonymous said...

I've run into that a couple of times, and while it surprises me, too, I generally ignore it as an overall rule. I do however note it for future submissions to that editor.

I actually cut and paste all comments from editors into a spreadsheet that I keep on submissions. This helps me remember which editors feel what about certain issues.

I've always been taught it's the story, not the age of the character, that defines the age market. There are overlaps, of course. I believe that DAW Books anthologies are also YA safe. I know that both of my pro credits are with DAW Books and my MCs have been teenaged.

I don't think a thing about reading fiction where the MC is a teen. Now if all of the characters are teen, then it's pretty much a YA read, but one teen in a story of mostly adults could mean either.

Linda

Synova said...

Ender.

I never considered Ender's Game YA or, heaven help me, juvenile fiction.

I stopped cold and stared when I saw the book shelved in with the kids books at a book store with a nice new "kid" cover on it. (I was looking for Dinotopia books.)

Perhaps in the case of Lathel his age can just be skipped over in favor of a description of his place in society.

It's also possible that the editor thinks there is more of a demand for YA.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I have had that problem with a book where the protagonist is seventeen for ONE chapter. Everyone keeps telling me it's YA fantasy. When it picks up again, she's 21. But I can't sell it because it doesn't fit "YA fantasy lines." GRRRR.

As for historical accuracy, Rowena, I don't know but my Musketeer mysteries were rejected by one house because "the pov character is not one of the main characters in the three musketeers." First of all, as those here who read it know, ALL the musketeers are pov characters, it just rotates by chapter. Second, the first chapter they encountered was from the POV of D'Artagnan, who WAS the 3 musketeer's view point character.
Sigh.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I would never claim to be the most widely read person in the genre - but for a major editor to make a claim that flys in the face of prior works of note. That's a bit scary. What else don't they know? And these are the people steering the genre? Yikes!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Brendan. You have articulated exactly what I was trying to capture by instinct. I think it is that sense of possibility. I think this is also the reason adults get hooked on YA (I know it's why I am:)). Did I mention my favourite book from last year was Junior Fiction:)

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks, Ben. There is always that horrible moment of doubt when you look at what has poured out and you get a wash of fear - 'Is this really going to work?'

I loved writing TMK, and hope it finds its way into the market.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Linda. Good tip on keeping trakc of editors likes and not-so-likes. I have never done that explicitly.

Also a very good way to look at the issue - what is the mix of adult and younger characters in the story? In my case, all the other PoV characters are much older than Lathel. This helps to give me some rationale. Cheers,

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Synova. Ender's game - its forgotton about that. For me that book is all about the hidden subtext you see going on around Ender, and that sets up the tension.

Maybe the editor was trying to help after all, directing me to another market? Misguided, but a nice thought.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. This is just a case of 'We want to reject this, what is the first available reason we can give?' They read the first chapter and sieze immediately on this PoV issues without bothering to check. The scary thing is they probably only read a few pages anyway.

I have had similar rejections that would have been invalid if they had only read on. But in the end I don't think it matters - they were not going to take the mss anyway.

Chris L said...

Jeff Noon's Vurt, Pollen, Nymphomation and Automated Alice all featured YA aged protagonists.

Great books - whatever age you read them.

Brendan said...

Chris Mc

You may want to try the first book in Card's latest trip into Ender's world. "Ender's Shadow"

He focuses on the character Bean and it tells the story of "Game" except from Bean's perspective. It fleshes out some of the other secondary characters that are glossed over in "Game".

When you finish that one you may be tempted to read the others but my advice is to only read "Shadow of the Hegemon". The books go seriously down hill after that.

MataPam said...

Question for those of you with this problem.

How necessary is it to mention the Character's exact age? Can the boy resent being patronized by the older men. Shave whether he needs to or not, or be proud of how his beard has filled in? look around and realize he's the youngest of the group. If you can give clues that he's young without mentioning "fifteen" it might slide past the editor's filter.

Synova said...

Maybe there is a way to introduce the story so that reading the first page, the first scene, it's clear that it's a novel with adult themes and not YA.

Bait and switch.

Stephen Simmons said...

Synova already gave the very best example to answer your question. Scott Card's whole "Ender" series ("Ender's Shadow" will always be my runaway favorite of the bunch) are just about as grown-up as things can possibly get, after all. There's also another of my short-list of all-time favorite books: "Emergence", by David R. Palmer. *Brilliant* first novel, with an eleven year old girl as the protagonist, about surviving after World War III. Definitely not YA. Hard to find nowadays, because he never caught on well enough and vanished after three books ... *sigh* ...