Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How Old Is Too Old?

Age is such a funny thing. Some put so much stock in their age that it seems nearly everything revolves around the year, month, day and sometimes even hour of their birth, not to mention the phase of the moon, position of the sun, and alignment of the stars. To others, it’s just a number, yet another way of tracking time and nothing more. It’s all relative, after all. Too old to one person is too young to another. Some would give anything to be young again, while others can’t wait to hit certain landmark years. I know I was eager to hit my 21st birthday, but not so much for the 30th.

There’s one thing that the publishing industry can agree on, though – YA fiction has a specific age bracket attached to it, and if you want to publish in that genre, you’d better keep that in mind.

For the record, Young Adult is roughly the equivalent of 12-21. Wikipedia will tell you it’s 14-21, but while that may be the antiquated view of it, the truth as I understand it expands the category by a couple years. Kids today are much more sophisticated in terms of their growth and understanding, and if a kid is reading any books at all in this age of blockbuster movies and groundbreaking video games, he’s already ahead of the curve. When I hear stories of 13-year olds reading Shakespeare outside of their school’s required reading, I have to take that 14-21 designation with a grain of salt. Hence my 12-21 version, which I think is more accurate than the “official” version when you consider that the stories themselves feature main characters who are roughly the same age as the readers. After all, Harry Potter found out he was a wizard at age 11.

This, of course, brings me to my own books. In the first draft, my protagonist was 17 and in his final year of high school. Graduation was not far off for him, and beyond that, the College World. His friends were the same age, and some of them already had jobs to hold down. As originally written, the main characters were at the tail end of the Young Adult category, which didn’t leave them a lot of room to grow up with the readers.

I’ve since come to realize that this was a Big Mistake.

Like any performance art, you want to make an authentic connection with your audience to take them on an emotional journey through the story of your art. For me, this means making characters that my readers can identify with so they can experience vicariously everything that the characters go through. If I was writing a one-shot story, the 17-year old might fly, but not when I’m writing a series of books. If the character is going to grow and change and mature through the series, it would only make sense for the reader to be able to grow and change and mature with them, to solidify that connection with the audience.

In other words, it was time to strip a few years off their young lives. Mwa-hahahahaha!

Don’t worry, my characters are fine. They are, however, a few years younger. By putting their age closer to the early range of the Young Adult crowd (or, by my own classification, more toward the middle), it gives them a lot more room for growth – and, by extension, more room for the readers to develop with them on their own journeys. Whichever character you feel more of a kinship to, you can be right there to see how they grow into the world around them book after book. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll inspire you on the course of your own personal Hero’s Journey.

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