Why can't my YA character be in college?

| Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Today's Tune: The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed

Regarding THE DISENCHANTMENTS book giveaway: the winner is... thewwritingroom! Yaaaay! Thank you so much to everyone who stopped by and entered :) Now on to today's post.

I see this question pop up again and again: "I've written a book about an 18 or 19-year-old MC in their first/second year of college. I've been told that the voice is very YA, but that it can't be YA if they're in college. Well, why not? Why can't I write college YA?"

First, I'd like to establish that the following post is going to be about why your YA protagonist (aka The Viewpoint Character) doesn't really work as a college student. Secondary and tertiary characters in many YA novels may be older or go to college. It happens. They're not who I'm talking about.

Here's the short answer to the question: because "young adult" is a specific marketing category, and that marketing category is aimed at adolescents aged 12-18. More specifically, it is aimed at people who are still in junior or senior high school (or secondary school). Please note that this does not mean the novel has to take place in or around a high school, just that the age/experience of the characters is pre-university-or-legal-adulthood. If a publisher decides to place a book in the YA category, it's because that content is relevant to the teenage experience in some way.

Here's a longer elaboration.

Yes, usually you are still a teenager when you start university. However, there's a marked difference between still having "teen" after your age and being in the thick of the "teenage experience." The "teenage experience" pertains directly to that sticky time between being a child and being an adult with adult responsibilities. That's the thing with being 18 and up: you are legally and officially An Adult. If you're going away to school, that means you officially have adult responsibilities ranging from getting your own butt out of bed to go to the classes your parents are paying for to working three jobs to pay for those classes yourself. You're no longer legally required to receive an education, so that's on you.

And yes, many college students are still immature, I know. A lot of them still live at home, a lot of them behave like asshats, a lot of them are spoiled Daddy's/Mommy's girls and boys. I know. Doesn't matter. Eighteen-year-old college freshman are not children. Childhood has officially left the building. And that's a big key factor when it comes to YA. Teenagers aren't children, either, but they're still dealing with a lot of themes involving growing up, discovering sexuality, figuring out who they want to be, etc. Although those issues don't magically disappear the moment they turn 18, at that point the next stage of life begins, because that's the way our society works. You go to high school, you get out of high school, and then you go on to the next thing, whether that's college or a career or traveling the world or freaking out or whatever.

So, because YA is marketed specifically toward people in high school or secondary school, college doesn't necessarily speak to them at this stage in their reading life. Sure, a lot of them are thinking about going to college, but the college experience itself isn't something they're going to relate to until they're living it. There's also the fact that college isn't in the cards for everyone, either out of necessity or personal choice.


No, it isn't, or you would have set your YA novel in a boarding school. I guess the important thing to ask yourself is: why college? What is it about college life in particular that you feel is absolutely necessary to this story? Is it the classes? The freedom? The adult responsibilities? What?

That can potentially give you your answer. Books about college-age students exist, but they're usually found in the adult section because they tend to speak more to people on the far side of college than the close side. If your characters are in college because they need to deal with being responsible adults, then they are adults.


I'm not arguing that there are no books about college students. Of course they exist. However, is the fact that the characters are college students mentioned in passing and not really core to the story, or is the story actually about being in college and living college life? Someone being a college student is just a periphery identifier, much like saying, "Toby's in law school." Stories about being in college, on the other hand, are pretty specific. This isn't to say that no book like this exists or that a book like this couldn't succeed, just that the market is very, very narrow.

And, more importantly to the question at hand, none of this makes a story YA.


So many people seem to get caught up in this idea that because they would read something, or a handful of people they know say they would read something ("say they would" being the operative term), that means it has a market. Just because a dozen books over several years have been published on this subject doesn't mean there's a market. Having a market for something means there's essentially a ready-made audience waiting to consume that thing. When people snap up vampire romance by the millions of purchases, that means there's a market. When people buy out a popular toy at Christmas, that means there's a market. When a certain genre sells consistently well, that's a market. The rest is just guesswork and risk taking. Sometimes it pays off. More often, it doesn't. Some publishers are willing to take the risk with the hope of a high return, others aren't.

This is an argument for a separate marketing category for New Adult/College fiction, not marketing college fiction as YA.


I'm sorry, but the very small cross-section of young college students is just that: a very small cross-section. It's not going to be enough to float the sales needed to increase demand for college fiction. I know it sucks, because some people might really enjoy a book about this kind of thing, but the sales just aren't there. At least, not right now.


It doesn't matter that people who aren't in high school also buy YA. I'm sorry. The primary YA market is 18-and-under teens and preteens. The reason those stories appeal to adults is because they've been through that stage of life and can still relate to the themes. Young people aren't to the college-and-adulthood stage yet. It's difficult for them to relate. The themes aren't universal. Everyone has to be a teenager, but not everyone goes to college. Even those who do go to college can have vastly different experiences. I'm not saying that teenagers don't read "adult" fiction, because obviously that's not true. I'm saying that type of fiction isn't marketed to them specifically. It's not about the "outside" people who happen to buy into the market. It's about who the market is intended for. And YA is intended for people who aren't to college yet.


Still not college. Books like this are the very tippy-top of YA -- that point in the protagonist's life where they're teetering right on the edge of What Comes Next.


These are outliers, guys. These do not necessarily constitute a market. It only proves such books exist. Also, though a lot of the characters in these books are college-age or even college students, the books are not about college life. I AM THE MESSENGER is one of those slippery books that can be marketed as either YA or adult. 50 SHADES is EROTICA AND NOT YA, dudes. I know it found its inspiration in Twilight, but no. HOLLOWLAND is kind of a weird creature because the age of the protagonist doesn't really pertain to the story at all. She could have been aged down two years or up two years and the story wouldn't have changed. COMMUNITY is a television sitcom and, frankly, not relevant to a literature discussion because those markets are completely separate beasts. Et cetera.

I'll give you self-published titles. I have friends who are self-publishing books they refer to as "New Adult," and that's wonderful. That's what's awesome about self-publishing... niche markets can actually do well there! This sort of thing is what self-publishing is FOR! I have no idea about the success rates of such novels. That's a whole separate area of research.

Yeah. Look, I'm not saying that if you're writing New Adult/College fiction that you need to STOP RIGHT NOW or anything like that. I'm not trying to crap on NA as a theoretical category. If that's the book in your heart, then you should absolutely write it. You might find a place for it. I'm purely speaking to why people say that college students aren't YA. If you're writing such a story, you'll have the best luck pitching it as adult or seeking out agents/publishers who are specifically looking for it. If you're thinking of trade publishing, that is. With self-publishing, you make the rules. Which is not to say that route is always preferable or ever easy, as I'm sure any reasonable indie author would tell you.

Do you have any other thoughts or questions on this subject? If you'd like to share your own opinion, please do. This is obviously a big area of discussion. COMMENT DISCUSSIONS ARE GOOD I LIKE THEM.


{ Susan Francino } at: July 18, 2012 at 6:37 AM said...

I definitely see what you're saying about protagonists in college just not fitting into the YA genre. Especially if it's a contemporary novel and they're actually *at college* as opposed to just being 18.

But I think this phrase is crucial to the discussion: "those slippery books that can be marketed as either YA or adult."

I'm not sure it would be a good idea to write with that sort of chameleonic goal in mind...but I do think that if you wrote a book with an 18 to 20-yr-old protagonist, and wrote it from the heart, and especially if you weren't actually writing about college life itself...I think that's where you would end up. With a book that could be marketed as either/both older YA or adult fiction.

There's nothing wrong with books that span several genres. Just look at Diana Gabaldon. :)

{ E.J. Wesley } at: July 18, 2012 at 6:45 AM said...

Really excellent writeup Steph. You are exactly right with your reasoning behind why a mc in college can't be YA, in my opinion.

I will point out (and perhaps shamelessly plug in a moment, if you'll allow it) that New Adult (NA) has grown into more than a niche for independent and self-publishing. St. Martin's created a plan for publishing NA focused books back in 2009, and many other publishers have done similar things to attract the 20-something readers out there.

Having agreed with your main point, I also think the distinction between what is NA and what is YA needs to be made for a couple of reasons: 1) Many YA authors want to write edgier fiction, and many older teens want to read it. There's been lots of debate over the years as to how mature is too mature for a YA book, character age being irrelevant. Sans any kind of rating system, I see NA as perhaps being a logical next step for some of those stories and readers. 2) There's too large of a gap between YA and traditional adult lit. Not every 19 year old is going to be satisfied with Twilight, yet they might not be ready for vampire porn either. (Not knocking Anita Blake, Sookie Stackhouse, etc., just saying they're a LOT more mature thematically than most YA stuff.) There has to be an in-between.

Here's the shameless plug: as someone interested in reading and writing NA, with the help of a few other authors, I've started a New Adult lit chat on Twitter. #NALitChat will be weekly like the YA lit chat, beginning next Thursday night (July 26) @ 9 PM EST. We'll be talking about stuff just like this, and I'm going to reference your post here if that's OK. Think you've brought up some excellent points.

Anyway, would love to have any and all participate in the chat. (Even if you just want to debate the destinations between YA/NA.) You can check out the #NALitChat blog for a calendar and upcoming chats and topics. I'm also going to post chat transcripts and other helpful things for readers and writers. Here's the blog link: http://nalitchat.blogspot.com/

Sorry such a long response, but it's something I'm very interested in, and your thoughts definitely inspired me. :)

{ RT } at: July 18, 2012 at 8:03 AM said...

Out of curiosity, do you think the age line a YA protag can be pushed back (slightly) if the setting is historical or fantasy and thus childhood is not defined by college or western standards? The themes of the story would still have to be YA of course.

{ Stephanie Sinkhorn } at: July 18, 2012 at 8:25 AM said...

Susan - Certainly, if the book contains YA themes and could theoretically fit in the category even if it spans genres, an older protagonist could work (again, I AM THE MESSENGER). But I'm in complete agreement that your goal should never be to intentionally write cross-genre. That rarely ends well ;)

EJ - Thank you for all of that great information! The chat sounds like it's going to be a lot of fun :)

RT - Sure... it really is less about the actual age of the protagonist (though you want to avoid getting too old) and more about the themes present in the work. So, yes, if the work deals in YA themes and is in a YA voice, even a slightly older protagonist can work. That said, how important is it that the person be a specific age? For instance, why would a protagonist NEED to be 19 instead of, say, 17? If there's a concrete reason for the age, leave it as is. If it doesn't matter, then it's up to you whether to keep it or skew downward.

{ prerna pickett } at: July 18, 2012 at 8:30 AM said...

I recently read Something Like Normal, which is marketed as YA with a male protag at the age of 19, coming back from a tour in Afghanistan. I think there are always exceptions to the rule. My story starts off with the two Mcs at the age of 17 and ends with them finishing up their first semester in college. I never intended for them to be older, it just worked out that way. I've tried to rewrite the story with them still being HS at the end, but it doesn't fit. It all depends on the kind of story you're writing and how much school really factors into it.

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: July 18, 2012 at 11:23 AM said...

So. We basically agree with you. (Shocker! :P) And the distinction between "being college-aged" and "being IN college" is very important.

But 2 things worth noting as part of the discussion:

1. People like to "read up" -- meaning they often look for books that speak to what's on the horizon for them, rather than only books that speak to where they're currently at. For much of the YA audience, that means college.

2. The current generation of YA readers isn't going to be 12-18 forever. And as they grow, they're going to want "their kind of books" to grow with them. We suspect that means a bigger New Adult market.

{ MaryAnn Pope } at: July 18, 2012 at 11:07 PM said...

Great post. This is all very clear, and I know this is coming from how the genre is defined and not your personal opinion of what YA should be. I'm not trying to break into the YA genre (I write Adult fiction), but I read a lot of YA paranormal romance and urban fantasy.

What bugs me about these books is that so many of them do have MC that are more like college students than high school students. The author seems to go out of the way to get rid of any parental involvement so the MC can be completely independent. It drives me crazy because instead of having all these horrible parents (which as a parent bugs me to no end), the characters could just be put in college and the story would be essentially unchanged because these stories aren't about the high school experience. High school is barely mentioned. It feels like these characters are being forced to be high school students so that they can fit in YA genre when they would work so much better as college students.

I know I'm not the target age for YA, so maybe I'm alone in my annoyance. I'm just so tired of the missing parent syndrome in YA, and I just think it could so easily be solved by aging up the characters. If you want your characters to have the freedom of college students, why not put them in college?

But I guess the answer is that apparently there is no market for them. I find that frustrating as a reader who just wants a good paranormal romance that doesn't make me role my eyes at the lack of parenting.

{ Emy Shin } at: July 20, 2012 at 10:32 AM said...

Thank you. This is one of the most clear and convincing posts on the subject that I've read.

I completely understand why college students about the college experience cannot be classified as "YA." It's a marketing thing. Though, being a reader of primarily YA fantasy + science fiction, I think that a lot of characters I've read act older than their age -- wherein age matters very little when the MCs don't even attend high school.

Like MaryAnn above, I genuinely believe there are instances where it might have been better had the characters been older. For example, my favorit YA dystopian last year is LEGEND by Marie Lu. Loved it. However, one of the few things that bugged me is the protagonists' age: they're both 15, but acted much, much older. It would've made the story much more believable had they been 17-19 instead.

But I can't complain because I do the same: aging down my protagonists to fit the YA market. :)

{ Suzi } at: July 23, 2012 at 6:55 AM said...

Interesting post. This is something I'm thinking a lot about now because my current WIP, which is getting close to querying, is a 18 year old college freshman.

I thought about switching it over to a high school senior, but it there would be too much to change. It'd be a different story. I asked an editor about this at a conference, and he said the same - write the book inside you. And deal with it then.

So we'll see what happens.

{ Dahlia } at: July 23, 2012 at 1:19 PM said...

One of my favorite topics because I love books set in college so much and they're obviously few and far between...

One thing worth noting, I think, is that while there are exceptions and do exist books set in college, most of them are published as Adult, NOT as YA (Diana Peterfreund's Secret Society Girl series, for example). So while sure, there are exceptions to the rule, they don't prove books set in college are acceptable as YA.

And I've totally done the "can't set this in college so I'll put it in boarding school" thing. Works like a charm when it's right for the story!

{ C.H. Armstrong, Author } at: August 13, 2016 at 3:52 PM said...

You're probably not still following these comments, but I have to ask...

So, while I agree with almost all that you're saying, I'm still caught on the "why can't my WIP be YA" ... and here's why: while the main character is a college freshman, her experience (the issue-driven theme for this book) is something that does affect (occasionally) high school students, and is something they should seriously consider as they move on to college. I'd love to classify it as NA, but there is no romance element at all. It's strictly a story about a significant issue in the MC's life and how she navigates back to being herself.

Could it be women's fiction? Yeah...I guess the would be the other category that would fit well, but it's so much more about that heartbreaking event that happens to so many of our kids but nobody want to talk about it. Yes, the MC is experiencing "college life" but again...the experience is in no way unique to the college student..and yet, for purposes of this novel, it "had to be" set on a college campus.

UGH! Would love feedback. I realize I've not given you specifics, but would love your input.

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