Should you follow different ethical norms when writing young adult (YA) fiction?



Because your readers are young adults. Duh.

This blog could end right here. But I’m assuming young adults might read this blog—not likely, but possible. Young adults think differently. They react younger. They aren’t just different in size, budget, experience, and taste; they are different from us in almost every way. They learn faster, more easily, and more openly than we do. They are more vulnerable and less judgmental. They are protected by parents, teachers, families, villages, and the law. So, best you think before you try writing for them.

YA books are intended for readers from 12 to 18, but many YA readers are adults. The subject matter and genres of YA correlate with the age and experience of the protagonist. And that is the first ethical challenge for the writer. Is your protagonist suitable for YA fiction? By suitable, I mean does he or she have moral values? Do they stand for something desirable, make mostly good decisions, and avoid questionable life styles?

When writing adult fiction, we are free to create despicable, immoral, good-for-nothing protagonists who live in the book, consistently making bad decisions and living questionable life styles. But most YA fiction is about first love, close friends, making or breaking relationships, and everything that comes with age. Like I said, YA fiction is intended for a different audience. Follow that norm to its logic conclusion. You’re not just writing; you’re teaching. You’re not just offering scenes; you’re influencing choices. You are responsible for what you write. Act like it.

Think about these famous YA titles and authors. Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. They are all widely read by adults. They present moral challenges. They all have young protagonists that stand for something, and teach and influence as they win, lose, and struggle.

J.K. Rowling’s protagonist and his wand-wielding friends at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft work hard to battle the machinations of the evil wizard Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Suzanne Collins’ protagonist leaves her impoverished life in a future world and travels to a decadent city for a battle to the death in savage games. Harper Lee’s protagonist explores racial tensions in the fictional Southern town of Maycomb, Ala., through the eyes of 6-year-old Scout Finch. As her lawyer father, Atticus, defends a black man accused of rape, Scout and her friends learn about the unjust treatment of African-Americans and their mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley. John Green’s protagonist, Hazel, has a terminal disease when she meets Augustus. He rewrites her story.

In all four famous YA books, the writers worked hard to add value to their readers needs for moral grounding under difficult circumstances, even when the outcomes are not always happy. Why? In part, because adolescence is a stunningly difficult part of life. That’s when all of us, before we were writers, asked big questions and often got answers we didn’t expect.  Some of us got those answers from books. That’s the second ethical challenge: give honest, inspiring answers to the questions you know your readers will ask because your protagonist is also facing the same questions.

A third ethical challenge might be the author’s understanding of the need for and the concept underlying reader proxies. A reader proxy is a character who stands in for the reader. These characters often receive little physical description, and serve as story guides. Younger teens are often self-involved. Adolescents question and struggle to define themselves. “No-one can be expected to understand the world around them before they’ve considered their place in it, or to unravel the morality of others before they’ve pondered their own. That’s why so many YA stories benefit from the inclusion of a reader proxy.” [1]

At the end of the day, YA fiction must be written solely for the YA reader, some of whom will always be adults. The author must, above all other writing goals, focus on the emotional reality of the reader. When you stray by leaning toward adult emotional realities, your reader might lose the literary tether that connects adolescent learning and yearning to adult experience and well-being.   


Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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