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Edit:

There have been a few very good answers and comments. The feedback I've got so far has made me question whether I'm even going into the right direction with my story. I felt like the themes and dilemmas of the story (see below) would suit a YA-audience and was very similar to a coming-of-age story, but now I realize that it's really rather different. So right now I'm torn between turning it into more of a coming-of-age story (which would change it significantly) or leave it as it is and make it more of an all-age story. I also like Lauren's idea of multiple protagonists with parallel storylines a lot. Anyways, my head hurts now, but I think I see a lot clearer now.

Thanks a lot for everyone's input so far!

In case anybody is still interested, here's the original rephrased problem:


I'm currently exploring/plotting/mulling over a novel idea of mine that I would like to write for a YA audience. It's a story about finding your place in the world, about living according to your values, about questioning assumptions, about sticking up against authority and about who gets to decide what a society should be like. (Phew!) Lots of stuff, I know, but it came together rather nicely all on its own.

Anyways, I think the themes fit nicely for a YA audience. However, the way the story is going right now the protagonist is in his early 30s. Every time I try to make him younger the story gets weaker.

The story is set in a near-future totalitarian society which works by subtle manipulation rather than oppression so most people don't care much that they aren't "free". The media is used to keep the population dumb, distracted and lethargic. Think Orwell's 1984 but more modern and subtle.

The protagonist has always been convinced that the usual wisdom (as perpetuated by the media) of getting a good (government approved) education, getting a job, getting a family and settling down, was the path to happiness and he dedicated his whole life to that goal. When the story starts he is just a few years out of college but has already achieved much. He has everything he ever fought for, however it feels hollow and empty. He does love his family but he realizes that all his life and that of everyone else in this society is completely controlled and restricted and he has just been too busy to notice.

He's not exactly the courageous type but he does have an independent mind. So, still being somewhat young and naive, he starts to follow up on his intuition about the oppressive nature of the society he lives in. At this point he doesn't think of rebellion. He just wants to verify (or refute) his theory about the manipulative nature of the society he lives in and is looking for like-minded people to discuss his thoughts. He starts to visit corners of the internet that one shouldn't be seen in. He voices opinions that don't sit well with the establishment.

What he doesn't realize though is just how tight the grip of the government can become. He finds out soon enough, when the government takes note and starts framing him as an enemy of society in order to discredit and silence him. His family, friends and colleagues renounce him. For one because they trust the establishment but also because it can be dangerous to be associated with a known criminal. In order to protect his family (and his own life) he decides to go into hiding. He joins an underground rebellion as a new safe haven.

The rest of the story revolves around coping with the loss of his family, the disorientation of finding out that his values are not his own, that his views of the world are wrong and the personal growth that results from that struggle. And, of course, the dangerous life as a rebel fighting a Big-Brother-style regime.

The key points are the following:

  1. He didn't want to lose his family. His fall from grace was due to him being naive and underestimating the seriousness of he situation but it was not on purpose. He feels very, very guilty for deserting his family. The fact that his family now thinks of him as a criminal is a major cause of pain for him.

  2. He wants to win back his family but doesn't know if he should even try. Is it egotistical to want his family back and possibly endanger them in the process? Should he let them heal and go on with their lives on their own? Do they even want him back? Is it time to move on? Would they follow him into the underground if he could make them see the true nature of this society?

  3. Is a rebellion even a good idea? Apparently most people are too numb or busy to even notice the oppression. If most people are content being sheep, shouldn't he let them be sheep? Or should he wake them up? Do they even want to be woken up?

  4. He realizes that he values freedom a lot. But is it wise to actually "live" this value when it means he will endanger others in the process? Is it better

The things that drive his story are these:

  1. His family ties him to his old life. Without the family it would be too easy for him to cut his ties and move on. A side point: I want his kids to be old enough to understand what's going on. I've got scenes in my mind where he stalks his own family (to be close to them) and overhears conversations of the kind "Mum, why is daddy evil now?" (Yes, I can be a sadist with my characters).

  2. The wake-up effect. This realization that society is not what it seems to be. He lived life according to the rules and values of society. He thought he had it all figured out but realizes that he doesn't.

So: he should have something that ties him to his old life and he should have this wake-up effect. As a teenager your whole world is changing anyways, so I feel that this process of leaving behind your old life and orienting yourself in a new world comes a lot more natural and is not nearly as traumatic. Everybody else around you is going through the same thing, after all. Making him older and more established really makes the story stand out and much stronger, I think.

So (finally!) my question is twofold:

  1. Is it ok to write a young adult novel with an older protagonist? Will this appeal to a young adult audience?

  2. Is there a way to make the protagonist younger (18 - 20) without considerably weakening the story?

Bonus Question: Most YA novels have somewhat of an upbeat ending. I'm not sure of the ending yet but I've got a feeling it's going to be bitter sweet. It's going to be somewhat of a happy end but it will come at a price. One of the takeaways is that you have to make sacrifices, you can't have it all and that you have to learn to cope with that fact if you want to live a happy live. The protagonist will have peace in the end, but also regrets and lingering pains. Is that YA-compatible?

Thanks a lot in advance!

  • 4
    Interesting! My question for you: What about this says "YA" to you? Why are you trying to pitch it to a YA audience? Why do you think the general themes you cite in the first paragraph wouldn't appeal to older audiences? (Because conversely, a helluva lot of people reading "YA" books are not that age bracket, and there are many books geared to "older audiences" which teens and YAs read and/or are assigned in school, and enjoy.) – Lauren Ipsum Apr 14 '16 at 12:41
  • Suggestions in case you want to stick with the YAs: The loved ones: Siblings, other relatives such as an aunt or uncle. The stakes: Your hero has a passion -- arts, literature, a special kind of science. Pursuing his (her? I would very much be interested in a female protagonist here) passion is his life's dream. He worked hard to secure a place at an elite university that teaches courses related to his passion, i.e.: He is on the brink of living his dream. Speaking out against the regime would condemn him to give it up. – Filip Apr 14 '16 at 13:00
  • @Filip: I like the part about the passion and university! Probably his (her?) parents made big sacrifices to get him a place at said university. They'd be crushed! rubs hands gleefully Another aspect that is bothering me is that the protagonist was supposed to rise to some position of influence within the resistance and they would be more likely to follow a more experienced person, but that can be worked around. (See: Hunger Games) – MadMonkey Apr 14 '16 at 13:11
  • @LaurenIpsum: For one I just like the "style" of YA novels. I like to read them so I would like to write them :-) I do think the themes would appeal to older audiences as well but the YA audience are the most important to me. It is, in a way, a coming of age story. Find your place in society, figure out what really matters to you, struggling with the tension between your ideals and the way the world actually works, figuring out that you can't have it all and that that's ok, etc. I also think the story and its themes have the most potential to actually affect something in younger readers. – MadMonkey Apr 14 '16 at 13:22
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Your listed themes and goals are at cross-purposes. You have:

  • finding your place in the world
  • living according to your values
  • figuring out what really matters to you
  • questioning assumptions
  • sticking up against authority
  • who gets to decide what a society should be like
  • balancing desires that are equally important but can't be reconciled (the rebellion and the family)
  • making sacrifices
  • deciding which sacrifices are worth it
  • coming of age story
  • struggling with the tension between your ideals and the way the world actually works
  • figuring out that you can't have it all and that that's ok

You really have several stories going on here.

  1. person comes of age, has to find his/her place in the world, figure out his/her own values. (almost every YA novel ever)
  2. person living in totalitarian society which dictates all parts of life, and protagonist must decide whether to fight the power. Does society even want or need change?
  3. person must decide whether to sacrifice an established life, including a spouse and dependent children, in order to save the greater good.

So while these are three interesting stories, they are not the same story. You can't have the protagonist of the YA story who is trying to figure out where she belongs in the world also be the 30YO middle manager who is willing to abandon his wife and children and join an underground rebellion for The Good Of The Many. That person IS "of age." Losing your established life and dependents is a very different fear/risk/loss than "finding your place in the world" for the first time. You are right that making the middle manager younger would weaken his plotline/character, but someone who's older and established cannot have the flailing, lost, unanchored feelings you're also trying to pursue.

The most straightforward way to deal with this, I think, is have multiple protagonists.

So you have your Katniss YA heroine who is just waking up to the wider world and realizing how Big Brother is controlling everything. Then you have your Winston Smith middle manager who finds himself arrested and then on the run. Your third plot can be the world-weary rebel leader who has seen this rebellion go on for a while, has seen the toll it takes on the lives of the Winstons and the Katnisses, and is trying to decide whether it's worth it or whether she should chuck it all and go back to her own life.

  • Mind. Blown. I didn't even consider the possibility of having more than one protagonist! I will have to think this through some more. I'm really warming to the idea though, this might make things a lot easier to handle. – MadMonkey Apr 15 '16 at 7:30
  • One point though about the coming of age bit: It's not so much that my 30-something is deciding to sacrifice an established life. He doesn't want to leave his home and family. Due to his carelessness he is forcefully removed from his life and is now flailing, lost and unanchored, trying to find a new place for himself. In a way it's a belated coming of age because he skipped that part earlier in life. He never took his life in his own hands, only did what was expected of him - not very grown up. It's very analogous to losing your safe and established childhood and growing up. – MadMonkey Apr 15 '16 at 7:33
  • 1
    @MadMonkey As a person with a spouse and child, I can say that if I were separated from them but they were still alive, that would not make me feel like I had to "come of age" again. Marriage you might be able to elide under "what's expected," but not parenthood. If this person is any kind of decent, responsible parent and not a selfish monster, the transition to parenthood will make him grow up whether he chooses it or not. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 15 '16 at 10:14
  • @MadMonkey Also, you specifically cited that your 30YO finds a new love and has to decide whether to stay with the new person or return to his existing marriage and kids. Right there is the point of "wanting" and "deciding" what to leave/sacrifice. If he chooses to remain faithful (a fling notwithstanding), then he hasn't left them in his heart, and that's the finale of his arc: returning to them. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 15 '16 at 10:17
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    I think I understand what you mean. Midlife crisis seems to be a better fit. I updated my question to reflect my insights. I think I will have to think long and hard in which direction I want to take the story. Thanks a lot! – MadMonkey Apr 15 '16 at 13:30
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I actually think that this story would work better with someone who is 18-20.

I haven't read any YA novels for a few years now, so I don't know at which point plots and themes might be deemed too complex for such an audience, but here is what I would do.

Being early 30s with a wife and kids and a stable job is not only normal for a lot of people, it is the dream for a lot of people. So having your protagonist then feel this is 'wrong' would possibly alienate a lot of readers right away.

However, having such a young person already have an 'established life' is more unusual. It will signify that he never really got to live a rebellious lifestyle, and readers will immediately be suspicious of the protagonists life, meaning it will make more sense when he becomes suspicious of it.

Of course, being so young and having a family isn't wrong, it happens a lot, but it is less common and not necessarily something sought after by a lot of young people in the modern day.

This way when your MC leaves his family and joins the rebellion, he initially feels like he has walked out of a trap, and that that was not the life he was supposed to have. This would alleviate him of any guilt he has when pursuing another romantic entanglement.

You can then have something happen later in the story when he is fully committed to the rebellion that makes his resolve waver. Maybe he sees a family die that is similar to his own, and he then thinks about the responsibility he has to them, and whether he has made the right choice. Maybe sprinkle in a couple of things that the rebellion does to make him doubt further, like torturing POWs for information or committing war crimes for 'the greater good', showing that neither side is fully in the 'right'.

He will then doubt whether he has just been caught up with more propoganda, just from the other side, and then needs to find a middle ground. He will also consider that he actually might have truly loved his family, and he now realizes he abandoned them, and doubts how much the governmental conditioning had a hand in the choices he made.

This actually gives him a choice, as there are reasons to accept and reject both sides, as opposed to setting up an obvious choice and giving him no say. That is the real freedom he chooses, instead of only being able to accept his life or seek to destroy everything about it. Give him reasons to want aspects of both lives.

This also makes the final decision more meaningful, and ends in the bittersweet way you wanted. Either he betrays the rebellion and allows the status quo to continue in order to save his family (and the countless others like them), or he needs to ruin the lives of many people in order to give them freedom.


If you're struggling to find reasons why the government have encouraged him to have multiple children by the age of 18, then just add in something like that they are using a significant proportion of the population (maybe like 50%) and training them to be soldiers to colonize other planets (depending on how far in the future this story is set) and wipe out alien races in order to steal their planets or resources.

Or they could be using them as forced labor, or using them for meat etc. but using them as dispensable fodder for any reason will make up the protagonists mind once he finds out that it is the government that is really the ones that need to be stopped.

  • Good points here; your posited society is a lot more dystopian and much less like modern life. – Lauren Ipsum Apr 15 '16 at 10:19
  • Good points about making him younger. I like it. One point though: he doesn't leave his family willingly. The fact that the he's making a big sacrifice there is a core point of the story. I tried to elaborate this in the edit of my question just now. However, since I'm thinking about restructuring the story anyways your ideas are very relevant. I'm going to pick @LaurenIpsum 's answer because I think she's got the "meat" of the story better, but I still really like your answer and will consider your points when I restructure the plot. Thank you very much! – MadMonkey Apr 15 '16 at 13:36
  • @MadMonkey Ah, that's a fair point. I suppose he could perhaps become disillusioned as to whether he ever really loved them in the first place after he is forced to leave, or whether he was brainwashed/ culturally conditioned into it. A midlife-crisis story could still probably work with that theme. But good luck with whichever route you choose! – Mike.C.Ford Apr 15 '16 at 14:01
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There are plenty of examples of novels about adults written for young people in the canon. Look at Rosemary Sutcliffe for example. But this involves a different view of how a reader identifies with a work.

Traditionally, most works were written for the reader looking outward. They were windows. For children or young adults, they were about looking forward to adulthood and the assumptions of its responsibilities, not to what you were but what you were trying to become.

The fashion today, however, seems to be more the mirror than the window. The focus is not on other but on self, not on what you want to be but what you are.

Personally, I would love to see a return to an emphasis on fiction as window rather than mirror.

But whether you prefer your fiction to be mirror or window, I think it the questions about making such a book work are not technical, but cultural. Are you writing an outward looking book for young adults who want to look outward?

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Of course it is perfectly possible, and more or less probable depending on how different a fictional society is from the one you are familiar with, for a fictional character to be a husband and a father while still a young adult.

Possibly the character belongs to a higher social class and has been provided with a wife or concubine while very young, and thus has already started his family while the equivalent of a high school or college student.

For example, a dramatic story tells how Abd al-Raham I (731-788) Emir of Cordoba, as a young Umayyad prince fleeing from the Abbasids in 750, was awoken from a nap, by his four-year-old son Sulayman (745-800) shouting "The black flags!".

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