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