Friday, June 29, 2012

Motives in Early Reader, Middle Grade, and Young Adult Novels (Part 1)

I recently taught a workshop at WIFYR on the subject of using and examining the motives of your protagonists in youth fiction.I had a great time. Thanks to Carol Lynch Williams for inviting me to take part.

One part of the class was on the difference between motives in the plot of ER, MG, and YA novels. In preparation for the  class, I Googled differences between Young Adult and Middle Grade motives, and was surprised to find very little on the subject.

Since I haven’t done any actual writing tips posts on this blog for quite a while, I thought I’d share my thoughts and insights on this part of the class.

Motives are a huge part of both your plot and your characters. Imagine Hunger Games without Katniss have the overwhelming motive of protecting her little sister. You would have the story of a girl who is trying to kill other kids to get everything she ever wanted. Charlotte’s Web is a story about many things, but motive is what pulls it all together. They are all trying to save the life of the pig.

Something I see a lot with beginning,  and sometimes even advanced, writers, is that they aren’t sure if their story is MG or YA. They look at age of protagonist and page count. But they overlook motive. Here are three easy ways to decide if you have an ER, MG, or YA novel, using motive as a yardstick.

1—Complexity of motives. The younger the reader, the more simplistic the motives.

Early Reader

In the case of Romana the Pest, an early reader novel, we have a classic example of an early reader motive.


Ramona is off to kindergarten, and it's the greatest day of her life. So why is she sitting on the bench while the rest of the students play the game gray duck?

Notice that there is one motive? Romana wants to have the greatest day of her life in kindergarten. Some course-altering event throws off her plans. That’s it. You can’t get any more linier than that. Early reader novels usually have a single, non-complex motive.

Middle Grade

Compare that to the motives in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief.


Percy and his friends have just ten days to find and return Zeus' stolen property and bring peace to a warring Mount Olympus. But to succeed on his quest, Percy will have to do more than catch the true thief: he must come to terms with the father who abandoned him; solve the riddle of the Oracle, which warns him of betrayal by a friend; and unravel a treachery more powerful than the gods themselves.

The first thing you will probably notice is that there are several motives here. Return Zeus’ stolen property, bring peace to Mount Olympus, come to terms with his father, betrayal of a friend, and unraveling treachery. Wow, that’s a lot of different motives. Clearly not early reader.

Second, look at the complexity of the motives themselves. In an early reader, you might deal with a friend moving, making a friend, maybe even a friend being mean. But here we have betrayal by a friend. Dealing with a parent who abandoned him is also a complex  motive

Finally, and I’ll touch on this in part 3, look at the motives themselves. Notice how they are complex, but not necessarily conflicting. That’s a sign that this is MG and not YA.     

Young Adult

Young adult motives become much more complex, because we start to get both internal and external pressures driving our protagonist. Of course MG protagonists have internal motivating factors as well, but anyone who has raised (or been) a teenager knows how angsty they can be. Much of what they do is viewed through this filter of confusion and hormones.

In addition, romance is thrown into the mix. I’ve always liked to introduce a small amount of romance in my MG novels. Having raised for kids, I know that by sixth grade that are often noticing the opposite sex without thinking about cooties anymore. But YA  takes hormones to a whole new level.


In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent).

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves… or it might destroy her.

A couple of things are obvious right off the bat. First, notice how the blurbs get longer as the reader gets older? I actually cut down the Divergent blurb. Also, look at the consequences. We go from missing a kindergarten game to death. As the stakes get higher, the motives take on more meaning.

One of the questions I was asked after my workshop was why MG novels so often have the protagonist trying to save the world (or the universe.) Isn’t that the highest stake of all?

Yes and no. I’ll cover this in more detail in my second post. But the thing to be aware of is that in MG, saving the world is more generic. We don’t see what will happen to little children if their parents are killed. We don’t see the internal struggle or people realizing there may be no more tomorrow and looting in the streets. In fact, in most MG novels saving the world is never viewed in any detail at all. It just is.

In YA novels, you might only be saving the wolves—not the world. But the consequences of success and failure are usually more graphic. If Charlotte’s Web was a YA novel, we would actually see pigs getting slaughtered.

The big things I notice in this YA novel are that the motives are no longer so cut and dried. Her secret could save those she loves or destroy her. Which do you choose? She’s not just facing betrayal by a friend, but actually trying to decide who her friends are. And she’s not just trying to save society, but deciding if it actually deserves saving.

So the first thing you want to examine when deciding what audience you are really writing to, is the level of complexity in your protagonist’s motives.

Next, we will examine what I call Range of Effect.  



The Damsel in Dis Dress said...

Nice post! I look forward to the follow-up.

Jaime Theler said...

Thanks for the insight. As a reader and writer (and mother) of MG & YA, I think I instinctively understood the differences in the complexity of character motivations for those age groups, but I never consciously considered conflicting motives. I can see how you're right, though.

Anonymous said...

I've never thought of it that way before.