Friday, July 6, 2012

Motives in Early Reader, Middle Grade, and Young Adult Novels (Part 3)

In my last two posts, we discussed complexity of motives and region of influence in motives as differentiating factors in youth fiction. Today, I want to talk about a third factor—conflicting motives.

Ender’s Game is a novel that could be positioned as adult, young adult, or middle grade. In fact, since the protagonist is only six when the book starts, you could even argue that it is early reader. Of course, if you’ve read the novel by Scott Card, you would quickly realize it is definitely not targeted at anything younger than YA. (Despite the fact that the publisher appears to have been trying to sell it as MG lately.)

[Note: I’m not saying younger readers haven’t read and enjoyed this book. I loved to “read up” as a kid. What I am saying is that the target audience for this book is not 3rd-5th graders.]

Using complexity of motives and region of influence, EG drops nicely into YA. It is also an excellent example of conflicting motives. For our purposes, let’s define conflicting motives as one or more main motives that appear to be at direct odds with each other.

In Hunger Games these would be Katniss wanting to protect her little sister (meaning she needs to survive the games) and her owing Peeta her life (meaning she should want him to live.) Early in the book we see these two motives come into direct conflict, and that’s a huge part of the rest of the book.

Ender’s Game has a more complex level of conflicting motives. In fact, we don’t even understand the major conflicting motive until the end of the book. In a typical middle grade book, saving the world would trump everything. But here, we have to consider that saving the world also means wiping out an entire race. That kind of conflict just doesn’t work in straight middle grade. In fact if anything it detracts from the story.

I once had a reviewer talk about how the character depth in a Brandon Sanderson novel was so much greater than in Farworld. That’s intentional. I definitely want you to like my characters and I try to create believable conflict. But even in tween middle grade novels, your pallet is a little bit smaller. You are typically choosing between good and evil, right and wrong. In YA, you can move on to good or better, and bad or worse. In fact you may actually chose bad over good for reasons that are bigger than the single decision. Basically in YA, you spend more time on shades of gray.

Like any other rule, there are exceptions. You can have your MG character have to chose between learning who her parents are and saving the world. Those are conflicting motives. But they are still pretty black and white. The reader knows what the right answer is, even if it’s hard. In YA the motives can often both be argued as the best choice. That’s the big difference. 

Hopefully this series of posts have been helpful. I had a reader on Facebook ask if protagonist age and page length didn’t matter in differentiating YA from MG and ER. Of course they do. Younger readers typically want to read about a protagonist slightly older than them. So a MG novel will often have a main character between the ages of 13 and 15. An ER novel will have a protagonist between the ages of 7 and 9. In a YA novel, you typically have characters in the 16-19 age range, but they can not be married. Page counts are crazy. My Case File 13 books are 50k words. My Farworld books are twice that long. ER is really the only hard and fast rule where you stick to around 10k words.

But you can often have a novel with a young protagonist that is not a MG novel. You can have a 100k word book that is middle grade. That’s where examining your motives can help you decide what kind of book you are writing. Good luck and enjoy the ride.

Also, tomorrow I will post the next on-line chapter of my Farworld series right here.


Jaime Theler said...

I read all three parts before commenting and had some snafus crop up while doing that, so I think my comment on Part 1 was really for Part 1 and 3. I can tell you've put a lot of critical thought and analysis into the topic. Thanks for sharing - so we don't have to do all that thinking. :)

Anonymous said...

These are very, very good posts. I've never really understood the difference between MG and YA before, nor had that perspective on conflict and depth. Thank you so much.