I wrote this post many years ago, but I continue to see a lot of problems with manuscripts that appear to be targeting an age-specific audience but that does not conform to those readers’ expectations. Are you aware of the ways to determine your target reader’s age group and what you need to include or exclude in your story to ensure you are on point? Read on.
You’re writing an intense novel about vampires. You’re exploring deep themes of family loyalty and courage. You believe adult readers will love this high-action somewhat violent novel.
But your protagonist is an eight-year-old boy who is struggling to deal with his new life in this not-so-brave new world.
This is a big problem.
And it’s similar to what I see week after week as I critique novels by aspiring writers.
I get that you have a killer idea and you’ve worked hard to come up with a great, compelling plot with lots of action and twists and complications. But before you began, did you even consider who your target audience might be?
While there are no set boundary lines when it comes to demographics of readers, there are some logical conclusions we all could make about readers and genre. We know we aren’t writing to children when we write erotica, and we aren’t going to have the protagonist be a six-year-old child (God forbid!). I’m using this as an extreme example.
But it’s crucial we know who we want to read our novel, who would enjoy our book.
The General Fantasy Audience
This was on my mind years ago when I attend the Book Expo in New York. I was writing what I considered an adult, sophisticated fantasy series, but I knew young readers (ten and up was my guess) would love my allegorical fairy tales.
I’d done some research but couldn’t find the answer I needed in order to properly market or pitch these books to publishers. What determined “adult” fantasy as opposed to YA fantasy or Middle Grade fantasy? Was there a distinction?
I knew books like Twilight and The Hunger Games targeted teens, yet adults love these books. And what about the most successful fantasy series of all time—the Harry Potter books, written, really, for Middle Grade kids? I know of more adults obsessed with that series than I do ten-year-olds. And when we look at the length and depth of plot of those books, the “target age” definition gets fuzzy.
Since the senior acquisitions editor of Baen Books was standing nearby, I went over to her and posed the question about adult fantasy versus “kid” fantasy novels. I asked her about the reading audiences and how to define whether my books were for adults or teens or even younger readers.
She surprised me with her answer. She said, in her opinion, there was no delineation in fantasy, for the most part (unless you get into erotica and/or extreme violence—or the books are for early readers). She gave a general sweep of all fantasy being aimed at about “age fourteen to ninety.”
But I think this is very unique among genres. Clearly, fantasy attracts readers of all ages, and some fantasy, like G.R.R. Martin’s series, with its very adult scenes and complex plot, is meant for adults. Specific Middle Grade fantasy, like that of Rick Riordan’s, is aimed at youngsters. The characters’ voices, the plots, and the structure of sentences and chapters, as well as vocabulary, target those younger readers.
That’s not to say adults don’t enjoy those books. Millions of adults read and love Madeline L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time, clearly a “children’s” book. And my novel Time Sniffers, which is YA, has fans from age ten to eighty.
So if you’re writing fantasy, you may be relieved (or confused) knowing that you might not have to define a narrow audience age for your book. It may appeal “to all ages.”
But this isn’t often the case with genres other than fantasy.
Adult Novels with Young Protagonists
If you’re targeting Middle Grade, you will have specific concerns for those readers. And if you are getting raunchy and violent, you’ll want to clearly state your books are for adults (and it helps to note that on your sales page, to avoid angry readers writing scathing reviews for not first having been warned).
I’ve had publishers tell me that your protagonist should be about three years older than your target audience. If I want to attract the YA market, I need my protagonist to be at least seventeen or eighteen. Maybe even early twenties (though that could venture into New Adult, depending on the premise).
If you’re writing a novel with a protagonist who is eight years old, you should be thinking about a children’s book. Which is short, with appropriate vocabulary and subject matter for young children.
That’s not to say adults don’t enjoy children’s books. They may. But that likely isn’t an author’s main intent—to draw in adult readers. The net you cast with your book may bring in fish you didn’t expect. But you will cast your net in the area where your desired catch is loitering.
But wait, you say. What about adult books—definitely adult—that have a main character who is a child or teen? What about Peace like a River and To Kill a Mockingbird? Martin’s many scenes are in children’s POVs (Game of Thrones). And what about books like the huge best seller Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers, which has numerous scenes in the POV of a child?
Here’s where you need to take a step back and ask who you are writing your novel to and why.
Those books, with their adults themes and issues and sophisticated language and plots, are for adult readers. But if it’s understood that adults don’t want to read books that feature a child protagonist, why does these successfully work as adult novels and sell well?
- First, many of these books are structured such that the narrator of the story is the child speaking years later, as an adult. In other words, Scout, in Mockingbird, and Reuben, in Peace like a River, begin telling a story of when they were a child. And with that structure, they are adults speaking to adults. The vocabulary, sophistication of story, and all the novel elements are written in an adult voice. Another great example of this is The Kite Runner.
It’s nearly impossible (I’m guessing—if you can point out a novel to me that succeeds, please share in the comments!) to write a novel in the POV of an eight-year-old, sounding eight, addressing plot and issues that adults would be interested in reading, and staying faithful to that child’s voice, knowledge, and maturity.
- Second, many of these books have only some of the scenes in a child’s POV. In Martin’s books, we have many scenes in the POV of the Stark children, for example, who are of various ages, and they’re brilliantly written. But the overarching plot is an amalgam of dozens of characters, young and old, weaving a very complex tale.
If you’re aiming to write for adults and have a young POV character, you do want to keep faithful to that voice and maturity in her scenes, but those scenes would be part of a bigger story—one that is mature and targeted at adult readers.
A novel about a mother trying to cope with a troubled child might feature some scenes in a child’s POV, for example. A novel that shows a father trying to save a kidnapped child might show some scenes in that child’s POV to indicate her fear and what condition she is in.
- Third, some novels in the literary genre, due to the writing style and manner of storytelling, may successfully follow the story of a child. While I can’t think of any at the moment, if you can, please share in the comments.
Before you get too far in writing your novel, be sure to clearly identify your audience. Be sure your protagonist and his age are just right for your targeted reader. Also be sure your writing style, premise, and novel structure reflect the age of the audience you are writing to.
This is so important because, when you write a novel, you are writing it for specific readers. Rarely can you say your novel “is for everyone.” That’s almost never the case. I will say a book like The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein—a picture book for children—is a book for all ages. I cry every time I read it, and it’s on my list of favorite books of all time. But I can say that about very few books.
Don’t try to write a novel for everyone. Yes, you want your novel to have “universal appeal,” but you should have a specific reader in mind.
Picture one person. Who is he (or she—does gender matter)? How old is he? Where does he live? What nationality or race is he? What is his educational background and reading level? While you won’t want to confine your story to a very narrow demographic most of the time, picturing an “ideal” reader—or maybe better to come up with a diverse group of ideal readers instead—imagining that reader can help guide you as you formulate your plot line, characters, complications, and themes.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you have a clear picture of your target reader? Are you making sure your character’s voice, your writing style, your vocabulary, and your novel structure fit your niche genre? What questions do you have about this? Share in the comments.