What comes first the MC’s age or the Genre?

Lately, I’ve been discussing age with a lot of my writing buddies.  Not theirs or mine.  Heaven knows we don’t want to start a wrinkle comparison or a gray hair contest.  Rather, the question of matching an MC’s age to his/her genre has been a hot topic with a huge question mark at the end.

Writers want to know who is reading what about whom.  It seems like the answer should be obvious, but it’s really convoluted and nuanced when you get right down to it.

One of my writer buddies wrote an entire ADULT novel only to learn that it really was middle grade.  Another penned a fun and spunky picture book–that really needed to be a chapter book. 

Stories like this are not isolated events.  When a beginning novelist sets out to writer their first major manuscript, we know NOTHING about the biz.  We simply write the story we hear in our heads with the characters who are clamoring to get out of our heads.  We pay little attention to how these masterpieces will actually fit on the bookshelf.

Yet, genre is one of the most important aspects of marketing our wares.  Agents want a neat little package they can sell to publishers who can then pimp our fiction to book stores across the country.  All this means is that our manuscripts must ultimately fit on the bookshelf in a place where our audience can find them.

When we try to pawn off our chapter book to adult only agents, the answer will invariably be the splosh of our manuscript hitting the bottom of the wastebasket.

Think middle graders want to read about bunnies having a fight with their mommies?  Think again.  Middle school students rarely read middle grade, let alone picture books.

Nope, these ‘tweens are more concerned about what’s happening in the hallways of your make believe world.  Their thoughts are to the future–jock talk and pep fests,  not warm squishy comforts of  yesterday.

How do you determine the age of your MC and the type of book you will write?  Have you ever written your MC into the wrong manuscript?  If so, how do you remedy the problem: by pumping up your MC’s age or by toning down your story line and language?

Have you ever written a book where the MC’s age cannot be changed without ruining the entire storyline?  Did you trash it or try to salvage something from the wreckage?

Age-muddled minds want to know!

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14 responses to “What comes first the MC’s age or the Genre?

  1. This is the question I’ve been struggling with from the get-go. When I starting writing my first novel I knew nothing about the biz, as you say. I wrote like a maniac, having finally found my calling. “Who’s your audience?” asked my prof. “What? I have to think about that??” I remember that day like it was yesterday.

    I think age of character doesn’t matter so much as pacing, subject, and language. I’ve read many “adult” books where the protagonist is a teenager. I think many readers, myself included, don’t read only one genre or even care about genre. We just know what we like by the cover and the title and the first few pages. I would never change the age of my characters or the language to fit a pigeonhole. I just don’t that that’s honest. It would be an insult to them and to myself.

    • I think age of character doesn’t matter so much as pacing, subject, and language.

      Awesome commentary. I think you are absolutely right in many ways. It’s all about how your MC comes across on paper and how the entire manuscript “feels”. Quite an elusive concept. But when all these pieces fit together, the result is magical!

      Thanks for sharing.

  2. My last book was hard for me to age-peg because most of my characters are adult and it’s set during war time, but one of my characters starts off as a twelve-year-old boy. At first, I intended him to be the MC, thinking the child’s pov in war would be powerful. (That much is true.) But his place as MC came into question after I’d finished the first draft and I realized he was not the character who spoke the most for me, nor was he the one at the center of the plot. I ended up making it an adult novel and it works better. I had to ask myself what age do you write best for, who “speaks” to you most clearly out of all your characters and what’s the story you want them to tell? Great question, as usual.

  3. I definitely wrote a book where the main character was too old for the plot. I trashed it. I think I may return to it some day but it would need a total overhaul. The main character was about 20 and in college but the themes were too young. She needed to be in high school. I felt like I needed the characters to have the freedom of college but I was just taking it too easy on my characters. Complications are good!

    It was only after I started looking at the hallmarks of a genre that I recognized my mistake.

    Nice post!

    • Kate,

      It’s nice to learn things like that on the front end. Too bad you already had one manuscript under your belt. It stinks that you’ve put it on the back burner for now. Hopefully you’ll be able to use it later–and without too much editing pain!

  4. All of my MC’s have been 18 or older. But I know that it’s not just age that makes a YA or juvenile novel. I have lots of politics in my works and almost never deal with coming of age stories, since in my fantasy worlds, an 18 yr old has been an adult for a while. So, I’ve been told by some YA readers, that my story doesn’t “read YA”. I’m fine with that, but if an agent told me he/she wanted to try and sell it as YA, I wouldn’t care. I’d just need lots of advice if the agent wanted me to change it.

    • Barbara,

      Fantasy is definitely a bit trickier as far as age goes. Best luck in getting an agent to love it without wanting to change it. From experience, it’s a tough thing to edit.

  5. Interesting question, funny, it’s never crossed my mind but that’s probably because I don’t write YA fiction. If I did, then I think it’s something I would definitely think about. As it is, my characters come to me already being a certain age with specific looks and it’s never crossed my mind to ever change that.

  6. Good question – I originally pictured the MCs in the story I’m working on as a little older than they are now. I still have one major element to change because they are younger. It’s a lot of work.

  7. I had a HUGE problem with this and am half way through trying to fix it. I finished the first draft of my first manuscript and then realised that it was all a bit too grown up for such a little girl! I realised my MC was way too mature and grown up for her age. It wasnt believable. I also wanted love and romance and a lot of people wouldnt accept that happening to a twelve or even thirteen year old. I realised I either had to keep her young and scrap the love story or make her older…Im in the process of a complete overhaul and Im hating it! Im glad im not the only one who struggles with this stuff

    • I think that’s the hardest thing about one of my favorite (sitting in a box in a dark corner) manuscripts. I simply couldn’t make the voice and age work with the overall story. “Too heavy” I’ve been told.

      Currently in the process of writing it both up and down to see how that will work. So far I hate both new versions.

      *le sigh*

      When you get it figured out let me know. I’d be eternally greatful.

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