How to Write Young Adult Fantasy: Part 1 — Defining the Genre

The book that renewed my love for young adult fantasy was Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone, where wishes can be bought with strange currency:

It wasn’t like in the storybooks. No witches lurked at crossroads disguised as crones, waiting to reward travelers who shared their bread. Genies didn’t burst from lamps, and talking fish didn’t bargain for their lives. In all the world, there was only one place humans could get wishes: Brimstone’s shop. And there was only one currency he accepted. It wasn’t gold, or riddles, or kindness, or any other fairy-tale nonsense, and no, it wasn’t souls, either. It was weirder than any of that.

It was teeth.

I read YA fantasy to feel that sense of wonder. It’s a genre with particular qualities that bring me joy as a reader. As March McCarron, author of The Marked series, says:

“So much of what distinguishes YA fiction has nothing to do with the age of the characters, and everything to do with pacing, focal points, and style.”

McCarron points out that YA fantasy books differentiate themselves from adult fantasy in four crucial ways:

  • Giving readers only as much world-building as needed to tell the story
  • Easing readers into that world
  • Having a faster-paced plot
  • Focusing more on the character relationships

Even though teenagers are the main characters, their curiosity about the world, passion for romance, and desire for individuality are universal feelings we experience across our lives.

The Problem of “Bad” YA Fantasy

It can be hard to find a YA fantasy story that really speaks to you. Sometimes the main character seems Too Stupid to Live, constantly making illogical choices, like making out with Studly McStudface instead of, you know, saving the world. Sometimes the world-building doesn’t feel fleshed out enough, or the plot slows to a crawl.

Most complaints about YA fantasy note that the genre feels repetitive and unoriginal, recycling the same plots and character types. There can be a lack of character depth and moral complexity. But these are problems that plague all genres. It’s just a matter of finding — and creating — stories that rise above the clichés.

The purpose of this three-part series is to define what YA fantasy is and is not, in addition to exploring the six core elements of many memorable YA fantasy novels:

Keep in mind that you don’t need to follow a formula; explore different possibilities, and write what you want to write. Most authors aspire to create a book that’s a cut above the rest — and readers want stories that whisk them away to imagined worlds with characters they love more than actual people.

What Exactly Is “Young Adult”?

First, let’s define YA fantasy so we’re all on the same page. Technically, “young adult” refers to the target audience or age group and “fantasy” is the genre, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just refer to YA fantasy as a singular genre.

As an editor, I’ve found that a lot of writers I work with tend to misclassify their book’s age group as young adult, rather than middle grade or adult, because they don’t have a firm understanding of the age group’s conventions.

Generally speaking, YA fantasy…

Features a protagonist between the age of 14 and 18.

As writer Bronwen Fleetwood says, “YA is informally divided into lower (ages 13–15) and upper (16–18) groupings. Lower YA has more in common with Middle Grade than with Adult fiction.”

Middle-grade fiction focuses on characters who are between 10 and 13 years old.

The “new adult” category features protagonists between ages 19 and 25, but that marketing distinction isn’t very popular with publishers yet, so those books are sometimes cross-marketed as both YA and adult. Also, many titles in the new adult fantasy market share their bed with erotica, since they feature steamy sex scenes, like From Blood and Ash by Jennifer Armentrout.

New adult, not young adult!

In YA fantasy, the protagonist is most often a 15- or 16-year-old girl, which makes sense, given that the readership is largely female.

First-person point of view is also popular, but this is only a trend, not a requirement — plenty of books feature male protagonists and third-person POV, and the industry always needs more transgender and non-binary representation.

You’ll also come across dual or multiple point-of-view narratives with alternating female and male leads.

But just because a book has a teenager as the main character does NOT mean it’s YA. This is a common misconception among readers and writers, which leads to books like Nevernight by Jay Kristoff being recommended as YA when its graphic content means it very much isn’t. There are other attributes to consider beyond character age when determining a book’s label.

For example, YA fantasy also…

Targets readers between the ages of 12 and 18.

Younger readers generally “read up” in that they prefer to read about characters who are their age or older. However, adults make up a large portion of the readership. Just as with Pixar and Marvel movies, the best YA fantasy can entertain adults as well as the younger crowd.

And, for the most part, YA fantasy…

Does not include graphic sex or violence.

Sure, there might be fade-to-black sex scenes, since we all know that teens are gettin’ busy, but it’s not going to be super spicy or involve fetishes. The violence will usually be more of the superhero movie bang-pow variety than the gore of The Walking Dead. You’ll still see bloody beheadings and the like, but those types of scenes aren’t frequent. Cursing is also dialed down, often replaced by fantasy equivalents like “Skies!”

Think PG-13 instead of R rated.

Contemporary YA is actually a lot more graphic, with some books describing sex, drug abuse, and violent assaults in detail. But since most readers seek out fantasy for escapism rather than facing real-world issues, perhaps that’s why fantasy leans toward the “lighter” side.

Contemporary YA novels that deal with suicide, murder, sexual abuse, eating disorders, drug abuse, drinking, sexual exploration, and other “explicit” topics

More importantly, this genre…

Highlights themes related to coming of age.

Teenagers experience a lot of firsts, from their first long-term relationships to their first failures in the pursuit of their dreams. They also face intense anxiety about fitting in with their peers and within society.

In the same way, many YA fantasy protagonists grapple with their place in the world and their personal identity. Will they earn their place as a human among Faeries? When leaving home for the first time, what wondrous, dangerous adventures await? The future is filled with both possibility and uncertainty.

As far as length, YA fantasy typically…

Has a word count between 80,000 and 100,000 words for a debut (the author’s first published novel).

This is part of the reason Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson has more often been categorized as adult high fantasy, despite featuring a sixteen-year-old female protagonist, coming-of-age themes, a prominent romance, and an absence of graphic sex or violence: it clocks in around 215,000 words. It also has an adult character’s point of view.

There have been some exceptions to this word count restriction, such as Sabaa Tahir’s first YA fantasy novel, An Ember in the Ashes, which is around 124,000 words.

Some guides will tell you that 60k to 80k is typical for YA, but they’re talking about contemporary YA, which is often shorter. The fantasy genre tends to go longer because of the added plot and world-building.

Length can be a way to determine the target audience: under 60k is often fantasy for middle-grade readers, above that is YA up until around 130k, after which it’s more the realm of adult epic fantasy.

These are guidelines, not rules. Still, if you plan on traveling the traditional publishing path, literary agents advise keeping your total word count under the 100k mark. This might be because readers are more likely to take a chance on a new author if it’s a shorter time commitment, and because it saves the publisher on printing costs.

Most debut YA fantasy novels are around 100,000 words

A lower word count also suggests that you’ve condensed the story as much as possible, and it won’t be bloated with overwritten prose or unnecessary scenes. If you’re self-publishing, you can bend these guidelines however you want.

The Fuzzy Classification of “Young Adult” Fiction

So, it’s mostly that combination of the protagonist’s age, the target audience, lack of graphic content, coming-of-age themes, and the word count that classifies a fantasy book as YA. This classification is important for matching your book with your ideal readers; the better you can label your book, the higher chance you have of reaching the readership that’s looking for that type of novel.

Even so, the line between children’s, middle grade, young adult, and adult fantasy can be unclear at times. YA as a market didn’t really exist until the 1960s, upon the publication of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, which was published when Hinton was a teenager herself, and it was the first novel specifically marketed to teenagers.

And then a certain boy wizard gave rise to fantasy written for children with broader appeal, creating YA fantasy as we know it today.

Stephenie Meyer’s vampire romance Twilight further propelled YA fantasy into the spotlight, igniting a boom in the publishing industry and inspiring readers and writers alike, whether out of pure love or fiery scorn.

That fuzzy distinction between intended audiences is likely why adult fantasy written by women is sometimes categorized as YA, despite featuring adult characters and mature themes.

A number of older classics read by all ages that kinda-sorta feel like YA are often broadly categorized as children’s fiction, since they predate the young adult classification in terms of marketing.

And some children’s series move into young adult territory as the protagonists grow into teenagers and mature with their audience.

In short, fantasy books can have cross-audience appeal, but nailing down a target age range can be useful for marketing purposes.

YA Fantasy Subgenres

The fantasy genre can also be difficult to pin down. What do we consider “fantasy,” exactly?

Secondary World Fantasy or High Fantasy — wherein the story takes place in a magical kingdom or alternate world — seems to be the most common type in YA.

Historical Fantasy is usually set in a real-world time and place, like Boston in 1919 or Paris in 1789. It might include a magic system or paranormal elements, but sometimes the magical elements can be very slight, or even nonexistent, with it being more an alternate history or reimagining of a particular era.

Urban Fantasy can involve a modern setting combined with portals to other worlds, hidden magical societies, paranormal elements like ghosts, witchcraft, werewolves, vampires, or other magical beings.

Books set in the future or a dystopian world — or that feature aliens or special technology — are generally classified as sci-fi rather than fantasy.

Fairy-tale retellings have become quite prevalent, especially of “Beauty and the Beast.” Other novels have retold “The Little Mermaid,” A Thousand and One Nights, and Alice in Wonderland.

Fabulism is a smaller subsection of YA fantasy, featuring lyrical prose and fantastical elements in a realistic setting, such as The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, the story of a girl born with wings.

Many publishers might use the term “magical realism,” but some readers think that label should be reserved for works about post-colonialism, particularly those by Latin American authors, where the literary genre originated. In these story worlds, people don’t bat an eye at strange happenings.

Some of these subcategories are part of market trends. For instance, in high fantasy, worlds featuring the fae or faeries seem to be on the rise. However, every publishing professional will tell you, “DO NOT WRITE A NOVEL BASED ONLY ON TRENDS.” It might take years for a book to be prepared for publication and, by that time, the trend might have passed.

Instead of banking on what’s popular, it’s better to write a story you’re passionate about, one that’s worth years of daydreams. The finished product will be stronger as a result, because that passion will shine through.

Knowing your book’s subgenre can help you when you’re pitching to agents or marketing to readers.

Writing Better YA Fantasy

There’s no “secret recipe” to writing a bestseller, but I do know what makes me fall in love with a YA fantasy novel: a high-concept premise, vivid world-building, a strong narrative voice, a driven protagonist, and interesting character relationships — particularly ones where characters have strong differences as well as meaningful friendships. In YA, romance and humor are often key ingredients.

Part two of this series focuses on the big-picture elements: the premise, world, and writing style.

Part three covers the character aspects of YA fantasy: driven protagonists, contrasting relationships, and meaningful friendships.

Whatever you do, keep writing.

What are your favorite YA fantasy novels? Spread some love in the comments.

This post was adapted from a video on my YouTube channel Quotidian Writer. You can watch the full video below!

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Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer.

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