A ‘New Adult’ Dilemma

This past week, I dived into a new novel. I did my preliminary research, sketched a rough outline, sketched more detailed character outlines, and started writing. While at first my idea seemed great and my characters awesome, I hit a rather large snafu less than 15, 000 words in. So today I present myself as Exhibit A – the writer with a story dilemma.

When working on a new project I usually work on characters and plot concurrently. This way I can create characters that both serve and thwart the goals of the plot. Part of that character creation involves several key choices like gender, view of the world and age.

I was all for writing another upper YA story with my main characters just hanging onto teenagehood at the ages of 18 and 19. Given that my initial premise started out with something like:

A YA Jason Bourne! And aliens! And then, like, snow and Russia and super awesome secret spy stuff!!

I immediately ran into a few problems.

1) Super awesome secret spy stuff doesn’t usually happen when you’re a teenager – I checked the CIA recruitment procedures. From those, I gather there aren’t too many 18 year olds currently involved in covert ops.

2) I wanted my characters to have baggage, to have a history, to have physical and emotional scars, to be battle hardened – while teens can and do have all of this, the intensity required to satisfy me and my story just wasn’t happening for an 18 year old.

3) Whenever my main characters shared a scene they tended to resort to four letter words or wanting to tear each other’s clothes off. (I take no responsibility what-so-ever for this behaviour)

In short, the voice of my characters seemed better suited to someone older, someone more cynical, someone who’d lived a little and been around the proverbial block. A teen just wasn’t going to hack it. So I started reading more about ‘New Adult’ fiction. There is a fantastic site called NA Alley where you can read all about new adult, what it is and what it isn’t over here. “Yay!” I thought. “I can write my story with 20-30 somethings, let them swear and cavort, let them indulge their cynicism and nihilistic tendencies, slap on the New Adult tag and be golden.


The more I think about what it really means to be a 20something new adult the more I realise that a story written for this age group, regardless of genre, needs to include certain tropes the same way YA across genres includes certain archetypes and themes. The age of the protagonist is immaterial. What makes a story ‘new adult’ (and I speak from experience here being a 20something myself) would be:

1) Existential crisis mode – “This is not how I thought my life would turn out when I had everything planned perfectly at 16.” “This is not who I’m meant to be, want to be, need to be.” “Oh my god, I’m almost thirty, why I haven’t I done something more with my life?” “What the hell am I doing here?”

2) Relationships are vital. It’s a time when we tend to transition from teen romance to serious ‘forever’ type relationships via the random hook-up phase. (This is perhaps why romance seems to be the trendy genre for new adult at the moment)

3) The honour/mantle/burden/yoke/shackles of new found responsibility like paying tax and doing your own laundry and realising that unless you wash your own dishes they’re just going to stay there because Mom isn’t around to pick up after you any more.

I could go on but I’m going to leave the list at three because I consider these the defining characteristics of a ‘new adult.’ So why is my story failing at being new adult? Because despite them being of the right age, nothing else about them is ‘new adult,’ which brings me to a cross-roads of sorts while my story stagnates at 15k words.

  • Do I continue with the story as is and worry about categories later?
  • Do I tweak the current characters to fit the YA or NA paradigm?
  • Do I tweak the premise to allow for more teen angst or post-teen crises?
  • Do I ditch the project altogether and go back to the drawing board?

I don’t know how to solve my WIP problem just yet but what I do know is that just because you make a character a teen or 20something, doesn’t automatically guarantee the book being YA or NA. I’ve learned an important lesson this week as a writer, one I hadn’t fully grasped up until now, which is why dilemmas are good and why even us published writers shouldn’t be afraid to admit when we don’t know something or get something wrong, because how else are we meant to learn?

Have you read/written any NA? What are your thoughts on this age group?

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