Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Quest to Write a Good MG/YA Fantasy

What makes a good MG or YA fantasy? When I began writing my first novel, a MG fantasy, my research consisted solely of years of reading the genre for pleasure.  That in itself was enough to pick up most of the standard ideas of what is expected.  Over and over since I got serious about writing I have seen advice saying to write what you love, not what you think will sell. Falling in love then, with a plot idea and enjoying the process of making it unfold, has got to be key.

After Googling the subject a little, I still believe the most important factor is the inspiration, or idea, for the plot, but it must be combined with excellent writing skills. Just about every site I visited discusses what conventions are expected, but there is a fine line between following expectations and writing a bad imitation of an overdone plot. If you are looking for a site to help you get started in writing for this genre, I like this one, and for knowing what to avoid if you seek to be original, Fantasy Faction has a top 10 cliche list.* Check out Obsidian Bookshelf* for a more extensive list of cliches. Those of us who feel naturally uncreative have a harder time coming up with ideas that are original. Nothing is more irksome than to realize midway into a work that some details too closely parallel those in another person’s book. 

As I have worked on refining my first novel and writing a second, I have spent more time working on character development. A great plot falls flat if the characters aren’t real enough to the reader. I think fantasy characters naturally tend to lend themselves toward being role models, providing inspiration in how to handle adversity. Magic happens when a writer comes up with a seemingly ordinary, or maybe even weak, character who struggles and finally succeeds in finding a way to overcome the challenges he or she faces.

That’s my take on elements of a good MG/YA fantasy. Of course that's just for starters. What else do you think is important?

*These links have been added as the original post had a link which is now broken.


  1. Heh, reading the list of plot pet peeves, I'm always having people stop the world from ending. It's all about the high stakes! And what's more fun than your MC's life being at stake than having EVERYBODY'S lives be at stake?

    I adore MG, and to a lesser degree, YA. You're right about having likeable characters. Harry Potter and his friends is likeable. You just want to hang out with them.

    But likeability isn't enough. They also have to be in pain. Harry hurts because of being the prime target at school, and not knowing his parents. Ron hurts because of being poor. Hermione hurts because of being Muggle-born (and various other things revealed late in the series). They all have a sore spot, and the point of every book is to press those sore spots.

    That's my two bullet points. High stakes (in every scene), and a character in pain. That works in fantasy, thrillers, mysteries, whatever genre you want to write.

  2. Kessie,

    Excellent comment and thanks for posting it!

    You are right. I didn't mention pain, but that is usually an aspect of the MC's growth as the plot unfolds. I've read elsewhere that "saving the world" scenarios are a key element of MG books while YA may have that scenario, but tend to be more focused on relationship issues. Having both elements should make a book that much more of a page turner.

  3. Hi Melissa! Why are you so determined to write to a specific genre? Personally, I'd expect this to hinder creativity. Or worse, create unintended rehashing of something done before.
    Rather than worrying about YA tropes etc, why don't you just write as great as you can and - once finished - see which genre or market your new masterpiece fits best?
    And yes, "know your reader" and all that ... :) But first you need to have something to read. You'll have plenty of edits ahead of you, so if you still want to squeeze your new prose into a certain drawer, you can make any necessary changes then.
    And I agree: character development is of major importance. Even a weak plot is more bearable if the characters appeal to the reader ...

  4. Hi C,

    Glad to have you comment! Actually, I don't think I am determined to write just a certain genre, though I have read that doing so makes it easier to sell your work. In terms of fantasy writing for younger readers, I think it helps to know what the expectations and latest trends are so you can purposefully decide whether to follow them, or break them. MG/YA fantasy just happens to have come naturally for me in terms of ideas and rough drafts. My next book, which I hope to start by summer's end,will be MG contemporary with possibly a splash of magical realism. Once I have a few more MS written I plan to write a historical/contemporary kind-of-tragedy, for which my dearest SO has agreed to take a trip with me to several European countries next year (!) to assist in doing some pre-writing research.

  5. I love your link! Did you see that Sarah Davies has a call out (a contest) for a humorous book?
    Looks fun.

    1. I so admire writers who can do humor. While I think I am improving in my ability to add some occasionally to my work, the mere idea of attempting to make a whole work humorous is daunting. Gotta love contests, though!

  6. For me, it all comes down to character, no matter what the genre. I need to connect with the characters I'm reading or creating.

    As for the big no-no on my list for writing fantasy? Using magic to get out of the problem. Magic should always have a price to pay, and the bigger the spell, the costlier it should be- otherwise why would you wait to use it?

    Really enjoyed you post!

  7. Mary,

    Connecting with a character-absolutely agree. How can you make them come to life if you don't connect?

    Are you, by chance, a Once Upon a Time fan? The price of magic can definitely amp up the tension in fantasies, though I haven't consciously used that idea in my books (yet).

    Thanks for commenting!