Writing Tips

NA or YA? College-Aged Protagonists

If you live on Twitter like me, then you probably saw last week’s discussion on college-aged protagonists in young adult fiction. Many were calling for it. Others pushed back. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle.

I desperately want college-aged protagonists, but I want them placed in NA, and I want NA to rise up on its own as an age category full of various genres.


Fun fact: I graduated high school in 2009. I graduated from the University of Kansas in 2013.

1. The Teens I’ve Listened To:

When I sign books at Barnes and Noble, specifically for BFest (a teen festival), I get to speak with a lot of teens. And I listen. I listen a lot.

Teens are already telling me that they feel left out of YA fiction. They ask me for sweeter, funnier, feel-good stories about friendship and finding your place in the world. Many tell me they’ve stopped buying YA altogether (opting out for fan fiction online) because YA feels too dark, too violent, too sexy for them.

Where are the sweet, just-for-fun road trips? Summer camp stories? Where are the books about friends? Not everything has to be a twisted romance filled with fighting to the death over a crown. (Not hating on those. In fact, I love them. But you know what I mean.)

By adding college-aged protagonists to YA, I fear that YA will only be aged up even more. It will get darker, with more violence and more sex. And that’s fine if teens want to read that. But there is a large portion of young teens that don’t want that, and we’re ignoring them.

Basically, I feel like we’re failing younger teens, and they need to be prioritized when it comes to YA.

2. We Need to Embrace NA

New Adult is a long-existing category. It isn’t new. But unfortunately it carries the stigma of erotica-only. Not that erotica is bad. (I work as an editor, and many of my clients are erotic authors, and I LOVE them. They SLAY.) But if a consumer base thinks that’s the only plot that exists within NA, then NA will turn those away who don’t want erotica. It will also set up those who want erotica to be disappointed if they buy a book in that age category when it’s clean. NA should be full of space pirates and sweet romances and twisty heists, with and without the X rating. But it isn’t right now. And that’s our fault. I understand that we’ve tried to expand NA before, but we need to try again. There’s no reason it should be for only romance. And now that there are more people pushing for NA, I think this is an optimal time to use our fan bases to spread the word about the age category and all the potential it holds.

3. Libraries/Families and How They Work 

Cycling back to the sweet stories in YA and non-erotic NA. They are out there, but they aren’t being prioritized on the shelves. Personally, I see younger YA and non-romance NA in the indie industry, but the indie industry is not as accessible. Libraries often chose what to carry from publishers’ catalogs, which automatically discount self-published or small press books. If they go to the edges of publishing, libraries still want books that have been reviewed by recognized editorials, and those editorials? They generally favor traditionally published novels. At my library, they carry very few indie titles, even when I put in requests. So while there are sweeter YA and non-erotic NA, libraries, schools, etc. might not have access to those, which is why I think pushing college-aged protags into YA wouldn’t be fair to young readers in particular. Also, Teen Librarian Toolbox has a fantastic thread on how families will chose reads for teens, why libraries label books the way they do, and how labeling college-aged teens as YA could negatively impact shelves. She also explains why YA was a wrong term to begin with in the first place. Definitely worth the read.


So what age category are you in if you write college-aged protagonists?

That depends on three things:

1. Voice: A lot of YA books have literary prose (Like “The Reader” by Tracy Chee), but if your book is written in the style of George R.R. Martin, you’re probably leaning more towards adult rather than young adult, even if your character is nineteen. An example: “Don’t You Cry” by Mary Kubica follows a college-aged woman dealing with her roommate acting very very strangely, but the voice isn’t YA. If NA was a thing, I would put it there, but since NA is still struggling, I personally think it leans more toward adult. Voice expectations are something you’ll pick up on by reading within your genre and age category.

2. Themes: Even the agents/publishers calling for college-aged protagonists in YA were clear on one thing: it still had to feel coming-of-age. If your book has a nineteen-year-old protagonist, but they are pretty settled into their life, then you’re probably looking elsewhere. In this case, think college-aged protags struggling to leave home, trying to find independence, a place between home and ultimate adulthood. However, this is largely going to depend on how YA and NA swing in the coming months.

3. Who you are submitting to: Always, always read submission guidelines and research agents/editors/publishers thoroughly. What works for one might not work for another, especially in this case. One agent might think a college-aged protag is YA as long as it features coming-of-age themes, while another might think you have no idea what you’re doing if you query them a YA novel with a nineteen-year-old protagonist. Adjust accordingly. Find a good, professional fit for you and your work.

In the end, everything is just a label, and labels can change overnight. In fact, this whole article is my little, humble opinion. Nothing more than that. And, honestly, my opinion could change.

Still, my best piece of advice has never changed: Read a lot. Write what you’re passionate about. Research thoroughly. Stay up-to-date on the latest news and shifts in the industry. Make friends. And you’ll be just fine.


23 thoughts on “NA or YA? College-Aged Protagonists

  1. Some really good thoughts and discussion here, but I think you are right that there is a wider range of books in indie and self-publishing, getting them to the reading audience is the problem.

    1. That is a huge aspect of the reading world I hope changes. There are so many amazing indie books out there, if only there was a better system for readers to explore those in libraries, book stores, etc., especially young readers.
      Thank you for commenting!

  2. I read very little YA and have never heard of NA, but to me it makes sense that fiction for younger teens and for college age “kids” be separated out.

    I recently read a long rant from a college age woman about how too much YA is aimed at younger ages. Since when are 13/14-year-olds “adults”, young or old? She thought there should be teen fiction (13 – 17) and YA, (17 – 25) and didn’t like the fact that she had a hard time finding books written for people like her.

    My opinion is that the term YA has been firmly established for teens, so I agree more with your take on it.

    1. YES! I definitely think YA should be focused on teens. That doesn’t mean adults can’t read it, of course, but changing YA to focus on college-aged protagonists would leave a lot of younger teens behind. As someone who desperately needed literature as a young person, I firmly believe young people need to come first, especially in their own age categories.
      Thank you for reading and commenting!

    1. Turns out, no one does. lol For a long time, NA has been books where main characters are 19-25 years old (give or take a year or two). It was supposed to focus on college, the “second” coming of age, and include other genres. But it more or less became an erotica category, hence the stigma on NA. Recently, there’s been a lot of debates about this, because agents/editors/publishers started calling for college-aged protagonists, but they wanted to place those books in YA instead of NA because of the stigma. But I think we should try harder to fix the stigma, rather than take over an age category that should prioritize young teens. (But that’s just my opinion.) Basically, NA’s definition could vary based on who you talk to right now, but two weeks ago, NA was 19-25 years old, where the mass majority of readers expect sex.

      1. At the time, yes, but since NA doesn’t have a shelf, it’s generally found in Adult Romance. Would it be considered NA now? I would say yes, but since the industry is debating the term, it’s honestly hard to say.

  3. For what it’s worth, we have a similar gray zone at the younger end of the spectrum. Many middle-grade books (that’s grades 4-6, roughly) take a very gentle approach to adventure and focus on family or school friendships and with no romance beyond puppy love. Books in the Tween category (grades 6-9, roughly) have more dangerous situations and romance that might include holding hands or a first kiss near the end of the book.

    Then you get to YA and whoa! Many kids don’t want that much sex and blood. Parents and teachers are also more involved in purchasing and may veto a book they feel is too mature.

    So children’s writers get a similar request for work that engages kids without crossing lines. Sometimes you’ll be referred to Christian publishers because of content concerns, but even that isn’t always a good fit. What if the family is Jewish or Muslim?

    1. YES YES YES.
      I was eleven when my mother suddenly died, and I remember I wanted a book about grief and friendship and probably something on the dark side, but nothing graphic. But I got stuck between middle grade (where everything was puppies and magic) and YA (where everything was romance). Things have changed a little since then, but I didn’t feel like I had a place to go to, and it was really, really terrible.
      We have so many gaps in literature at so many places that no one is trying to fill. Plenty of authors are writing in these gaps, but agents/editors/publishers aren’t buying them for trad publishing.
      I blame trends, to be honest. It’s not a coincidence that everything in YA became so adult seemingly overnight. It’s what editors want, mainly (in my opinion) because the main group of people buying physical books are older (20-25 year olds). So they are prioritizing 20-25-year-olds (and money) above 14-16-year-olds in YA, and I think that’s really sad. I get that publishing is a business like everything else, but I honestly believe readers of all ages would buy more books if they felt heard.
      Take young people at my book signings for instance. They have stopped buying books, so many publishers are discounting them. But they haven’t stopped reading. They just went online to read fan fiction. So obviously they have potential to connect with books on shelves, but no one is listening to what they want, and I feel for them. I truly do. Especially since I think it’s about to get more alienating for them, rather than less.
      LOVE LOVE LOVE the points you discussed, especially about expanding religious fiction as well. That is a huge gap.

  4. Very interesting debate – great job showing the pros and cons of college age protagonists in NA or YA – I didn’t know some of the distinctions you outlined. Thanks!

  5. The more you know! I didn’t even know NA was a thing! I feel like my (in progress) novel might fit that label more accurately than YA, but as you say, by the time I even query it, labels might have changed for good (or changed back?).

    1. Absolutely! Labels come and go, and switch around. For instance, no one dares to label their book “dystopian” anymore, but I’ve definitely read dystopian books released recently. They were labeled “post-apocalyptic,” even though post-apocalptyic wasn’t the best label to accurately describe it. (Dystopian = corrupt government, post-apocalyptic = destroyed world.) But publishers often use them interchangeably for sales.
      You’ll be fine. 😀 Just check in with the market as you’re querying and adjust every submission as needed, much in the same way we adjust our cover letters and resumes for jobs.
      Thank you for reading!

      1. Ahh so much homework… But it’ll wait until my main homework (coughnovelcough) is finished! Hopefully query letters aren’t as dreadful as cover letters! (One can dream?) 😉

      2. Haha! Yes, I know. Writing query letters is as much as a skill as writing a good cover letter, but it’s more important to focus on writing a great book first. You’re definitely ahead there. 🙂 You’re on the right track!

  6. I have a question. I’m writing this story about two teenage boys, both 17. So that would definitely make it a YA story, except I also write explicit sex scenes in this story, which would make it less YA suitable. For now it’s just fan fiction, so that’s okay, but if I ever want to publish it, what should I do? It’s important that they are high school boys, so I can’t change their age. Should I make the sex less explicit, even though it’s about the thoughts one of them has during his first sexual experience and thus quite important too?

    1. Hi Tamar! Sex is allowed in YA, so you’re probably fine. Trying to get it published will depend on how you’re pursuing publication. An agent/editor might have you change it, for instance, but if you self-publish it, you can do whatever you want to do. Definitely get some beta readers who are avid YA readers, and ask them about their thoughts on the scene. That’ll give you more insight before querying. I hope that helps!

  7. Well written, as always, and the comments have provided interesting reading too. I have a number of friends who are writing characters around university age and I feel this would be very helpful when considering how to pitch themselves to publishers 🙂

  8. This was a really interesting article! I can definitely see where there would be confusion for teens, parents, librarians, and booksellers about YA nowadays since it seems to trend much older.

    For example, Sarah J. Maas’s ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ trilogy is New Adult. Bloomsbury the publisher, did not have a Mature Content warning on the back of the hardbacks of that series (only the paperback editions did). I’m sure many of her fans of the Throne of Glass series (which is YA), were more than likely very surprised that it was much more mature than they were used to by her.

    You were talking about YA and NA, but there is another category to consider and that is the YA Crossover. One of my favorite duologies, the Six of Crows duology (Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom) by Leigh Bardugo is considered a YA Crossover because it’s a YA title, that is not only extremely popular with teens but adults as well. So that’s just another extra layer!!😊

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