What Makes a Good YA Fantasy (And How to Spot It)

Posted by Laura Crockett

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Let’s start with the obvious: young adult (YA) is booming. It’s an unavoidable fact of book life. You find yourself waiting for weeks for a copy of The Hunger Games from your library, you get lost in the mass of books shoved onto the small shelves in bookstores, and publishers seem to only talk about YA in all its forms. YA is the “it” group, and for very good reason.

If you’re over 18 and reading this post, do not be ashamed to walk into the teen section of a bookstore or library. You’re in the midst of some great stories about self-discovery, overcoming adversity and discrimination, and all those things that every individual experiences at some point in life. The age of the protagonists in YA defines the genre, not the readership. Take a look at the Harry Potter craze! Children, teens, and adults were all reading about the boy wizard.

Speaking of wizards, another enticing and popular genre is fantasy. It’s a genre people love to love, or love to avoid. Surely there’s a story in each reader’s life when they first read fantasy, even if it was just to try it out. Depending on the book, the reader either became hooked or avoided the genre like the plague.

But fantasy can be intimidating; all those alternate worlds, creatures, pages to keep track of. It’s overwhelming!

And that’s where the beauty of YA simplicity waltzes in. YA is notorious for simpler writing with big plots. This is perfect for those extending feelers around the fantasy genre. No one wants page after page of description and back-story on a bush on the side of the path (think Lord of the Rings) for their very first. While those can be nice and interesting, it’s more suited for the established fantasy lover. Instead, YA fantasy is like a giant pool with tiny steps leading you ever so slowly deeper and deeper into the variety of magical possibilities.

So… what makes a good YA fantasy, you ask?

1) A protagonist with relatable humanity. Not “relatable protagonist” or “human protagonist” because there are some fantastic YA books (including Seraphina by Rachel Hartman) where the main character is either (a) another creature or (b) discovers he/she is more than human. Therefore the humanity of the protagonist is important. People can relate to other people because we lead similar lives: we need food, water, and shelter; we crave love; we seek independence; we have talents as well as flaws; we can feel the joy and sadness of others. If the main character can demonstrate these characteristics that define the most basic of humanity, continue reading.

2) The step-by-step immersion into the fantasy world. More often than not, the main character is already a member of this alternate world. As a reader, you may find yourself in the aftermath of a burned village and you’re running away with the main character (Shadowfell  by Juliet Marillier). As the story progresses, you begin to learn through the protagonist’s interactions with others and the environment what each creature, tree, and person is capable of doing. Or, likewise, the protagonist is completely unaware of the alternate world, and his/her immersion into this world is a step-by-step process that doubles as your own (City of Bones by Cassandra Clare).

3) This fantasy world must be believable. Whether it’s within our own world but invisible to ordinary people, or in a completely different time and setting, this fantasy land must have its set of natural and governed laws (A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray). If a character can fly, they must have limitations on their flying abilities. If an animal can talk or walk on its hind legs like humans, they should still maintain some animalistic qualities, such as eating habits. If the creature is a dragon or sphinx, an animal that does not exist in the real world, then they need to retain some, if not most, of the qualities readers know from mythology and popular culture. There is no need to shock the reader entirely. It’ll ring all the Information Overload bells in the brain and the reader will quit exploring what could be a fantastic story.

Everything I’ve mentioned thus far is called “world-building.” Humanity, immersion, and natural law are key for an excellent fantasy. But what makes things particular to YA comes down to the characters.

4) Do not stereotype teenagers. You know what I’m talking about. Whiny, self-centered, angsty. There are thousands of teenagers out there that are witty, intelligent, quiet, adventurous, empathetic. If anything, find that YA protagonist that’s scared but ambitious (Witchlanders by Lena Coakley). You’re bound for a great story when the character faces global issues along with personal ones. That’s what made Harry Potter a success. Sure, Lord Voldemort was constantly running after him, but Harry was still concerned over his homework assignments and practicing for Quidditch.

5) Romances, if any, should have substance. Just like in real life, a true love worth fighting for should be one with substance. Paranormal romance — which, yes, falls into the fantasy category — constantly takes the heat for being superficial. There is typically a love story involved in fantasy, but the best romances are those under the radar, the ones that do not overshadow the larger picture (Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor). There is an understanding between the reader and the author that Character One is in love with Character Two, but Plot Adventure is a bit more important and needs to be dealt with. If you think about it, that’s usually how a substantial romance works in real life: tend to the big issues alongside the love of your life, and the love will grow on its own. No need to force it.

Whether you’re the reader or the writer, YA fantasy can be a bit scary to dive into. With these basics in mind (humanity, world-building, substance), you’ll be fully prepared to tackle that first installment in a trilogy. YA is a pleasant place to roam around — why not throw in some dragons and fairies into your adventure?

Laura Crockett is a graduate student, bookseller, Anglophile, tea devotee, musician, and book hoarder. Everything good in her boils down to her Midwestern upbringing. Follow her Downton Abbey obsessions on Twitter (@LECrockett) and book interests on her blog http://scribblesandwanderlust.wordpress.com