Sex and Swearing: How You Know You’re Writing YA Fiction

by Rebecca Hales.

If you’re writing a novel for the under-18 crowd, it’s a good idea to pause to confirm you’re indeed writing YA (rather than middle grade fiction or adult fiction). A few key criteria will indicate who your audience is, but two issues in particular will let you know loud and clear: sex and swearing.

Meant for 15-18 year olds, YA fiction contains more mature content, uses complex themes and characters, and has a broader world view for teens on the cusp of becoming young adults.

Sex in YA

By age 15, most people are trying to find themselves romantically – our sexuality, our orientation, our gender identity. It’s basically our prime directive as humans. Someone wrestling with these issues will want to read about them, or if they’re not quite there but on the cusp, they’d be satisfied to read about a protagonist who could be dealing with them but is too busy saving the world.

two teenagers' legs dangling over grafitti wall

If a protagonist is too young to be thinking about these issues at all, the 15-year-old reader will walk away unfulfilled. The lack of sex factoring into the plot or even the lack of some sexual subtext won’t resonate as realistic or reflect the life experience of the reader, which is key for the reader to develop empathy and attachment with the protagonist.

These popular YA books manage that straddle well: The Vampire Diaries, by L.J. Smith, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, or The Hate You Give, by Angie Thomas.

(Here’s Time Magazine’s 100 Best YA Books of All Time)

Swearing in YA

Another defining feature that indicates you’re writing YA is if your characters swear – even if they’re using swears of your own invention. They may still be on the younger end and road testing what it feels like to use swear words, or they may curse easily as a matter of belonging to their subculture or wield the words as a form of power.

You won’t find any sex or swearing in a middle grade book. The occasional “hell” or “damn” can pass if the circumstances really call for it, but everything else is off the table.

If you read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, remember how shocked you were when Molly Weasley shouted at Beatrix LeStrange, “Not my daughter, you bitch!”? (Imagine your child’s fifth grade teacher reading that aloud to the class. Or perhaps you read ahead while reading the novel aloud to your kids at bedtime and edited it out?)

Middle graders aren’t yet at a point in their maturity when they’re comfortable with either swearing or sex (gross!). At either, the inevitable response from a middle grade reader would be fits of giggles  or pretend gagging instead of the slightly more mature, “Hell, yeah!” or simply feeling identified.

Some great examples of Middle Grade novels are Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer , and Newbery Award winners Other Words for Home, by Jasmine Warga, The War and Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani.

Here’s also a list from 2020 of incredible new Middle Grade novels for today’s reader from BuzzFeed.

Other Defining Features of YA

Maturity

YA characters are designed to encompass broader levels of maturity and emotional complexity; these characters can range from being totally innocent and naïve to swearing, drinking, and doing drugs. They are often exploring first loves, first sexual experiences, or first heartbreaks and in coping with these plot lines, straddle their childhood selves and emergent teenaged selves.

Reduced Parental Involvement

Unlike in middle grade or younger books which tend to off the parents so the children have the unusual opportunity to be the actors in their own lives, in YA, writers tend to invent fewer contrived reasons for getting rid of the parents, and instead simply have the parents be less present or whose role is negligible.

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas on wood table with pen and glasses

Greater Autonomy

The protagonists in YA stories are also exploring issues of their own autonomy and agency. They will go into the world and make mistakes, some of them costly. They may struggle with the question of whether they can retreat to the safety of home or whether there is still a home to retreat to.

Part of this exploration — their first foray into what it feels like to be an adult in a complicated world —is knowing that they are flying without a safety net for the first time. It’s terrifying and it feels like the end of the world.

 

For the 18+: “New Adult” Fiction

 

Where YA is meant for 15-18-year-olds, a new sub-category that caters to 18-25-year-olds called “New Adult Fiction” has become popular. Still technically under the YA umbrella, these stories explore the new independence that comes with adulthood. The problems now include being financially stable, figuring out your future, or saving the world.

And they can be quite dirty. Drugs? Yes. Swearing? Yes. Sex? Yes. And often in great glorious detail.

 

Stories like these also have protagonists burdened with bigger stakes as though whatever problem they’re facing is tied to them personally. The cost of achieving the final goal is a piece of them, some part of their soul. And the cost of not achieving the final goal might be their lives, or at least everything they love. Didn’t we all feel that way at 20? That we could do everything expected of us, but we would have nothing or be nothing at the end of it?

One book that best exemplifies New Adult is A Court of Silver Flames, the latest book by Sarah J. Mass in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series that started in YA and got much more explicit over the last few books.

bullet journal checklist
To Help You Get the Firmest Grasp on Your Book’s Age Group/Genre: 

  • If you’re working on a book for the adolescent, teen, or young adult reader, use the points in this article as a rubric for what you want to write about and for whom.
  • Make a list of the 5 or so books (YA or Middle Grade) that have inspired you and whose tone, narrative voice, purpose, and age-appropriate content most closely align with your book to give you a more concrete idea of what you’re aiming for.

Your findings will indicate how old your protagonist should be, what challenges they face, and what they’ll say when they bang their elbow either:

  • on a dragon
  • on their best friend-turned love interest during their first fumbled kiss
  • on their step-dad’s 67’ Chevy they’re taking for a joy ride and/or on their way to their first job interview.

If you’re working on a novel for readers of any age — or you’d like to start writing one — and you’d like specific support to help you through the writing, the craft of designing the book, and accountability, resources, readings, and more, check out our Write Your Novel in 4 Months Program, our custom one-on-one Writing Coaching & Editing, or contact us for a free consultation about how we can support you with your work!

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