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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | Non MG Characters in MG Books

Non MG Characters in MG Books

Recently, I was asked whether it was difficult to write non-MG characters into a major role in The Eighth Day without fear of losing my audience. The answer was NO, although before the book sold, I was worried about losing potential publishers.
If you write MG or have even considered it, you’ve probably heard that the story must revolve around characters under the age of 14, adult characters are to be kept in the background, and you should never, ever, ever have an adult POV.
Art by high school student Rachel Gillespie
The thing is … this seems to be a publishing industry rule that a) is ignored when the story is good enough and b) gives no credit to MG readers. Kids know when the story is good. They are completely unaware of industry standards, and they couldn’t care less about them!
There are three main characters in The Eighth Day:
  • Jax, the protagonist and primary POV, age 13
  • Riley, his guardian, age 18
  • Evangeline, the alternate POV character, age 16 

That’s right. Two important YA characters in a MG novel. Luckily, the editor who acquired my novel saw no need for me to change their ages. She called them aspirationalcharacters, and I think that’s the perfect name for them. I’ve read this book out loud to two reading classes for two years in a row now, and all four groups of MG students LOVED Evangeline and Riley. In fact, the #1 question they all had about Book 2 in the series was: Will Riley and Evangeline be in it?
The fact is, MG readers are not as narrow-minded as some publishers/agents might think. Take Brandon Mull’s wildly popular fantasy series, Fablehaven, and oh yeah, his other wildly popular series, The Beyonders. In each case, there are only 2 MG characters in the books – one boy and one girl. The rest of the cast is composed of adults.
But oh, what adults! Fablehavenhas a crossbow-wielding Grandma, and The Beyonders features the displacer Ferrin, who can disassemble his body parts, send them on errands, and then call them back together.
Consider also the Hero’s Guide series by Christopher Healy, where ALL the main characters are adults. There are four adult Princes Charming, not to mention their four corresponding Princesses. Prince Duncan and Snow White are actually married! (Gasp!) But the reason this works in MG is that all these characters have childlike qualities. MG readers relate to their endearing playfulness.
Perhaps that’s the key – whether its playfulness, outlandishness, or aspirational-ness – all characters must bring something to the story that appeals to young readers. Age doesn’t really matter as much as you think.
My CP Krystalyn Drown worried a lot about including an adult POV in her MG book, Tracy Tam: Santa Command (Month9Books, Oct 2014) Tracy is a child and the protagonist, but Phil, an adult, provides an alternate POV. In fact, Phil’s POV opens the book. Krystalyn wondered if she should change that, and I encouraged her to leave it. Her opening is brilliant. Phil works at Santa Command, and he has a crisis with Santa. Who cares how old Phil is?! He has to save Santa!
Luckily, Month9Books felt the same way. They had no problem with Phil, his point of view, or opening the book with him. They told Krystalyn that readers will “love and cheer” when Tracy proves Phil wrong during the climax of the story.
So, I think, when industry professionals tell MG writers to stay away from adult characters, what they really mean is stay away from characters who make adulthood look boring and stodgy. Awesome adults (and young adults) are welcome!

22 Responses to Non MG Characters in MG Books

  1. I have to ask – what does MG stand for?

  2. OE – MG = Middle Grade.

    And I think you’re absolutely right, Dianne. As long as the story is MG in tone and sensibilities and so on, nothing else matters. Sure, it helps if the protagonists is of the proper age, but as you point out, even that is not required.

  3. Angela Brown says:

    Observing the way things have gone in publishing, I agree. It doesn’t seem to matter what industry standards say. It’s all about the story. And in the end, it’s the readers and their wallets that make that decision.

  4. SA Larsenッ says:

    You hit it, Diane. MG readers are NOT narrow-minded and need to be given far more credit. They are smart and like to see the world from their POV, but that doesn’t mean eliminating all others in the world. Who didn’t have to interact with older kids (through school, family, etc…) as an MGer? I know I had to, plenty.

  5. Exactly! Even The Graveyard Book has an older POV and that book was great. That’s why I don’t think about rules much while I’m writing. Sure, I’ll stress when the book is finished and it comes to getting it out on submission. But kids are smart. No need to have all young characters for kids to relate.

  6. Linda G. says:

    You can break any “rule” as long as you do it well. A good story trumps all. 🙂

  7. Robin says:

    I agree with Linda’s comment above…. how many writers have broken the rules and written bestsellers? Lots. Because they did it with excellence. A good story will always be a good story.

    Aspirational characters… I like that. I think we should also figure in that most 12-14 year olds admire 15-19 year olds and cannot wait until they are that age. So, yes, they aspire to that. They want it. They like those folks. In fact, they want to BE them.

    Great post.

  8. HI, Dianne…

    I find it kind of odd not to want Adults in M/G… Hello… have the publishers read Harry Potter. Yes it does revolve around the three main characters, BUT the teachers/Dursleys, are a MAJOR part of the story. HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone opens with the first chapter all about Vernon Dursley. Harry is not even mentioned until like the middle of the chapter which is considerably long for m/g…

  9. Julia Tomiak says:

    I was going to say what Michael did – there are lots of great older characters in MG. Think of Auggie’s sister in Wonder. The story should have just as much relevance as the characters- if it’s a plot and problem that appeals to MG readers, that’s what matters. (Boring kids wouldn’t work, either.)

  10. Carrie-Anne says:

    I kind of expect to see important adult characters in a MG book, particularly if it’s family-based and not a genre like fantasy or adventure. A lot of the classic MG books I grew up reading, both historical fiction and older literature, featured parents, siblings of other ages, and older relatives in important roles.

  11. Steven says:

    Meh, rules were made to be broken with glee.

  12. In the olden days, when there seemed to be much less distinction between books for kids and adults, I read books with lots of different aged characters. Like you say, if the story is good, the rest of it falls into place.

  13. T. Drecker says:

    I hate these distinctions. They didn’t always exist and seem pretty much industry made to me. A quick example is Dr. Dolittle. He is an adult and definitely falls into kid book category. But then, I have a lot of problems w/ these so called ‘rules’. For example, ‘romantic’ feelings aren’t seen as good in MG. (I’m even talking about those harmless interests) When one thinks that some kids already consider they have gfs or bfs as of te 5th grade, this idea doesn’t even come close to reality. Actually, as a kid, I would have gotten totally bored of always reading about other kids. Maybe that’s why my daughter started to jump up to YA w/ 10 yrs already.
    Lol! Have I let off enough steam??? Great post!

  14. I like that your willing to take risks with your writing. Very cool.

  15. Cynthia says:

    There are so many great books that break rules. They say you’re not supposed to open a book with a character waking up in the morning, but that’s how The Hunger Games started.

    There have been many well-written characters who are adults in MG (Snape, ahem). I think what readers don’t want would be for an adult character to be the one who solves the problem or conflict for the younger characters, or for this adult to somehow be the preachy “let me show you how to do it right because I’m older than you and so I know better” kind of character. Unless this kind of character is meant to be that character for readers to roll their eyes at, LOL.

    I’ve noticed a number of successful MG books where the kids outsmart the adults (e.g. Holes, The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Lightning Thief), so maybe that’s something that can be considered a trope, and it can give people another purpose for incorporating an adult into a MG book.

  16. I think your post points out an important flaw in genre categories. Try as we might, it’s really hard to push every book into a neat little package. And honestly, the best books defy genre.

  17. mshatch says:

    This is so true. Just think of Mr. and Mrs Weasely; who wouldn’t want them for parents? Not to mention the Dursleys, whose every terror we delight in…and my question would’ve been (had I been one of your students), are we going to see more of Tegan?

  18. Surely this is a site well worth seeing.

  19. Tiana Smith says:

    I think if you write a good book – you almost HAVE to break some of the “rules”.

  20. Lexa Cain says:

    I can see YA characters in an MG book – adult characters are more of a stretch unless it’s a fantasy and the adult characters are witches, royalty or “elves” who work at Santa Command. But I’ve seen other writers doing coming-of-age stories with the POV of adult characters with adult problems (like marriage or office problems) that just don’t work in MG.

  21. Same thing publishers say about YA books. It is ridiculous and sadly teens who want to read about grown up characters sometimes have to turn to books not age appropriate for them.

  22. I love watching an author break a rule so awesomely that it just has to be accepted. 🙂
    Deb@ http://debioneille.blogspot.com