Genres exist to not only give your writing direction, but to also make it easier for publishers to give readers a sense of the story they’ll be reading. Along with bestselling genres like romance, mystery/thriller, and fantasy, there are meta-classifications that are based on the age of the reader. From children’s, to middle grade, to young adult, to new adult, and adult, the elements you include in your fantasy story will vary depending on who your audience is.
A lot of traits can shift your writing up or down age groups. The vocabulary you use can make your young adult story an adult one, and mature themes can take your middle grade novel to young adult territory, for instance. In addition to the content, there are also logistical considerations to make when writing with an audience in mind, such as word count.
Although you can and should let your imagination run wild when writing fantasy, there are some choices you should make regarding the ages of your readers.
Your target age is going to be 8 and under.
In general, fantasy for children is lighthearted, fun, and entertaining. Children are already highly imaginative at a young age, and introducing them to fantasy books can not only feed their creativity, but it can also promote a lifelong love of reading. Characters tend to possess something special in these books, like a power or a magic object. Other worlds and superpowers, whimsical nature, and a sense of wonder and awe are particularly appealing to this age group.
Hints for writing a story that will sell to younger readers:
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the younger the reader, the less sophisticated the prose will be. Children are still learning languages, understanding grammar and syntax, and getting an idea of how a sentence is written so that the story moves forward.
One of the most common mistakes writers make is confusing “simple writing” with “bad writing.” Using simpler words that convey what you want to say is perfectly fine, but using the same word three times in a paragraph can become redundant.
Younger readers like reading about characters who are two or three years older than them. They want to read about what’s ahead and how these characters handle problems they’re currently facing or anticipate facing. Try to include characters in your fantasy story that are experiencing the same things as your intended reader, using fantastical elements as a way to heighten or explore those difficulties.
People read and connect with stories that are important to them in the moment. What’s important to a 10-year-old is going to be a lot different from a 15-year-old. Your fantasy novel should not only reflect this, but also mold its plot elements around those age-appropriate concerns. Are you including dragons? A middle grade novel will likely use the dragon to explore parental relationships or school troubles, whereas a young adult novel will use the dragon in a more introspective way and symbolize the protagonist’s thoughts and reflections.
Middle Grade Fantasy
Your target audience is going to be between the ages of 8-12.
These books have a strong focus on friendship, family, and the protagonist’s relationship to the world with minimal self-reflection. They will not include profanity, graphic violence, and sexuality. Romance, if present, is limited to a crush or a first kiss.
Some fantasy subgenres that are commonly used to explore these themes include portal fantasy (The Chronicles of Narnia), contemporary fantasy (Percy Jackson), and magical realism (Crenshaw).
Word count: 30, 000 – 55,000 words
Young Adult (YA) Fantasy
Your target audience is going to be between the ages of 12-18.
Generally, YA fantasy books feature teenage characters, grittier settings, darker themes, more intense violence or action scenes, and mature subject matter. YA fantasy novels typically include a romantic element of some sort since teenagers are exploring relationships, experiencing strong emotions, and trying to fit into larger social groups. Most YA fantasy novels are also coming-of-age books that use fantastical elements to explore identity.
Some subgenres of young adult fantasy include paranormal fantasy, steampunk fantasy, and urban fantasy, but your fantasy novel can be any subgenre as long as other age expectations are met. There is a variable amount of magical and violent elements, as the most important characteristics of YA fantasy are the characters and plot complexity.
Word count for YA fantasy: 75,000 – 95,000 words
Your target audience is going to be anyone over the age of 18.
One of the key characteristics that distinguishes the adult fantasy genre is the length. Adult fantasy normally includes subgenres like epic or high fantasy, dark fantasy, and low fantasy. Think of The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire. These book series spend chapters creating an intricate and highly complex world.
Adult fantasy addresses large, world-affecting problems (a dark lord, the end of the world, ancient magic that wipes out humanity) and inherently follows the quest storyline. The fantastical elements are most fleshed out in adult fantasy, often at the expense of characterization and plot development. It’s important to find the right balance between your other narrative techniques—not just your fantastical ones—when deciding which audience you’re writing for.
Word count: 90,000 – 120,000
No matter who you’re telling a story to, remember this: you must tell a story that will mean something to your reader. And to do that, you must know who your reader is.
is an avid reader and passionate writer from Colorado. She studied creative writing and journalism at the University of Denver and graduated in 2021. She has worked with the Denver Quarterly literary journal, written for the DU Clarion, and currently works with Spring Cedars Publishing.