On writing adult vs YA fantasy

And how to nudge a novel more firmly into adult

Sometimes, it can be tricky to pinpoint the difference between YA and adult fantasy when you’re in the middle of writing, especially if you happen to read both. I hope this post helps you, whether you’re drafting (or revising) a novel you’d like to slot nicely into either YA or adult, or if you’re specifically aiming for that murky bur fun crossover category in between (which, by the way, is what I did with The Witch’s Compendium of Monsters books). But mostly, this post will focus on nudging a manuscript into the adult category if you write fantasy. This is something I have experience with, and something I felt qualified to talk about after discussing the issue with other writers.

This is a craft-oriented post. I’m aware that YA is, predominantly, a marketing category. Some books that could have been adult are sold as YA, and vice versa. However, I’m not a marketing expert in the slightest—I’m a reader and a writer, so all I can talk about is how to write a book so it’s more likely to end up in the category you want it to.

YA author Alexa Donne famously said that ‘you know YA when you see it’. Still, there are certain things about the genre that are prerequisite: teenaged protagonists, a coming-of-age story, themes centred around finding your place in the world. The problem in determining whether what you have on your hands is adult or YA fantasy comes from the fact that all of those have also been staples of the fantasy genre for many years. Wheel of Time? The Belgariad? The Name of the Wind? All coming-of-age stories with teenaged protagonists.

So, what do we have left? Some would point to fast pacing and strong voice as common signifiers of YA. But as YA fantasy readers are growing up (and adult YA fantasy readers realise adult fantasy has just as much to offer), these traits are starting to seep into adult fantasy more and more. As a reader of both YA and adult, I’m all here for it. Give me more adult fantasy with the voice of Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth and the pacing of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale.

Other things more characteristic of YA compared to adult fantasy include first person POV and a shorter word count. But adult fantasy is a vast genre with a rich history—and plenty of books have a first person POV and/or a shorter word count.

Finally, I’ll point out the obvious: the easiest way to age up your manuscript is to age up your characters. A YA novel can’t have characters who aren’t young adults, usually aged between 15 and 18. However, this is just the first step: making your characters older would do nothing if you’re still writing in a teenager’s voice. Plus, as discussed above, adult novels can have teenaged protagonists.

I believe we need to dig deeper. And that’s exactly what I’ll do.

Narrative distance

When writing YA, you should put as little narrative distance between your protagonist and your reader as possible. The point of view in YA tends to be very close and immediate. This is why YA books are frequently told in first person—first person present tense in particular is common in YA and unusual in adult.

In adult, you can afford to take a step back and be more reflective. The lens can shift slightly to having the protagonist reflect on their journey from when they were younger: even when your protagonist is a teenager, the story is approached through the perspective of an adult.

If it fits your narrative style, you can even have it spelled out on the page: “oh, I was so young and foolish then, and I didn’t know what was coming for me”… This is especially effective when pushing a story with a teenaged protagonists into adult (see, for example, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind).

A wee note here: absolutely never, under any circumstances, suggest that teenagers are young and foolish if you’re aiming at the YA market.

Additionally, in adult, you can get away with occasional instances of third person omniscient. A good example is Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: it’s a classic girl meets boy, boy turns out to be the god of death, sort of story. The protagonist, the pacing, and the themes are all suitable for a YA novel. However, the author occasionally slips into third person omniscient to build up tension or to aid characterisation, such as here:

Like many young people, ultimately she saw herself as a completely new creature, a creation that had sprung from no ancient soils.

(this passage conveniently also illustrates my previous point)

This ultimately made Moreno-Garcia and her publisher decide to publish the story as adult (she talks about it here). I’m not saying you can’t have third person omniscient in a YA novel: you’re the writer. All I’m saying is that if award-winning, bestselling author Silvia Moreno-Garcia wouldn’t risk it, I wouldn’t either.

Character motivation

While fast pacing doesn’t necessarily make a novel YA, one way to make a novel more adult is to slow down—and really dig deeper into character motivation. Adult novels often read denser. There’s more inner monologue, more reflection, more mulling over every decision, to the point that, to a YA reader, it might appear that for paragraphs “nothing happens”. What happens is characterisation with little plot progression—something that adult readers tend to be more tolerant to.

Conversely, if you’re writing YA, you can have characters make decisions faster, without spending too long considering the reasons—or the consequences. This is something that in the video linked above, Alexa refers to as ‘stupid YA heroine syndrome’. While harsh, there is some truth to it: the combination of faster pacing and the emotions running high in YA (see below) often leads to the protagonist making some… questionable decisions. And in YA, that’s fine! Tell me you didn’t do anything stupid as a teen.


Related to the slower pacing, in adult, you can afford more setting-building. I’m not saying you should write a prologue detailing the history of the world ever since the Great War 23000 years ago (please don’t). What I’m saying is, if you find the right place pacing-wise, you can afford to stop for a paragraph or two to showcase a specific aspect of your world, be it politics, religion, economy, or environment. In epic fantasy in particular, readers are very used to it and often expect it. More detail-oriented readers will call you out on aspects of your world that don’t quite add up, so you have to explain anything glaring. In general, you can be more self-indulgent in your world building when writing adult.

In YA fantasy, you still need to have a coherent, interesting world—but you shouldn’t be slowing down quite as much for the sole purpose of world building. World building tends to be introduced only when it becomes relevant to the plot. Due to YA’s faster pace, every scene (and paragraph) needs to do as much heavy lifting as possible: for example, even if you’re describing an aspect of your world, you should also sneak in some characterisation. Having multi-purpose scenes and paragraphs is, I feel, good practice for any writing, but it’s particularly important in YA.


In YA, there’s a constant sense of very high emotional stakes. Since teenagers are only just encountering things like love and betrayal and ruined friendships for the first time, everything feels like a really big deal. Emotions tend to be very strong and very pure, and from an adult point of view, often crossing the line into melodramatic. Characters often examine their emotions on the page by describing how exactly they affect their body (“my hands curled into fists”, “disgust stirred in my stomach”).

In adult, the emotions tend to be conveyed with more inner monologue, self-reflection, and rationalisation. Characters could describe how they feel, sometimes with similar body language cues, but they can also examine their feelings on the page and try to determine what exactly affected them so strongly. Additionally, things that would be big dramatic moments in a YA novel, can be seen as more mundane by an adult. Finding out the boy you fancy is secretly the Dark Lord would be traumatic at any age, but an adult would have a frame of reference and experience with similar situations (I mean, who hasn’t fallen in love with a Dark Lord before). They would, therefore, deal with the situation more rationally.

If you’re trying to push your manuscript more firmly into adult, I’d watch out for emotional moments and try to assess how an adult would react to them. Conversely, if you’re aiming for YA, try to punch up the emotions without slowing down to reflect on them too much.


This ties in with the previous point. Whether it’s friendship, romance, or family, your characters will react differently in adult compared to YA. As a rule of thumb, adult characters tend to be more reserved than teenaged characters.


In YA, romance is often central to the plot, and it can read more naïve than in adult: your protagonist and the love interest meet, they flirt for a bit, they kiss, BOOM he’s my soulmate now. As discussed above, this is most likely one of the first times your characters have experienced romantic feelings, and they’re experiencing them strongly. Every little bump in the relationship is a big deal. Every little miscommunication leads to big problems.

In adult, you can have a romance develop more slowly. You can have the POV character having certain ‘baggage’ from previous relationships that makes them more conscious. You can have casual relationships and kisses that don’t mean anything earthshattering. Even when romance is central to the plot, it tends to develop more slowly and require more build-up before your characters fall in love. I also feel than in adult, building tension on the back of a simple miscommunication is less permissible. People in adult relationships tend to approach issues differently, and in general, are more likely to communicate.

Parents/parental figures

Another type of relationship to pay close attention to is how your characters interact with their parents, other parental figures, and people in positions of power. Teenaged characters can be more dismissive and argumentative towards their parents and other parental figures. The parents, when they’re alive (which is admittedly rare) can take on the role of obstacles: forbidding the protagonist from doing whatever (stupid and dangerous) thing they were planning to do.

By the time our characters are grown-ups, they’ve made some sort of peace with their parental figures, or if not, they’ve cut them off. Parents aren’t often a direct source of tension in adult, but could be an indirect one (such as a parent growing older and needing to be taken care of).

Sex, violence, and swearing

This is something that people unfamiliar with YA often point to: if you want to make your book more adult, add a sex scene! Or a murder! Or a character with a dirty mouth!

Obviously, this is not how it works. A YA novel doesn’t become adult simply because of a sex scene—just ask Sarah J Maas (though I’ve been told ACOTAR is often classified as adult nowadays). Some YA novels focus on very dark themes, including drugs and violence. Moreover, there are plenty of adult novels that don’t feature any of these themes.

However, there is a nugget of truth here: you can get darker, more violent and bloody, and/or more sexual in an adult novel than you can in a novel aimed at teenagers. While in a YA novel sex scenes are usually fade-to-black, you can be as explicit as you want in adult. Same goes for graphic violence. Ultimately, when writing adult, you don’t have to worry about upsetting parents or getting banned from school libraries, which gives you more freedom in terms of content.


This one feels obvious, really: adults and teenagers care about different things. Tying this to my previous points, teenagers tend to put a lot of importance on firsts: first kiss, first love, first fight. There is a lot of social pressure and a lot of insecurity tied to growing up, and younger people have less experience handling those. So, YA books are, by definition, coming of age stories about young people finding their place in the world.

Adult novels, on the other hand, can have a variety of themes—but many of them would not resonate with younger readers in the same way they’d resonate with adults. Books centring parenthood are unlikely to appeal to teens, and so are books about characters looking back on their childhood or youth with nostalgia, feeling like running out of time and experiencing mid-life crisis, worrying about career progression and planning for retirement. For example, an old adventurer looking to hang up their swords and open a pub is a valid plot in adult; however, a young adventurer tired of adventuring won’t resonate the same way with a YA audience who are still hungry to experience the world.

When trying to determine the age category of your novel, looking at your themes and whether those would appeal to adults or teens can be helpful.


Finally, there’s one obvious issue I haven’t mentioned above: female-presenting authors often get slotted into the YA category by readers, even when the book they’ve written is adult. This is a whole other can of worms I won’t delve into here, but I’m hoping that as the fantasy genre grows and becomes even more inclusive, this is a problem that will ultimately fade away.

Let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed, or if you have any other thoughts and ideas. This is all purely based on my own experience as a reader of YA and adult fantasy, and as a writer of adult (crossover) fantasy. Your experience might differ, and if it does, I’d love to hear about it.

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