When it comes to choosing a category for your novel, things can become a little challenging, especially with the rise of new adult fiction, the category that bridges the gap between young adult and adult fiction.
Figuring out the differences between these three can be a challenge in itself and one that takes some time to get your head around.
So, follow along and hopefully by the end of this article, you’ll have more of an insight into the differences you should consider when writing young adult, new adult or adult fiction.
It's no secret that extra care needs to be taken when writing young adult fiction with an adult mind, or when writing adult fiction with common misconceptions. For instance, when we think about 'adult fiction', we sometimes conjure up the graphic and sensitive images often associated with it, while young adult fiction is usually associated with a younger, more naïve point of view.
For example, you can have a romance novel for adults that isn’t full of erotica, such as The Accidental Beauty Queen by Teri Wilson, and you can have a gritty YA book that incorporates sexual themes, like Doing It by Melvin Burgess.
Why is that if YA books are typically lighter and adult books are often considered heavier?
Well, it depends on the characters, the plotline, the themes and how heavy those themes are. Teenagers aren’t likely to find a comical romance between two adults interesting (some might, but publishers know the majority won’t relate to it) and a YA novel with sexual themes will be censored for a younger audience, keeping graphics and explicit content to a minimum.
However, although the category of your novel can sometimes depend on the ages of your characters, as mentioned above, you shouldn’t always categorise your novel in that way.
For example, if you wrote a book that follows a five-year-old boy who narrates his experiences in a poorer part of his country that exposed him to violence, abuse, drugs, and alcohol at a young age, then that book may not be suited for younger audiences and would automatically be labelled adult fiction due to the heavy themes, much like the memoirs that tackle child abuse written by Torey Hayden.
On the other hand, if you wrote a fantasy story about a new race of adult creatures (like Hobbits) who explore the dystopian world beyond their door and come across new experiences that the majority of teens could relate to, then that book could potentially be labelled as young adult fiction, much like how The Hobbit is marketed for middle-grade readers.
The best and easiest way to understand the differences between young adult and adult fiction would be to look at all the themes they include, because as mentioned above, genres and categories are different. While the genre follows the plot and storyline, the category deals with the target audience and how it coincides with the characters and themes of the book.
That being said, let's dive into the different categories and see what sets them apart from each other.
1. Middle-Grade Fiction
Just like its name suggests, middle-grade fiction is targeted at a young audience aged 8-12, and the characters are usually around the ages of 9-13. The main themes in middle-grade books include friendship, family, growth, school experiences, and physical changes, which are apparent in many of the most popular middle-grade books, such as the Harry Potter series, Matilda by Roald Dahl, and Coraline by Neil Gaiman.
However, some middle-grade books include mature themes in the story, such as the use of substance abuse in Life in the Balance by Jen Pedro-Roy, the themes are just severely watered down to cater for young readers. Romance often occurs in middle-grade fiction as well, but it’s often limited to a first kiss or a crush, like Percy and Annabeth’s relationship in the Percy Jackson series.
2. Young Adult Fiction
Young adult fiction is incredibly popular, not just with teenagers but with adults too, mainly because YA books act as an escape, particularly those that fall into the fantasy or science fiction genre.
The characters are usually thirteen to seventeen, and often have a fresh, 'heart first, brain later' attitude to mirror the way many teenagers tend to think, and they tend to be inexperienced and driven by their emotions.
Teen characters are also likely to be figuring things out about themselves for the first time, unlearning trauma, and discovering the way of the world as they go, bringing a sense of naivety to the category. For example, romance in YA fiction usually surrounds a first relationship, a crush, or a first heartbreak without focusing too heavily on the sexual aspect of it, such as in Paper Towns by John Green.
However, depending on the type of YA book, heavier themes can make an appearance, especially if the novel focuses on real life rather than fantasy or science fiction. For example, Junk by Melvin Burgess is quite a gritty story that delves into the world of heroin and the effects it can have on young people, their families, and their future.
3. New Adult Fiction
New adult fiction is targeted more at older teenagers who are at college or university and can feature characters aged eighteen to thirty (although it’s best to feature characters aged eighteen to twenty-five to make them more relatable).
The category explores the main character embarking on adult-like journeys for the first time, therefore, the dominating theme of this genre is entering adulthood, but can also discuss second experiences, self-dependency, and navigating the world as an adult.
While new adult fiction is a relatively new genre, it’s often called the bridge genre between young adult and adult fiction because there's a lot of overlap between all three.
Though new adult fiction can definitely, and oftentimes does, talk about heavier, more sensitive topics seen more in adult books, such as drugs, alcohol, sex and exploring sexuality, it doesn’t necessarily have to and can focus on other themes. For example, Red, White & Royal Blue focuses on the royal relationship between two elites.
Although characters in new adult fiction have more experience than characters in middle-grade or young adult novels, they can still be relatively young and inexperienced, especially if the story focuses on a new adult venturing out into the world for the first time, so they can sometimes be more emotion-driven and leap with their heart first into situations. When put in this perspective, it's easy to see which elements overlap between the categories.
4. Adult Fiction
You're probably wondering which themes and tropes appear in adult fiction that haven't been mentioned before, and the answer is simple: it's everything else and sometimes heavier.
If a theme or trope hasn’t been mentioned yet, then it more than likely falls into adult fiction, which is targeted at people over twenty-five and deals a lot more with the mature themes that are prohibited from all the other categories, especially middle-grade and young adult fiction.
For example, adult fiction can include explicit scenes of rape, sexual assault, physical abuse, trafficking, substance-taking, crime, psychology, warfare, and erotica. However, it should be noted that while adult fiction may include these themes, not all of them do.
Now the categories have been divided into bite-sized sections, understanding the differences between young adult and adult fiction should come a little easier.
But the next question is, how does an aspiring author go about writing young adult fiction versus adult fiction?
Well, when writing young adult fiction, it's important to note the lack of experience that teenagers typically have. They're just leaving childhood and stepping into their teen years, and while their hearts may not be as full as when they were kids, some of them still see the world and its people for the good it offers.
However, they also have a little more experience and knowledge than younger children, so they're a bit more calculated. As a result, they may be more inclined to worry about the consequences of the actions they’ve made without much forethought. While they may be more logical than children, many teenagers are emotional and still figuring out the world around them, including their place in it.
On the other hand, characters in adult fiction tend to be more experienced and think logically, but it’s also important to remember that some adult characters may not be – it all depends on the character you’ve created and their background.
For example, you could write a novel about a twenty-five-year-old woman who still doesn't know much about the darkness of the world and therefore gets lured into an abusive situation. This example can only fall into the category of adult fiction, because as mentioned before, writing adult fiction pretty much covers all of the heavier topics that are too sensitive for younger audiences.
When it comes to choosing the category your book falls into, the age of the character doesn’t always matter, even if the general advice out there tells you to market your book based on the age of your characters. As a result, you must take the themes, and their extremity, into consideration when writing young adult or adult fiction.
A general rule of thumb is to evaluate the story's tone and mood. Anything light with young characters will likely end up in middle-grade fiction; something that focuses on teenage issues with teenage characters will fall into young adult; anything heavier that discusses first-time adult experiences goes into the new adult category, and the heaviest themes, or the themes that won’t resonate with younger readers (e.g., adult relationships, family sagas, politics, specific types of history, etc.) despite the age of the characters, is meant for no other category bar adult fiction.
By using this system of classification, it should become easier to categorise your novel!
I hope you’ve found this post helpful! If so, be sure to like, comment and share so it can reach more aspiring authors like you!
Hey! I'm Chelsea and I'm a professional book editor at Stand Corrected Editing, my independent editorial business in the UK. If you would like to have your manuscript thoroughly edited by myself, please get in touch!
With my book editing and proofreading services, I hope to spread my knowledge and expertise on how to make your novel a success, and be a mentor to others who desperately want to pursue a fruitful career as an author!