YA or Adult: Finding the Emotional Core of Your Book

Recently I had a conversation with a fellow writer (hi Meg!) about how we’d both gone back and forth on whether our books worked better as YA or adult, and it got me thinking about how exactly those kinds of things are determined. There are lots of books on adult shelves I could easily see working as YA with a couple small tweaks and vice versa. Though a YA book should center on a teenager, there are plenty of adult books which do the same. YA books have the same capacity for dark, difficult and “adult” content as adult books do.

So, how do you decide?

In my case, you turn to two of your favorite TV shows: VERONICA MARS and IZOMBIE.

Yep, you heard me

Both are created by the same person–Rob Thomas (no not that one)–and both have a similar inciting incident for the main characters. Before the show begins, Veronica’s (VERONICA MARS) best friend, Lily, was murdered and in the ensuing investigation her father, the sheriff at the time, picked the wrong suspect–Lily’s father and one of the wealthiest, most influential people in town. Veronica’s father was subsequently fired as sheriff, and he and the once-popular Veronica became the town pariahs. Similarly, Liv (IZOMBIE) was attacked and infected with a virus that turned her into a zombie, ending her career as a doctor before it could even start, as well as her relationship with her fiancé.

And you thought GAME OF THRONES was intense

Both Liv and Veronica have had their lives turned upside down and are dealing with the fallout as best they can–as an unofficial police consultant and an unofficial P.I., respectively. But Liv’s story is very much an adult narrative while Veronica’s is YA, and though this is due in part to their ages, there’s more to it than that. VERONICA MARS is, in my opinion, a darker show than IZOMBIE. Both involve murder investigations, but with an alcoholic mother, an ex-boyfriend who may or may not also be her half-brother, and rape, to name a few, VERONICA MARS contends with some really tough topics. So why is that one YA?

The obvious reasons are that Veronica is a teenager (sixteen at the start of the show) and much of the story is set at a high school. Conversely, most of IZOMBIE is set at Liv’s job, i.e. the morgue or a crime scene/investigation. Of course, setting and situation is a much easier marker to go by when you’re writing in a contemporary world that looks like ours; things get trickier when you consider genre fiction, like SFF. The whole cast could be teenagers, but if they live in a high fantasy world where instead of worrying about school they worry about a terrible war and an unfolding prophecy (hi Katy!), then that’s not as cut and dry.

I want to make a point that the age of your character(s) is important–if the book is YA, the main character needs to be a teenager and a good amount of the other characters should be too. An adult book, however, could center on a teenager, but it’s going to feel different than a YA book centered on a teenager.

What do I mean by that?

I think what it comes down to, using Veronica and Liv as examples, is the characters’ perspectives. Not simply that of a teenager in high school and an adult in the “real world”, but their emotional perspectives.

After everything she’s been through, Veronica feels like it’s her against the world. She’s lost her innocence in more ways than one, and she’s dealing with a much crueler world than the one she’s known. She’s taken it upon herself to fight against this darkness, to fight for justice and for truth, and though internally she struggles with her identity as an outsider, she also embraces it. Partly, I think, because the world she sees is not one she’s interested in occupying.

No hard feelings V, the world is a sh*t show rn

Liv, too, has been introduced to a very different, and potentially darker, world than the one she knew before–a world where zombies exist and instead of saving lives, she solves murders. However, she isn’t struggling against this world so much as trying to find her place in it. She’s navigating how to live as a zombie, how to use this terrible thing that happened to her for a good purpose, how to have relationships both romantic and platonic, and so on. Liv is also an outsider, but she wants nothing more than to find her way back in–she just doesn’t quite know how.

Adulting is hard, okay??

I think this reflects the emotional core of a YA story vs. an adult one; teenagers, though definitely concerned with belonging, are often on a journey of self-discovery. They are figuring out who they are, often in opposition, rather than relation, to the world around them. A twenty-to-thirty-something adult is dealing with a different kind of identity crisis. They might know who they are, or are starting to, but they don’t yet know their place in the world.

Furthermore, I think a good YA book or series will end with the main character(s) on the verge of an adult journey. They will have figured out who they are, and now they are on the threshold of figuring out where they belong. (This is of course an idea/opinion, and not in any way a fact–just something I’ve noticed in the YA books that I’ve felt had a satisfying ending).

Obviously there are many other factors to consider, but I think nailing down the basic emotional core of your main character’s journey is a great way to determine if it’s YA or adult–is she figuring out who she is, or where she fits?

It’s not *that* simple but it’s a start!

If you have any thoughts on this, please leave a comment below! I’d love to hear your take.

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