Young Adult vs. New Adult – What’s the real difference?

young adult or new adult on blackboardAll these categories: Young Adult, New Adult, Adult… it can get confusing. Some may have graphic sex, some don’t, some shouldn’t. They all target different age groups. How can someone tell the difference?

Because of all the confusion, there have been many articles written about this and there’s even a Wiki page explaining what the New Adult genre actually is. Since I’ve written in both genres, I’m going to give you my own take on what I think YA vs. NA really means.

The easiest way to break this down will be to list what I think a reader should expect from each genre, and since I’m all about bullet points in my articles…here we go!

Young Adult
This genre has been made widely popular over the last decade or so, and many adult readers have come to love it just as much as teens…and that’s my first point.

YA novels may be read by all but they are written for teens, and that spawns the main differences to NA.

  • Characters’ Ages: Usually anywhere from 14 – 18 years of age
  • Situations: The teenage characters are facing “high school” type situations. They usually have to deal with parents or some other authority figure. The stories tend to revolve around teenage issues, many of them touching on those precious coming of age moments that so many teens face.
  • Language: There is swearing in these books, but it is usually milder as writers are aware of their audience.
  • Sex: There can be sex in YA novels, but it’s usually only mentioned and the physical details are simply touched on, not given in full detail. If the characters do have sex, the reader is offered more of an emotional ride rather than a graphic painting of the event.
  • Voice: The voice in these books is younger, more carefree; the weight of responsibility does not sit as heavily on these characters’ shoulders. Don’t you remember feeling invincible as a teen? Like nothing could really touch you, because you hadn’t lived long enough to be burned yet? YA novels are usually the teenage characters’ first taste of fire. It’s their first real love, their first full-blown betrayal. Whatever the crisis may be, it’s taking them from a point of innocent childhood and giving them a small piece of what awaits in the future. They may not be aware of it at the time, but these characters are being made battle-ready for adulthood.
  • Lessons Learned: As I mentioned above, the lessons learned, those sweet coming of age moments, are the ones we take with us into the future, but at the time, the future is usually the last thing on the characters’ minds. It’s all about the here and now. I’m not saying all teenage characters don’t think about the future. That’s not true. Some of my YA characters think ahead to where they might end up, but it’s usually with rose-tinted lenses as they still believe they can be whatever they want – if only they could get out of school, home or whatever is dragging them down.

Now let’s transition into NA where these characters are actually out of high school and home…

New Adult
In my opinion, this genre needed to be created. For one, you had teenage readers getting older and looking for more than just high school situations and romances, but weren’t yet ready to hang out in a totally adult world. You also had adults who were still keen on YA, but again, wanting a little more than what it had to offer and so NA was born and yay for me, because I LOVE NA fiction!

  • Character Ages: Usually between 18 – 25 years of age
  • Situations: These characters are now hitting the adult world and having to face situations on their own. They may be in college or getting their first real job. They may have moved out of home and are dealing with the different freedoms and pressures a lack of parents/authority figures brings. It’s a whole new ball game for these characters, and the burns and challenges they may encounter are much bigger, the risks so much greater. It can make for a more intense story.
  • Language: There seems to be no language barriers in NA. Characters can say whatever they like, so it’s really up to the comfort level of the author.
  • Sex: The same thing seems to go for the sex in NA. At one point, I think readers mistakenly thought NA meant page porn, but that’s not the case. Some NA novels are basically erotica, but they don’t have to be. Explicit sex scenes are not a requirement of NA fiction. I have read some awesome NA novels that have either no sex or fade to black type situations. They both work. I think one subtle difference between NA and YA sex scenes is that NA characters are more aware of their bodies. They aren’t afraid to recognize when they are being turned on and they’re more confident in exploring their sexuality.
  • Violence: I realize that I am a romance author and I’m always writing my articles from that viewpoint, so I just want to take a moment to touch on violence for all you readers who aren’t a fan of the good ol’ romance reads 😉 The same sorts of rules seem to apply. There can be violence in both YA and NA books, but the intensity and graphic nature of these scenes are amplified in NA…if the author wants them to be. I guess NA gives the authors who like to write really gritty stuff more freedom, because their readers can handle it.
  • Voice: As you would expect, the voice in NA should be more mature. They are facing much bigger issues and they’re often facing them with less support than YA characters have. The characters’ voices, insights and attitudes should reflect this. They are still learning, but they know more than a high-school teenager. They’ve quite possibly had their first taste of fire and are more hardened to the realities of the real world.
  • Lessons Learned: The lessons in NA novels are often life-changers. NA characters are dealing with things to do with their future – marriage, career choices, travel opportunities, families of their own. They are adults now, yet they still don’t quite feel like it. This is such an important transition time and I for one, learned SO much about myself at this age. A New Adult world is so much bigger, with so much more scope, and the lessons these characters learn need to reflect that. Their coming of age moments, rather than learning a little more about who they are, tend to lean towards actually deciding who they want to be and taking ownership of their life and their future.

I love both genres for different reasons and I can understand why the lines get blurred. There are many similarities, but you should be able to tell pretty quickly what you’re reading. If you’re a YA fan, don’t be afraid to try out NA, you’ll probably like it. As a writer, I’ve found myself leaning more towards that genre. In fact one of my YA series – The Masks Series, has made a natural transition into NA as my high school senior became a college freshman and is about to become a sophomore in the third book (Snake Eyes – due for release Jan 30th).  I never intended the series to become NA so I have kept the writing very clean and only used cussing to keep my characters authentic. My sex scenes and violence have erred towards the less descriptive and each of the main characters’ big moments have been more of an emotional ride than anything. I want my YA readers to be able to finish this series, so it’s been a tricky line to write on, but hopefully I’ve pulled it off.

Which genre do you prefer?

Author: Melissa Pearl

Melissa Pearl is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of multiple novels spanning a variety of genres, from YA fantasy and paranormal to romantic suspense, including award-winning novel, BETWIXT. For more on Melissa, visit her blog or her Amazon author page.

20 thoughts on “Young Adult vs. New Adult – What’s the real difference?”

  1. Melissa, I think you’ve nailed these definitions. Since I have written a memoir which I consider New Adult, here’s the million dollar question. How do you target this audience? “Young Adult” is listed quite often for promotions, but “New Adult” is still an elusive category, don’t you think?

    1. I think New Adult is becoming huge in certain areas. I think it’s about finding the blogger and FB page pool. There’s an FB page – What To Read After 50 Shades…and that promotes a ton of NA stuff…and there are plenty more just like it. I just did a take over in an FB group the other day – One Click Addict Support Group – they are a hugely NA audience 🙂

      1. Hmm…thanks for the suggestions, but my book is a memoir with light romance. I’m not sure these Facebook pages are a good fit – but I get the message. I’ll try to connect with groups that might be a better fit 🙂

  2. What do you do if you write a combination of both? We write young adult but our characters are 18 and older. There is no sex, or foul language but we do fight zombies, (not main focus) no blood guts and gore. With our latest book it does have a bit of cussing but only the first few pages. I guess we lean more towards the New Adult books than the young adult. hmmm. will have to do research on this. Thank you Melissa for the great article!

    1. You’re welcome, Wendy. I guess you could class yours as both. As I said my Masks Series started as YA and shifted into NA. The lines can be pretty blurred, but it might be worth promoting your stuff in both genres.

  3. Loved this article! I really love YA, but as you have noted, these lines do blur from time to time. I love the innocence–I don’t have to be concerned about coming up on bedroom scenes or mass murders. It’s a comfortable genre.

    You also nailed the definition of NA. My “kids” are in that age range–actually, my son is almost beyond it. I could see your description in both of them, in more or less degree. They don’t really fit completely though–my daughter prefers Lovecraft, while my son reads biotech research tomes. Funny how siblings can be so different in their interests.

  4. As far as my writing is concerned, you completely nailed it. I have one YA series and one NA series, and I can just tick off your checklist and they pretty well match.
    Now if we could only get Amazon, Goodreads, and the other industry decision makers to recognize and regularize the terminology.

    1. Yes – that would be good. I write romance and I’m definitely seeing a college-romance, new adult trend on Amazon, which is great.
      I’ve started using new adult as one of my keywords when publishing my books on Amazon. That helps get it into the right categories for me 🙂

  5. I recently started a young adult fiction class. We just spent some time looking at the start (1900s to about 1980) and will be moving into the 80s and 90s next week.

    The book we are using as the main focus is Young Adult Literature by Michael Cart.

  6. Thank you. This is helpful. I recently published a fairly dark and gritty coming-of-age novel with a 16-year-old (eventually 17-year-old) character, which may mean it doesn’t belong in either, especially when I see what comes up while browsing those categories on Amazon. Romances and dystopian sagas seem to dominate the listings. I ended up just sticking with coming-of-age and literary. I did try YA>dating and sex for a week just to see what would happen. Very little. 🙂

    1. Yes dystopian and sweet romances seem to dominate the YA scene, where as dark romance is doing really well in NA. May be worth changing the ages of your characters – although I know that’s a REALLY hard thing to do, when you’re book is already set and your storyline solid in your head 🙂

  7. Great clarification of the two genres. I see more self actualization in NA. The characters grow in more than one area-emotional, educational, career, family, sexual, relationship and that growth leads to some insight into the future. If a YA character becomes a seasoned adult with total understanding of their feelings and the world as a whole, I find that unrealistic. I’m also seeing some authors stretching NA to 26-27. #NALitChat on Thursday nights, 8pm on Twitter is a great way to interact with other NA writers. And their corresponding website: NA Alley is a great resource as well.

    1. Thanks – I’ll have to check those out. Yes – my Contemporary Romance series is NA, but some of my characters are in their late twenties. I still think the same rules apply even though they’re a little older. It takes some people longer to grow-up if you know what I mean 🙂

  8. Thank you so much Melissa for this new classification. NA is completely new to me. The YA category was blurred in my mind as to where the line is, especially when the main character in my trilogy is sixteen. But then she grows up in the next two novels.

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