YA and Adult Epic Fantasy: What’s the difference?

So I recently moved across the country and in the process of getting to know people, I’ve often been asked what sort of books I read or what my favorite books are—you know, the normal questions avid readers get when getting to know new people. I have no problem rattling off recent favorite titles and I’m not ashamed to tell people that I read a lot of YA fantasy these days.

But having this conversation so often in such a short span of time has got me thinking: what exactly is the difference between a YA fantasy novel and an adult fantasy novel? Why have the people I talked to been so accepting of my adult fantasy tastes but always give me odd looks when I tell them about my favorite YA fantasies?

Now, I’ve taken classes on YA literature and as a connoisseur of YA books, I know all sorts answers to these questions. Adults who read YA are immature or suffering from a Peter Pan complex. YA and adult books are perceived as being fundamentally different. The age of the protagonists. The length of the book. The pacing. The themes.

But so much of that is flexible. Plenty of adult fantasy novels feature teenage protagonists. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books come to mind, as Vin is only sixteen in those books. Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle might also fit into that category, because even though the story is framed by adult Kvothe, it’s primarily about young adult Kvothe. Karen Memory, the adult steampunk novel I’m currently reading, is about a teenage girl, but it’s still considered an adult novel.

But, you say, there’s still length and pacing and thematic elements to consider while determining the difference between adult and young adult, and I will grant you all those things. Sanderson and Rothfuss and George R.R. Martin—all staples of the adult fantasy market these days—have long books that sometimes feel like they’re plodding along and Martin’s work certainly has dark enough thematic elements that I’d think twice about handing it to my teenage sister. (Though to be fair, I’d think twice about handing it to any of my sisters, but different strokes for different folks and all that. I just don’t think that those books would appeal to any of my family members.)

Pacing and themes and length, however, also don’t solely determine what’s YA and what’s adult. Since Sanderson broke into the YA scene with The Rithmatist and Steelheart, both released in 2013, I’ve noticed that Mistborn has been rebranded as a YA book. It’s on the shelves as a new YA release at my local Barnes and Noble. I don’t have a problem with this, mind you. I think Mistborn, along with a lot of other adult fantasy novels, hold a lot of appeal for teenagers. In fact, as a teenager, I read far more adult fantasy novels than I do now. I think we should encourage cross-over books like this. We should encourage people to explore young adult and adult books equally.

YA cover art for Mistborn sampaints.com

I think my problem comes when we sort of brush of YA books as “lesser” or when we don’t treat YA epic fantasies with the same respect we treat adult epic fantasies. This is nothing new, of course. Every couple of months, there’s some think piece about how adults should be ashamed of reading YA and then there’s a barrage of rebuttals extolling the virtues of young adult literature. I’ve even written one of those rebuttals. This is a conversation I’m used to having, but I think it’s one that we need to keep having. Because when I talk to new people and we start talking about books and start recommending titles to each other, I am always braced for the sneering and snubbing of my favorite YA fantasy titles, even when they’re as deep and well-developed and nuanced as adult fantasy novels.

Take, for instance, Robin LaFevers His Fair Assassin books. I read the first book, Grave Mercy, not long after it came out because Tricia and Megan recommended it to me, telling me that it was a book about assassin nuns. How could I resist? And I fell in love with these books. If you’re looking for a medieval fantasy and you haven’t read those books, go now. Stop reading this post and go buy the first book. You’ll thank me. These books are filled with depth and character and political intrigue and clashing religions. The world building in these books is spot on and the research LaFevers has done to make these books accurate to the time period is exhausting. Each book has an afterward in which she talks about the historical context—what she’s changed for her own uses and what she kept the same—and she even talks about historically accurate language. I believe at one point she apologizes using the word saboteur because the word hadn’t been invented in the time period the book takes place. This woman knows her stuff and I am in awe of her.

image from girlslife.com

And if you think YA fantasy novels can’t be as dark or “edgy” as their adult counterparts, let me introduce you to Dark Triumph, the second book in the series. Dark Triumph is the sort of book I hand to people with a warning. It involves abusive family relationships, incestuous relationships, the violent murder of a newborn in front of the baby’s mother, and the effects growing up in that environment has on mental health and personal identity. This book doesn’t pull its punches. The threat of rape and violence against women—which George R.R. Martin insists that he includes for “historical accuracy”—is very much present in this book, but unlike in Martin’s books, women rise and triumph over this misogyny. Sybella, the protagonist of Dark Triumph, begins a journey of healing and recovery and self-discovery in that book and despite all the dark, horrible things that take place between the cover of that book, it ends on a note of hope.

And perhaps that is the real difference between adult fantasy and young adult fantasy. No matter how dark the journey contained in a young adult book, they almost always tend to end on a note of triumph and hope. Good wins over evil. People—both good and bad—get what they deserve in the end. No matter how close the world came to ending, balance is always restored.

This isn’t to say that adult fantasy novels all end in tragedy, but I think perhaps adult fantasy novels tend to sacrifice some optimism in exchange for “realism” or “accuracy.” And maybe other readers will think that, as an adult, I need to open my eyes and be aware of the “real world” and develop cynicism to wear as a shield, but I think I’ll stick with YA optimism, thank you very much.

The other big difference I keep coming back to between YA fantasy and adult fantasy, though, is the gender of the protagonist (and often the gender of the writer as well). I have made no effort to hide my undying love for Tamora Pierce’s YA fantasy novels, but I have never once found an adult fantasy novel with such well done female characters. I’m sure those books are out there and some of my favorite lady authors write adult fantasy featuring complex lady characters, but I don’t think I’ve ever found an adult fantasy where girls and women are the heroes of the story full stop. (If you, dear reader, have any recommendations for adult fantasy novels were ladies are the focal point, I’d love to hear it!) In most of the adult books I’ve read, the protagonist has been a man, but usually with a kick-ass woman at his side to help him complete his journey. But it’s his journey, not hers.

In YA, we have dozens and dozens of books that are about girls’ journeys. The works of Tamora Pierce and Robin LaFevers and Rae Carson and Sarah J Maas are all about the paths and journeys of girls and women. The focal character is someone like me and I like that. I like it a lot. I like seeing girls framed as heroes. I like seeing girls saving the day and falling in love at the end. I like seeing girls work with other girls to build a better future for themselves. In Rae Carson’s Fire and Thorns series, I literally got shivers when I read about Elisa and Alodia and Cosme meeting together as leaders of their countries because I had never read a story where not one but three positions of world power were held by girls.

I’ve spent a lot of my time reading books about boys and men going off on grand adventures and while I’ve enjoyed those stories, they don’t resonate with me the way stories about girls and women do—and that’s not something I’m ashamed of.

Avoid Cliches Like the Plague


Page One Literary Center


More often than not, I find myself having to reject manuscripts due to clichéd writing. Since it’s one of the most common things I see in the slush pile, I thought I’d talk about it so other writers can avoid it.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about occasional clichéd sentences, like “I was so scared that my blood turned to ice in my veins” or “I needed to avoid him like the plague” or other commonly used metaphors and similes. Such uses are often effective when used sparingly and at the right moments. They’re often the quickest way to get your meaning across.

And I’m not talking about tropes found within specific genres (because each individual use of a trope should be unique even if it’s the same type of situation), like the damsel in distress or the chosen one or the guy gets the girl.

I’m talking more about the scene level. Specific scenes that aren’t accomplishing anything new in the story, yet are included anyway. Let’s talk about the most common ones that I see.

  1. The main character describing herself by looking in a mirror.

I swear some people put a mirror into the scene just for the sake of describing their MC. But there are thousands of ways to describe a character without doing this. You can do it through dialogue. You can have the MC outright state it. You can have your character have a bad hair day. Whatever. The important thing is that the descriptions enter the text naturally. Don’t make it sound like you’re trying too hard.

  1. The school scene

In contemporary YA manuscripts, unexperienced authors often feel the need to lay out the main character’s entire schedule. Then we have to watch him go through the whole schedule. Such scenes add nothing to the plot. They only give us minor details and go into great detail about the setup of desks in a math classroom or the posters found in the chemistry room. I don’t care how beautiful the author’s writing is. If he’s describing something that I’ve seen a hundred times, I’ll find it boring.

  1. Excessive use of a character’s name

In first person POV, when introducing the main character’s name, a side character will tack her name at the end of a line of dialogue. But then another character does it. And another. And another. When people talk to each other in real life, they rarely use each other’s names. Only if we’re trying to get their attention.

  1. Bringing a character from our world to a new world

Now this can be argued as being a trope, but this bugs me in certain genres. In middle grade, it’s okay. Do it all you want. For YA and above, I see it as a no, no. It’s cheating. It’s a way to introduce your world building to a character unfamiliar with the new world. I am so sick of reading about the disbelief of the main character and waiting for her to catch up with everyone already a part of the new world. There’s no reason not to just have your main character be a part of the new world already. There are other ways to show the world building to the reader. You don’t need to spell it out to one of the characters. And if you’re doing it for the sake of having a main character who speaks and thinks in modern English, you’re just being lazy, and I will have none of it. (Note that time travel is not the same as world travelling. I think time travel is perfectly fine.)

  1. The completely irrelevant and meaningless prologue

I cringe just thinking about this one. I have to read so many prologues that don’t make any sense. Prologues that are uninteresting and much too wordy. Writers seem to have a hard time grasping why this isn’t okay. Let me put it this way. Books with prologues have two beginnings: the prologue and chapter one. It’s hard enough capturing a reader’s interest once. If you have a prologue, you have to engage the reader twice. That’s an extra opportunity you’re giving him to put down your book. And you’re asking him to sit through meaningless scenes until he gets to where the story really starts. So why bother?

  1. Uninteresting magic

If magic plays a large part of the story, it cannot be bland and unexplained. If the magic feels like that found in another story then you shouldn’t do it. Be unique. There are types of magic. Elemental magic, strength-draining magic, mystical amulets. THESE HAVE BEEN DONE BEFORE. Come up with something interesting. Something that makes sense. Don’t have magic for the sake of having magic. (See my post Three Awesome Shows and Magic That Fails for more information.)

  1. Dream scenes

Just don’t do it. Dreams are so overdone. Don’t do it to reveal important plot points. Don’t do it to tell things to the reader without the main character knowing. Don’t do it to start off the character’s bad day. Just don’t do it. Show plot progression other ways. Ways that require you to be clever. You’re a writer. You can be clever, so do it.

  1. Fainting to end a scene

It’s okay if your character faints for a legitimate reason at an inopportune moment, but don’t use fainting as a way to avoid a transition or to avoid coming up with what complicated thing could come next in that scene.

  1. A diary holds the secret

No, a diary does not need to hold the secret. The main character needs to do something clever to learn the secret. That thing which will make them discover the next course of action. By her own ingenuity your MC can solve the problem. She doesn’t need to find it in a book. Diaries are lame. Diaries are overdone. Diaries are clichéd. Don’t be clichéd.

No cliches

Maria Murnane


You can be smart. I promise you can. You can have unique ideas. It may be difficult, and it may take time, but you can do it. Be brave enough to try.

It Was a Flying Purple Prose Writer

It was a dark and stormy night when I wearily sat down in front of the electric glow of the LCD monitor that sat on top of my Danish, expensive, mid-century modern desk. Rather than pluck out my pithy article on the keys of my post-WWII typewriter I’d inherited from my grandfather, I’d pragmatically opted for the more bourgeois choice of a Toshiba laptop. I was literally dying to breathe my ideas to life on the page, or screen as it were.

Okay. Obviously that was my attempt to write a Bulwer-Lytton opening paragraph to this post, fittingly, about purple prose. I apologize for any cringing I might have caused.


He’s coming to eat up all the good writing in your manuscript and replace it with purple prose

I’m reading a book by a local author. The book is a highly anticipated YA debut. I like it, for the record. Out of curiosity I went to Goodreads to see what other people thought of the book—or rather, one specific aspect of the book: its prose.

Most loved it. I’ve seen the prose called lush, rich, evocative, etc. The prose relies pretty heavily on simile and metaphor to make each scene a visceral experience for the reader. Further, I think the figurative language helps the reader understand the supernatural aspects of the story. On one hand, I appreciate it. But there are a few too many metaphors per paragraph that I keep getting pulled out of the story—not necessarily because I’m not enjoying it, but because I can’t help but dissect language as I read. It takes a lot for me to be so engrossed by a book that half of my cognitive function isn’t dedicated to analyzing prose as I go. As I suspected, I didn’t have to look far to find a reviewer who had a major problem with the prose. His review calling the book’s writing “purple prose” is what prompted this post.

Purple prose has several definitions. Most think that purple prose means writing that’s “flowery.” My preferred definition is prose that calls attention to itself in such a way that it pulls you out of the story.

Not surprisingly, for me that means that purple prose isn’t an objective standard at all, but a subjective one.

The Goodreads reviewer had every right to his opinion that the book (notice I’m deliberately keeping this vague because I don’t want my post to constitute a review of the book itself) was full of purple prose. Where I took issue was how he had no problem saying that purple prose is a hallmark of the YA genre, the kind of thing that teenage girls gobble up. He predicted the book would be successful because of the awful writing (his words, not mine). That kind of misogynistic bull crap is a post for another day.

This is my opinion, but I’ll state it strongly. Purple prose is in the eye of the beholder. For some, it means excessive use of adverbs and adjectives—and yet, for me, adverbs can sometimes be done well. JK Rowling, for example, uses adverbs more than is prescribed by modern writing advice. I have no problem with it, as it never pulls me out of the story, but adds a certain flavor to it. For others, cliché writing is purple prose—and yet, I often find that a well-placed cliché functions as vernacular. Because clichés litter our vernacular in real life, reading a cliché seems natural, and therefore doesn’t pull me out of the story. I’m reading another author whose writing could by no stretch of the imagination be called purple. She describes in simple prose what is happening and what the characters say—and yet, the writing seems flat and bland and lacking in personality.

Though I shy away from prescriptive writing advice, I do feel comfortable saying that the key here is moderation. Find the sweet spot where your preferred writing “vice,” be it metaphors, clichés, or adjectives, adds color to your writing but doesn’t overwhelm the story. As a reader, I’m not interested in either extreme.

Agent Carter

When I first heard rumblings about the ABC show Agent Carter, I told myself I wasn’t going to watch it. From the limited previews I’d seen, the show seemed too violent for my tastes and I figured that this show would be another case of media over-masculinizing a female character to make her “strong.” But after the first two episodes aired, I started seeing gif sets and screen shots on tumblr that indicated that maybe my assumptions about the show was wrong.

So I gave it a chance.

And it turned out I was soooo wrong. Agent Carter is not the perfect show and it’s not without issues (most notably the complete lack of POC in the show), but in terms of female representation and “strong female characters,” this show is doing a lot of things right.

Female Friendships

Probably my favorite character in the show is Angie Martinelli. She’s a waitress at a diner that Peggy Carter frequents and she’s the character who ties Peggy to the “normal” world—the world without super soldiers and spies. From the moment she opens her mouth, Angie is fun and she’s witty and she’s friendly. She reaches out to Peggy, who (as far as Angie knows) is just another working woman, and they become friends.

image from marvelcinematicuniverse.wikia.com

And it’s beautiful.

In so many shows, women are pitted against each other. They have to compete for the much-vaunted male attention. They’re not allowed to be friends, not allowed to be supportive of each other, because…well, I don’t know why. Maybe because it’d hurt the male protagonists feelings to have someone not prioritize him all the time? Who knows. But in Agent Carter, Angie and Peggy are allowed to be friends. When Angie gets harassed by entitled men at the diner, Peggy comes to her defense. When Peggy has had an awful day at work, she’s able to go to Angie for sympathy. They support each other. Their relationship isn’t defined by some man that they have in common—if anything, their relationship is cemented because of men in general and their need to stand together against a sexist society.

Peggy doesn’t bring out the old tropes that we all know—and hate—so well. She doesn’t try to buddy up to the boys because she’s “not like other girls.” She doesn’t eschew traditionally feminine things. She doesn’t dumb herself down or butch herself up to get men’s attention or respect. Instead, she makes friends with Angie and the girls she lives with and genuinely cares about them. She embraces feminine interests because she knows her enemies will underestimate her because of them. When Peggy pushes Angie away to protect her in episode two, Angie gets annoyed but she also forgives Peggy when she apologizes and extends a hand of friendship by the end of the episode. Both of these women are treated as people instead of side-characters for men to flirt with.

Non-romantic Male-Female Relationships

The relationship between Jarvis and Peggy is also a breath of fresh air because Jarvis isn’t romantically interested in Peggy at all. He’s married—and happily prioritizes his relationship with his wife over anything that Howard Stark or Peggy need from him—and fills the role of a plucky sidekick (and reliable friend) quite well. Jarvis is different from the chauvinistic men that Peggy works with and different from Agent Sousa, the one co-worker of Peggy’s who isn’t a sexist pig. With Peggy and Sousa, there’s an element of romantic tension in their relationship, though not one that’s been developed at all, but Jarvis and Peggy don’t have any of that tension.

Their relationship is also fun because it subverts so much of the male-female co-worker relationships we’ve seen in the MCU. With Iron Man, we’ve got Tony and Pepper Pots (who, admittedly, do become romantic interests for each other). Tony was out playing the superhero, and Pepper stayed behind to do the low-key (and highly necessarily) desk work. In The Winter Soldier, Captain America and Black Widow work together as equals for most of the film. At times, Black Widow is even able to step in and save Steve Rogers (eg when they’re being tracked down in the mall) because she’s used to working stealthily and he’s not. In both cases, the women are allowed to shine in their respective ways and I don’t think anyone could argue that they’re not valuable characters in their movies, but they’re not the main characters either. The movie isn’t about them, it’s about Tony or Steve.

image from vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net

In Agent Carter, though, the show is about Peggy. It’s about her struggles at work, it’s about her trying to clear Howard Stark’s name, it’s about her trying to move on from Steve and WWII and build a life for herself. Her problems are front and center, not a male characters. She’s the title character. She doesn’t play second-fiddle to Jarvis and she proves over and over again that she’s more competent than the men she works with. She’s the hero in this show, and it’s nice to see Marvel developing a show around a woman and allowing her to shine.

It’s Not About Steve

When I told my husband about this show, his first question was, “So is it about her getting over Captain America?” and I was so happy to be able to say, “No.” Because while Peggy’s pain at having lost Steve Rogers is certainly a motivating factor for her actions—particularly when it comes to protecting people she cares about—the show is not about Peggy “getting over” Steve or learning to love again or any number of overdone plots for female characters.

At the end of the day, Steve barely factors into the show. There are references to Captain America here and there—my favorite being the radio show that served as a bookend for episode two—but Peggy is treated as a person who exists outside of Captain America. In the first Captain America movie, where we first meet Peggy Carter, she is largely there to be the romantic interest for Steve Rogers and Haley Atwell does a wonderful job in that role, but in Agent Carter, she gets to be so much more. She’s not someone’s love interest. She’s her own person, with hopes and dreams and strengths and witnesses and delightfully dry British wit. She’s out to prove herself to her boss and she’s out to clear Howard Stark’s name—because he’s a friend, an old war buddy and not because they’re romantic partners.

Now, I don’t mean to sound like I think any female character with a romance plotline isn’t being a “strong female character” because I don’t think that at all. Love and romance is an important part of many people’s lives and we shouldn’t shame women for taking an interest in their own love lives and the loves lives of their friends, but it seems to me that having a female character without any sort of romantic plot or subplot is pretty rare. This is part of having diverse representation. We can have women with romantic plotlines and women without romantic plotline, just like we have plenty of male characters with and without romantic plotlines. Peggy isn’t defined by her relationship to Steve. She defines herself.

image from people.com

And that’s something we need more of.