When it comes to filling their worlds with characters positioned along the spectrum of good and evil, Veronica Roth, Melissa de la Cruz, Lauren Oliver, and relative newcomer Sabaa Tahir have it down. While none of them revealed as much about their forthcoming books as we would have liked, they did talk to us about what it means to write about good and evil, and why both heroes and villains abound in fiction, just as they do in real life. The four novelists are going to talk today about balancing good and evil in YA literature in the Special Events Hall, W375, 11 a.m.–noon.

Asked why she doesn’t hesitate to tackle such heavy issues in her novels as sexual abuse, betrayal, and murder, Roth points out that there’s a long tradition of YA writers—V.C. Andrews, S.E. Hinton, Lois Lowry, among others—who addressed such topics long before she did. “For a lot of young people, real life is pretty dark and confusing,” Roth says. “Books can be a way for them to see their way through that darkness, and that is important. Essential, even.” Even for teen readers growing up in safe and supportive environments, “it’s still natural to be curious about the world, including its grimmer aspects.” It is important to understand the nature of both good and evil, Roth notes, so people can fully comprehend the challenges they face in trying to make the world a better place.

Roth shook up Divergent readers by killing off Tris Prior. While she declines to disclose whether any of the major characters in her January 2017 release, Carve the Mark, end up get bumped off, she does imply that the brother of Cyra, the female protagonist, who is a dictator and has kidnapped Akos, the male protagonist, is just as evil as Jeanine Matthews. And sadly, because Cyra is subject to her brother’s power, the struggle, for her, is not simply about what to do to withstand him, but is also a struggle over whether she can even summon up the courage to do anything at all.

Lauren Oliver has written for adults and middle-grade readers, as well as for YA readers. While she doesn’t consider that the writing process varies that much when writing for different ages, she does point out “central preoccupations differ” for each audience.

“With children’s books, you’re looking to answer questions about what the world is,” she says, “how it works, what evil looks like, what the boundaries of reality are. With teen books, you ask questions that relate to identity: how do people become who they are? Can that change? And with adult books, you seek to ask and address questions of meaning—the big ‘Why?’”

While Oliver is best known to BookCon attendees for Before I Fall and the Delirium series, she is now working on a duology; the first novel in this series, Replica (HarperCollins, Oct.), is really two books in one: it’s a flip book that tells the stories of Gemma, a lonely and sickly teen, who has drifted in and out of hospitals all of her life, and of Lyra, who has grown up in a research facility called the Haven, and escapes from it with another experimental research subject—and connects with Gemma.

While Oliver says that her “lips are sealed” when it comes to talking about Replica, she does say that Lyra and Gemma are both intimately bound up in the history of the Haven Institute and its science, and that they don’t just battle the bad guys: they also have to figure out who the evildoers are in the first place—“and there are many villains” in Replica, Oliver assures us.

Sabaa Tahir, whose second novel, A Torch Against the Night (Penguin Young Readers, Aug.), is the sequel to An Ember in the Ashes, might set her novels in a dystopian and futuristic world, but she says that our own real world is the inspiration for her fictional world, in which an evil Commandant tortures and kills members of the Resistance who dare infiltrate the military academy ruled with an iron fist. Tahir, who once worked for the Washington Post on its foreign copy desk, says that a lot of the inspiration for her stories comes from current events.

“You have only to examine the past 50 years or so of human history to find real humans who are just as bad—or worse—than the Commandant,” Tahir says. “Pol Pot, Robert Mugabe, Radovan Karadzic—and there are plenty of horrible women in history, too. Queen Isabella of Spain did help establish the Spanish Inquisition, after all. Evil comes in many forms, and whether you are male or female, that doesn’t matter as much as what lurks in your mind.”

While Tahir is close-mouthed about what’s going to happen with Laia and Elias in Torch, she does reveal that they head north to Kauf Prison, where Laia’s brother is imprisoned—“and that it is not an easy journey.”

Melissa de la Cruz’s latest novel, Something in Between (Harlequin, Sept.), about a teen who finds out that her parents are illegal immigrants when she applies for college scholarships, is set in a world just like the one most of us live in. “It’s a bit of a Romeo and Juliet story,” de la Cruz says, describing the book as both a love story and a coming-of-age story. “Jasmine is an illegal immigrant, and Royce is the son of the House Majority Leader who’s against the immigration reform bill that would have helped Jasmine’s family stay in the country. So I really started from there, from that conflict. Can you fall in love with someone so different from you?”

Just like Tahir, de la Cruz is inspired by current events in writing her contemporary novels and makes the case that sometimes a dystopian society really isn’t so different from ours, even though the line dividing the heroes from the villains isn’t always as clear-cut as it is in the dystopian world of the Hunger Games created by Suzanne Collins that put the genre on teen readers’ radars. “Illegal immigrants live in the margins of our society, constantly in fear of losing the life they have built, with very little recourse,” de la Cruz points out. “Like Katniss, Jasmine is fighting for her family’s survival. She may not be in the arena killing her fellow tributes, but she’s fighting for her life, her family, her identity, and the stakes are just as high.”

This article appeared in the May 14, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.