Age of Young Adult Protagonists, Age in YA Fiction
How old should a young adult protagonist be? Up until very recently, I worked part-time at an independent bookstore specializing in kids/young adult (YA) fiction. Occasionally, we’d get a new title in, and find ourselves stumped after reading the back cover or flap copy—was the book supposed to be shelved in YA, or in middle grade? We would search for clues—how old is the book’s main character? Sixteen or older? Mystery solved—then it would mostly likely fall into the young adult category. But what about books where the main character is, say, 13 or 14? Or even more confusing, what about a series like Harry Potter that began with 11 yr. old protagonists—solidly middle grade–but followed the characters into their late teens, exploring darker, more dangerous themes as the series progressed?
Age of Young Adult Protagonists: How old are YA Fiction readers?
As far as readers go, there are generally two age-range designations in YA fiction—ages 12 and up (or grade 7 and up) and age 14 and up (or grade 9 and up). A ‘14 and up’ designation usually has more to do with the book’s content—say, language or sex or violence—than it does with the characters’ ages. In other words, it’s possible to have a YA novel with a 17-year-old young adult protagonist that is designated ‘12 and up’ (this would likely be a sweet book with no content that could be considered objectionable for younger readers). It’s also possible to have a gritty, issue-based young adult novel with a 13-year-old protagonist that’s designated ‘14 and up’.
Age of Young Adult Protagonists: Back to the Age of the Characters
So it’s fairly cut and dry as far as readership goes, but let’s get back to the age of the characters. Let’s say you’re writing a young adult manuscript, and you’re trying to figure out your main character’s age. I think a good general guideline for YA is high-school-age, so somewhere between 14 and 18. I’ve seen YAs set during the summer after the protagonist graduates from high school, but once you put your main characters in college, you’ve gone beyond the usual bounds of YA. For the lower end of the spectrum, consider that older teens might be less interested in reading about a younger teen’s story.
But beyond that, it’s really all about the story you’re trying to tell, and the maturity of the themes you explore. In Haven, I chose to make the protagonist, Violet, 16 at the beginning of the book. Because there are some mature themes, I wanted her to be on the older end of the spectrum, but since I hoped that the book would be the first in a series, I needed to leave room for her to age. So, she’s 16 at the beginning of book one, but will be 18 by the end of the series.
Age of Young Adult Protagonists: Young Adult Authors’ Take
Here’s author Lia Habel’s take on age in her YA debut, Dearly, Departed: “I think I’m just a tad bit rare in that about half my cast members are adults, and they actually get point-of-view in certain chapters. I know that in the early stages of revision, my editors were all wondering whether or not they ought to have me eliminate this POV to focus on the younger characters (my teens range in age from 14 to 18) – personally, I’m glad they didn’t. One theme of my series is how important loyalty is, how people in the same boat need to stick together, and the adults form the backbone of the series. They’re there to teach, mentor, guard, and occasionally kick ass.
Other than that, I chose older ages for the vast majority of my teen young adult protagonist characters because I wanted them to have “room” for all the experiences I planned on giving them. Even my younger characters have extensive histories – especially the zombies – and I wanted to be able to play with those. Additionally, the world of the book occasionally lends itself to the creation of extremely mature young people (my hero was supporting his family at the age of sixteen, and by eighteen speaks and acts more like a man than a boy, for instance), so I went with older ages to make this seem a bit more plausible.
Author Terry Lynn Johnson (Dogsled Dreams) had this to say about the age of the young adult protagonist in her work-in-progress: “I had a main character of 15 years old and my agent suggested I change it to 14. Now it’s an “upper middle grade novel”. One of the reasons – it’s a wilderness survival story without vampires so my agent thought it might gain more audience with younger crowd, and also it’s not dark, so my agent thought it better suited for middle-grade readers.”
Author Helen Landalf (FLYAWAY) weighs in with this: “I made the main character in Flyaway fifteen and a half. I usually make my YA characters 15 or 16, partly because I have lots of strong memories of that age, but also for practical reasons. Most teens like to read ‘up’ – to read about a character a year or two older than they are. Since I think of my target age range as 13-15 (though my publishing house is marketing FLYAWAY as 14 and older, probably because of some drug and alcohol use), that puts my character at the top of that range.”
When writing young adult fiction, look at many factors–tone, themes, story elements, language, sensuality, reader expectations—when deciding on characters’ ages in young adult fiction, while keeping in mind the targeted age range of your readership (12 and up, or 14 and up).