Skip to main content

Honey, I've Got a Non-Teen YA Protagonist (Or, "Mum, Dad, I'm Moving in With a 907 Year Old Time Lord")

I'm unsure whether I write this post more as a reader or as a writer. Alas, we shall have to stay tuned to see what the verdict is.

Just very quickly before I begin, I'd like to divert your attention to another matter: the absolutely gorgeous Aimee L. Salter took time away from her life to write a post about none other than moi. And you know what? It made my week. A snapshot: "If her profile is to be believed, at just sixteen years old this chick has developed a voice, intellect and amusingly snide pretentiousness I can only aspire to". *Gives bow* Hon, I am indeed sixteen, seventeen in October. I also wish I could send you a planet or something gift-wrapped for the post.

Now, age. Specifically, protagonist age.

I see this matter pop up every-bloody-where.

The basic question seems to be: can you classify a novel as YA if the protagonist doesn't fall within the Holy YA Age Range of thirteen to eighteen? And the general consensus? MCs beyond this range = très tough sale.

Comments and arguments seem to be based around the idea that senior students and university students don't read, or that younger teenagers don't relate to protagonists that are university-aged. The question-asker usually, by this stage, has hummed and agreed and lowers their MC's age to below 18 without another thought.

Me, a lurker and YA-aged myself, am standing at the back waving my arms around. STOP IT. It is impossible to make accurate generalisations about a good majority of the YA audience. I beseech you. Think about the television shows that are popular among us. Sure, you have things such as Glee, based in high school, but then you have university-aged Gossip Girl and Gilmore Girls and then you have all those shows we're obsessed with that are populated by adult characters. We can't relate to who?

A lot of these people expect people my age and above to be tossed into the endless adult ocean and empathise with a middle-aged man who's facing his midlife crisis? Sure, there are kids I know that are probably experiencing a premature midlife crisis, but wouldn't it be more practical to thrown in a couple older YA characters? That isn't to say that it would turn me off a book if the protagonist were middle-aged. I'm trying, and failing, to enforce my point that there are always those older adolescents who've been reading about 30-year-old fantasy heroes since they were ten, or who you'd have to pry the middle grade section from upon their death bed.

Age doesn't matter as much as you'd think.

And from what I've observed, especially recently, children and teenage readers tend to read up in regard to age. I remember I first read an Agatha Christie when I was eleven, and that when I was around that age, nearly all of my books had 13 to 16 year old protagonists. I had no problem whatsoever relating to these older characters. Also, think about this: at that age and even a little younger, kids watch TV shows with 16 year old characters. (EG: Lizzie McGuire for me, maybe Hannah Montana and iCarly for today's kids?) They have no problem relating to them, and that's how they learn about adolescent life and learn to anticipate what waits for them in their imminent teen years.

Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Homer jumps that huge gorge on Bart's skate board? Remember how bloody huge that gorge was? Well, now that I'm in my last two years of high school, I've reached the edge of YA where I have the publishing industry on the other side, in the Adult world, waving their picket signs at me and chanting "JUMP DAMN IT!"

Maybe I'd like to anticipate my university years. To be honest, the idea of that new life, that new routine, scares the absolute shit out of me. What should I expect? Why can't people my age get the same treatment as our ten year old counterparts? I think most of us would like to know. What is university like? What is renting your first apartment, or starting your career like?

Now, I know it's a given that if I'm talking about this, I'm going to have to bring up New Adult. Yes, you are right in imagining me hanging my head. Okay. Compose yourself, Nina. While I whole-heartedly support this concept, waiting around for New Adult is like waiting around for that Stargate Atlantis movie.

Personally, I think that when it comes to classifying YA, themes should take precedence over age. (I'd like to also just mention that tone does take precedence when an adult novel containing a young cast gets to stay in the adult section.) Tone and themes are key. Take my novel, RETURN, for example. I know, I know, I heard your collective sigh. But hear me out. My cast comprises of six uncostumed heroes, from eighteen to twenty-one. But even then, they're still trying to find themselves. Their coming-of-age journeys haven't ended. They haven't matured entirely, well, not all of them. They still act like teenagers. To a certain extent, I think everyone retains parts of their adolescent selves. I can tell you right now that they could all be in their twenties and I would swear up and down that the novel, right down to its tone and messages, screams YA.

And when an author has just dropped the age of their protagonists to fall within the Holy YA Age Range, it's incredibly obvious to the reader. Incredibly. And sometimes, for the characters that we're trying to create, particularly in Fantasy, it just isn't feasible to have a fifteen year old. Warriors, assassins, superheroes. No one would take a gritty YA novel with a fifteen year old [insert crazy career] seriously. If my characters were all three years younger, it wouldn't be possible for them to have accumulated the knowledge, the experience that they have. Making them their respective ages gives them that by default.

So, in closing, I ask of you: what are your thoughts of the Holy YA Age Range? Would you be interested in fiction with university-aged protagonists? Would you buy books with main characters in the dead zone of nineteen to twenty-five (ish)? Do you think that there are certain authors who should've had older protagonists, or do you think that the audience themselves could just up the ages while they're reading to create more "believable characters"?


  1. I love this post, because I've spent the last few weeks agonising over whether my ms is young adult or not. My protagonist, while eighteen, has graduated from high school and is living in apartment by herself. I'm not sure if she'd appeal to the YA audience (those who want to relate to the woes of high school in the books they read, anyway).

    You've made some good points about older protagonists, and yes, I hear voice is apparently an indicator of the target audience.

    But maybe it's not up to the writer? I think it's more up to the publisher - how they pitch it leads to where it ends up in the bookstore.

  2. "So, in closing, I ask of you: what are your thoughts of the Holy YA Age Range?" My thoughts are that I would have read a lot more YA as a young adult had the age range been a little less holy. As it was, I ended up reading Stephen King and Peter Straub because their novels had the content I was looking for, which was--and remains!--much more important to me than the age of any novel's protagonist.

  3. I agree. This was genius, as usual. Character's motivation should lead the plots, the stories. So if the character isn't changing their motivations for the story, why should their age be changed? You're right, you shouldn't force your characters to a certain age.

  4. I've thought about dropping character ages just to have more chance of publication, but...I agree with you. For MY characters and what they've gone through, it just wouldn't work to have them be teens.

  5. You make excellent points in this post :)

    I have been facing this challenge myself lately: I am 17 and started uni this year, and am standing on the YA side of the gorge trying to lean out over the edge a bit.

    I enjoy reading about characters my age, but also ones younger than me and definitely ones older than me (like you said: I want to know what the things I'll be facing soon are going to be like) I'd like to think that I can continue to write stories while I'm at this age without having to bend backwards into YA or forwards into "Adult" just so I can fit somewhere (I think I'd fail at both if the stretch was far, mostly the Adult one because I still feel grounded in YA for the moment - that might change once I'm out of the Holy YA Range)

    I'd love to see the set boxes of books transform into a spectrum of books instead :) Bring on university-aged novels!

  6. Naw, I like YA to have teen protagonists. If they are aged 19-25, that is now classified as "New Adult." I dunno...I think teens (well, not all, apparently LOL) want to read about someone their age and the conflicts and situations they would most likely to be encountering. First loves, first challenges, first tastes of independence--all an integral part of YA.

  7. Check it out!

  8. Good points Nina. I have also dropped the age. Great post.

    If you would like to do a group 9 super secret project give me an e-mail. I couldn't find yours
    Kerri192804 at yahoo dot com

  9. I started reading adult novels when I was 13. Now that I'm "grown", all I want to read is YA--except for Dickens. Quite frankly, it's a question of person and not age. For guidelines though, I say the MC should be 2 to 4 yrs older than your intended audience.

  10. Hi, I'm a crusader dropping in.
    My take on YA is that the main characters are young people - and as soon as those young people have moved from school to the workplace it becomes adult.
    But does it matter?

  11. Great post. It helps me to understand the YA genre much better as I'm having difficulty figuring out what the difference YA is to other genres.

  12. This post is almost a year old and it's STILL timely! I had an agent this week tell me my novel has no market because the two MCs are a 14 year old boy and a 36 year old woman and "teenagers don't want to read about middle aged people and vice versa." I love your post and am thrilled to see so many people responding that character ages don't matter as much as the story/plot. Great post!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

"In 900 Years of Time and Space, I've Never Met Anyone Who Wasn't Important Before" (Problem: Boring Lead, Riveting Supporting Cast)

I received an email the other day from a reader (who wanted to remain anonymous in this post - but we'll call her Sarah) who told me that she was having trouble getting into her protagonist, despite this being her most prominent POV.
She is dynamic as many Young Adult characters are, but at the beginning she's anxious and self-doubting because she's in that adolescent phase when you realise everything you know about yourself is completely wrong and you're just starting to discover who you REALLY are. There's not much that makes her like me (or am I kidding myself?) even though I've been in the same position as her. Well maybe not exactly since this is YA SF, but as far as her emotional state goes, I've been through that. But I just feel like she should've developed more by now, and she still feels like a faceless stock character.
Bildungsroman is the nature of YA above all, and that relatable trait for the protagonist is necessary. To some extent, ther…

Your Workspace is All Wrong (And What's Essential to Boost Productivity)

The way we writers work is peculiar, and actually, particular. Though I've found that one method for one novels doesn't always suit another novel. Some of us are fully digitised, others still handwrite half of their work, and many of us are an amalgam in between. 
Me? I like to outline with tangible plot points, create and reshuffle, and I do this with post it notes on cork boards. I can keep track of pacing, interlocked story lines and character frequency. I can sketch landscapes and statues therein. But when it comes to writing, it has to be in Word.
But today, I want to talk about healthy creative environments.

So, at the moment, I'm on the floor in my living room, more from my uncanny ability to sit cross-legged for extended periods of time and the fact that I just spent the better part of a year extricated from my family in HSC mode (and I'm attempting to quash complaints that they never see me despite my nearly always being home). That, and the wifi conks out on…

Don't I Look Darling In Red? (Or, HOLIDAY GIVEAWAY)

This Christmas, I'm celebrating YA in a big way. Despite our differences, YA has brought me some great characters, some great plots, and writing and all-round inspiration. I definitely have some favourites or books I'm dying to read and for the season of giving, I want to share with you. I'll be giving away a book, some are pre-orders, current releases, sequels, from the list below. 
Go on, pick one. Any one.

Truthfully, that list is more like a recommendations list. Really, any book that you want, be it a pre-order, current release, sequel or whatever, I'm willing to hear whatever it is that you're dying to read this holidays.

Now, just some details.
This giveaway is open internationally, as long as Book Depository delivers to you.You must be a follower of this blog.You must comment below with a book you'd like to receive or give away this Christmas.You must be at least 13+ to enter or have your parent email me with permission.One entry per person.Open until m…