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How Old Should a YA Protagonist Be?

How Old Should a YA Protagonist Be?

Understanding the specifics of young adult, middle grade, new adult, and adult character ages.

A young adult (YA) protagonist should ideally be between the ages of 14 and 22. Characters may be on the ‘cusp’ of being young adults at age 13 and age 23. Often the content within the books is a clearer indicator of the age group than the age of the characters. As a writer, you’ll want to consider readers ‘reading up’, or gravitating toward characters a one to three years older than them when determining an age for your characters.

Standard Ages for All Age Ranges

The lines of age restrictions and genre boundaries are blurred when it comes to just about anything book-related. While you won’t find a 27-year-old in a middle-grade novel, ages like 14 and 20 become more blurred when making distinctions between the major age divides. Here’s a general breakdown, but remember these are gray areas and nothing is law:

Middle Grade (MG)

A middle grade protagonist will be under age 14 and generally be between the ages of 11 and 12. Middle grade books have more simplistic plotlines and focus on discovering yourself as an individual and learning basic life lessons associated with growing up. This could be understanding consequences or learning to be a better person. Middle grade will have no sexual themes, violence, or adult language.

Young Adult (YA)

Young adult protagonists will be between the ages of 14 and 21 with some overlap into NA, especially as darker themes are entertained. Young adult is a wide arching age range. At it’s younger end the books tend to fall into the ‘sweet’ category. This means they have little to no swearing or adult content. The older end of young adult, which borders on new adult, tend to be more ‘steamy’. This means they have more adult themes, including swearing and sexual content.

The characters in young adult and the situations they find themselves matter far more than the ages of the characters. Young adult characters are coming of age, experiences firsts, and learning what they’ll stand for (and what they won’t).

New Adult (NA)

New adult protagonists tend to be around the ages of 22 to 25. Once they cross 25-years-old you’re entering adult territory. New adult is a rising category of fiction aimed at older teens and college-aged adults. The protagonists in new adult books often face problems related to getting through college, starting out on their own, falling in love as an adult, and beginning their career. New adult is known for being steamier and often features sexual content and adult language at the level found in steamy adult novels. However, there are ‘clean’ new adult novels on the market.

Adult

Adult protagonists are adults. It seems simple, right? Seriously though, if you’re writing an adult novel or series you’ll want your protagonist to be 25-years-old or older. But, as all age ranges blur, your protagonist could be as young as 20.

Adult books tend to focus on situations adults deal with—divorce, marriage, children, careers, and aging parents, among other topics. Genres are just as expansive as in MG, YA, and NA books. This means these ‘adult’ topics are handled in whatever setting is appropriate to the associated genre.

What is 'Reading Up'?

‘Reading up’ is the term used for people’s tendency to gravitate toward characters who are one to two years older than them. This is likely because the characters are handling situations they expect to be in soon and can relate to more personally.

What to Remember When Writing a Character of Any Age

The two most important things to keep in mind when writing a character of any age are:
  • Does this character seem believable for the age they’ve been assigned?
  • Does what they experience seem relevant to their age and to readers of a similar age?
Asking these questions can give you clarity and help you adjust to any necessary changes to make your characters act their age (seriously).

Writing a Series With Aging Characters

If you’re writing a series spanning over multiple years in the character’s lives it makes sense to show character development. But while in adult book series where the difference between 32 and 37 aren’t a huge deal, the difference between 14 and 19 is monumental. Your characters are going through a lot in that time frame, and you want to make sure you’re reflecting that in your writing. You’ll want to think about:
  • Motives and desires changing
  • Coming into sexual maturity and first loves
  • Considering adulthood, college, and ‘what happens next’
  • Slight shifting in the maturity of the character’s voice
It’s often difficult to get into the mindset of a 14-year-old when you’re an adult writing for young adults. You have to take yourself back to the headspace of a 14-year-old and ask if what your character says, how they behave, and the key motivators driving them are realistic. A great way to get genuine, honest, and unbiased feedback is to get involved with a critique group or develop a team of beta readers.

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