How old should your main character be?

1024 684 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Thanks for joining me, YA genre authors! Next up in my YA Fundamentals series is character age, something that trips up a lot of my clients. Does it really matter how old your main character is? Yes! For a start, your protagonist’s age is one of the key factors that tells readers your book is YA and that it’s been written especially for them. So, how old should they be? Let’s get stuck in!

As a general rule of thumb, YA protagonists should typically be somewhere between 13 and 19 years old.

Young people like to read up, which means they usually prefer protagonists who are a year or two older than them. As always, there are lots of blurred lines when we talk about age categories but main characters aged 12 and under are almost certainly the domain of middle grade; most teenagers don’t want to read stories about children much younger than them, so protagonists in primary school will rarely appeal to YA fans (Harry Potter doesn’t count! It’s a huge exception to the rule). Anything older than 19 is getting into New Adult or Adult fiction territory.

Here are a few example of popular YA genre fiction and their protagonists’ ages. Note the wide range:

    • The Hunger Games: 16
    • Divergent: 16
    • Thirteen Reasons Why: 16
    • The Knife of Never Letting Go: 13
    • The Cruel Prince: 17
    • Caraval: 17
    • Cinder: 16
    • Carry On: 18
    • The Coldest Girl in Coldtown: 17
    • Throne of Glass: 18

Consider your ideal reader when choosing an age for your protagonist. If your story is aimed at younger teens who might be navigating everyday issues like friendship dramas or trouble at school (even if it’s against a more complex fantasy or sci-fi backdrop) then you might want to set your main character’s age at the lower end of the range, say 14. But if your book features more mature themes that will appeal to teens on the verge of adulthood, they’ll find it easier to identify with a protagonist who’s their age or older.

Teenage characters in adult fiction

Annoyingly, identifying a book’s intended audience isn’t always as simple as checking the protagonist’s age. Some adult fiction features child or teenage main characters, particularly horror, even though the story is intended for adults. Stephen King loves an underage protagonist: look at It, Carrie and The Shining for starters. I think that’s largely because horror writers want to make their readers feel as vulnerable and on edge as possible, and what better way to create vulnerability than to put them in the shoes of a child, bringing back those memories of flickering nightlights and monsters under the bed.

If you’re reading a novel that features a young main character but you’re not sure whether it’s YA or adult, you can look for other clues like the book’s theme, the amount of edgy content, how heavily adult characters feature in the story and whether the story is narrated from an adult’s POV looking back on their childhood (like in King’s It and The Body, for example) rather than a child’s POV in the present day.

Read more in the YA Fundamentals series:

Call to Adventure!

How to use this information and advice in your own work

If you know your story is definitely YA and couldn’t possibly veer into another age bracket, that’s great! You’ll ideally want to make your protagonist somewhere between 13 and 19 and the exact age will depend on several factors:

    • Does the story require your protagonist to be at a particular stage in their education, e.g. starting a new school, taking exams or applying for university? Check your local council website to see what age teenagers enter each year at school, when they start studying for important exams, when they’re likely to get involved in foreign exchange programmes or work experience, etc.
    • Look at your story’s theme, which is linked to how your protagonist changes and what they learn by the end of the novel. If their character arc sees them gaining independence and learning to stand on their own two feet, you might be looking at an older teen who is approaching adulthood rather than, say, a 14-year-old who realistically still needs to rely heavily on their parents. If your protagonist is dating or falling in love for the first time, consider what age feels natural for them. This will largely depend on your character’s personality and backstory: for example, teenagers develop at different speeds, some parents allow their children to date earlier than others, some people just aren’t interested in romance until later in life if at all.
    • Does your protagonist need a certain degree of autonomy in order to navigate your plot? If your epic fantasy requires them to travel to faraway lands and battle against evil, or your sci-fi story has them teleporting through space and time at a moment’s notice, how will you deal with adult interference if they’re at the lower end of the YA age spectrum? That’s absolutely not to say that these plots can only work for older teenagers but you’ll need to give some thoughts to how your character can carve out the independence they need to save the world without Mum or Dad calling them down for dinner at 7pm.
Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes