The Ambivalent Ages of YA Protagonists

Increasingly I find I do not imagine YA characters as teenagers in my head.  It is true that I have read some YA protagonists who speak more like they are twelve than sixteen.  And I wonder at that point if the author has encountered and spoken with any teenagers recently.  However, more often, at least in fantasy novels, I find that I am aging the characters up in my head, often to their early or mid-twenties.  And, based on the fan art I have run across, I suspect that I am not alone.

Fantasy novels are, of course, uniquely situated to making teens appear older since they are often set in pseudo-medieval or otherwise pseudo-historical worlds.  In such cases, you could have someone like Seraphina (from Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina) holding a full-time job as a court composer at the age of sixteen while a fifteen-year queen is already speaking of marrying.  Or you could have a book like Six of Crows where Kaz, the eldest, is apparently around the age of sixteen.  He’s surrounded by a group of teenagers, possibly younger than he is, who are already expert soldiers, sharpshooters, and spies.  That is, they are also holding what we might consider full-time jobs and they have already achieved expertise.  Marriage and careers, combined with a lack of schooling, make fantasy teens seem more akin to adults in modern society.

In addition to their life circumstances, teen protagonists often face issues that can apply to and appeal to a broad range of ages.  Uncertainty, self-doubt, and a desire to find a place where one belongs are not feelings innate only to teenagers. This means that a YA protagonist depicted as holding a career and preparing to marry is not immediately marked as a teenager simply because they are in a story about discovering who they are.  Indeed, even the idea of “firsts” could apply to adults–one could conceivably reach adulthood and still not have had a first date, a first kiss, a first trip to the ocean, etc.  Adults might even retain the sense of fun, the hope for the future, and the sheer joy in life that literature so often reserves for YA protagonists (or “quirky”, that is, not common, adults in MG books).  In short, a lot of teen protagonists could pass for adult protagonists.

I do not think adult readers need to age up YA protagonists in their heads in order to enjoy or relate to a story.  Reading, after all, is so often about empathetically entering into the lives of others, even if they are different from us.  However, because so many fantasy (and dystopian) teens are taking on adult roles, they often read like adult characters.

What do you think?  Do you imagine protagonists as ages different from what the book says?

29 thoughts on “The Ambivalent Ages of YA Protagonists

  1. The Hermit Librarian says:

    I think the difficulty in picturing what age a character is comes when comparing them as they appear in fantasy vs contemporary novels. Characters that appear in certain genres typically go through things that necessitate them to grow up much faster (i.e. what Kaz & the Dregs faced). This isn’t to say that characters in contemporary novels don’t also come across instances of hardship, but the frequency is diminished as opposed to fantasy which tends to take a historical bend. The aging up comes from what the characters have been forced to face, so from our more modern perspective, I can see how it’s fairly easy to accidentally picture someone as a few years older than they’re supposed to be in text.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, and I think it doesn’t help that they’re typically not receiving any type of schooling. A contemporary novel teen might have to grow up fast, but it’s likely they’re simultaneously trying to pass English, so you’re always reminded they’re still in high school!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Dax says:

      I 100% agree with this. I think many characters may come off as more mature or more responsible, but I actually wouldn’t say that they come across as adults. Teenagers still have a lot of things to figure out so their youth always plays out in their decisions, depending on the character, of course. ☺

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Beware Of The Reader says:

    Well I am imagining rather someone close to twenty if there is sexual relationship. In HP in the beginning I really imagined a kid! I think it has much to do with how the authors is writing them and make them talk!

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think it depends on the story. Harry is always attending school plus making a bunch of rash decisions that go against the advice of his elders, so it’s easier to see him as younger, I think.

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  3. coffeeringbooks says:

    I definitely have found more and more as I’ve grown older that I try to (well, it’s usually subconsciously) imagine the characters in YA novels as older than they are, usually not mid-20s as I am, but at least 19-21, when of course they’re usually actually 15-18 instead. Of course it’s a personal preference, but for me, I really enjoy when I can age these characters up in my head, or the story loses a lot of its ability to be relatable–and in turn enjoyable–and I get annoyed by how obviously-teenage (i.e. immature, again, personally) a story is. I definitely agree that part of it is due to the genre–I’ve been enjoying Six of Crows so much simply because, minus the actual mentions of characters’ ages, it’s extremely easy to forget someone like Kaz isn’t in his 20s. Meanwhile, I’ve found myself balking at the idea of reading non-fantasy YA novels that get recommended to me which revolve around high school, because I’m well past the age where I want to read about high school drama and forever-love at 16, even if the rest of the plot sounds interesting. It’s a fascinating topic to think about and something I’ve been aware of in myself the past couple of years! I’m really glad I’m not alone in aging YA characters up.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think part of the reason I’m drawn to fantasy YA and not contemporary is that I’m not really invested in things like prom. They seem like high-stakes things to teens, but, to me, it’s just a dance and life goes on, so it’s difficult to understand their emotional investment in such things. In a fantasy, I understand why the protagonist is upset that their nation is being subjugated or whatever.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. FranL says:

    This was something I struggled with when working on my book. Eventually, I went with the age of 18 for both MCs. They’re old enough to be independent and take care of themselves, but they’re still forming their own identity and figuring out who they want to be. Also, it’s got a historical/fantasy setting and I know that 18 years old historically was very different from what it looks like today. An 18 year old in the past might be expected to be on his/her own with adult responsibilities.

    If we’re talking about realistic contemporary characters it becomes trickier. Yes, there are teens who have very adult experiences and lifestyles in our world. There are also teens who are still very much kids. When I read, I think I project my own experience of an age onto the character. For example, if I’m reading about a character who is 16, I start off by projecting my 16 year old self onto them. If they’re saying/thinking/doing things that are way more mature than I was at that age, I start thinking of them as older. Maybe they’re closer to what I was at 20. So I’ll picture them as roughly that age.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think it depends on the story. It’s easier to see characters as teens when there is teen stuff going on in their lives. The Outsiders has characters facing difficult situations, but the characters are still in school and worried about whether girls like them and stuff, so I always remember that they’re young. In a fantasy, if a character is working a full-time job and not in school, it’s easier to think of them as older.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. brewingcolour says:

    I agree with everything that you’ve said here. As a 16 year old myself, whilst finding the characters relatable in many ways, unless it’s set in a school (or similar) setting I tend to find myself imagining the characters to be older than they’re meant to be. I actually forgot that the characters in Six Of Crows were meant to be that young as throughout the novels I always envisioned them to be 19/20 at least.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, in my head, the characters of Six of Crows are definitely in their twenties. Some of them have military experience! And none of them are in school. It’s easy to forget they’re supposed to be younger. The average sixteen-year-old is concerned about tests, not taking on impossible heists.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. ofmariaantonia says:

    I’m not sure what I do. The older I get, I think I tend of make the YA characters older in my mind (late teens/20s). When I was a teen, I’m pretty sure I would imagine the MC as around my age (unless the book said specifically how old they were).

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    • Krysta says:

      I think when you’re younger it’s easier to see older characters as REALLY old and mature. When I was eight, for example, a twelve-year-old character being really independent wouldn’t have surprised me. But, looking back, I see now that many twelve-year-olds are not that independent after all. Their parents would likely not let them go out all nigh saving the world or whatever it is they do. They’d have bedtimes and school and their parents would be the ones in charge!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Makes sense! I think it is harder for me to see characters in contemporary novels as older because they are typically shown to be in school, worrying about tests or whether the football player likes them. You never can forget that they’re high school age if they are literally sitting in a high school.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Michael J. Miller says:

    It’s not so much I imagine them at different ages so much as I spend a lot of time thinking about how those experiences would/could affect the protagonists, as teens. I think it’s a result of my teaching high school. For example, as a kid I LOVED the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (I still do 🙂 ) and reading/watching their exploits, as an eight-year-old, they seemed totally adult to me. Now, as an adult, I look at my students and wonder if I have four I’d trust to save the city from Krang or the Shredder. I also think about how that burden would weigh on them, as I already see so many kids struggling under the weight of school assignments, college applications, family stuff, friend stuff, jobs, etc. I think, at least for me, seeing the teenage protagonist as a teenager adds a dimension to the story I’d lose if I envisioned them as an older character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, when I was young, teen protagonists seemed really old and mature to me. Now I look at the teens I know and I have trouble seeing them having enough independence to run around by themselves saving the world. And so many of them are already stressed out by school! I can’t imagine a teen having to fight evil on top of everything else they do! It seems like most teens are working harder and have a longer work day than many adults!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. tasya @ the literary huntress says:

    This is really interesting, I just realized I did this too. When I read YA, the characters in my head are 18 at the youngest, I can’t even imagine 16 anymore. They just talked and did so much adult things in the story, I still can’t wrap my head around the idea that Kaz is 16 😶

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    • Krysta says:

      Sometimes I think of the teens I know and compare them with teens in books and I just think, “Hmm.” Could they do all those things? I’m not sure. But possibly no one could. We’re reading books about these characters often because they’re “special” in some way. Not everyone is going to be the greatest sharpshooter in the West, no matter what their age!

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  9. Camilla @ Reader in the Attic says:

    I’m culprit of doing it too, seeing them more in their late twenty or teens.

    A think that while in fantasy world this can make a little more sense (people are raised in a complete and more adult enviroment ), in contemporaries… eh. Definitely “meh”. I can totally look at many teens around me and saying that they’re not definitely YA protagonist material.
    Unless they’re constatly focusing on something that make me being just like a novel protagonist, always ready. Or started since young age to train on certain stuff. Some teens are actually quite skilled in something but that something come from training. But still, if we take a teen and throw them in a young adult book… not every of the stuff we read would happen. I know that my teen-me would probably just go with the flow or end up having a crisis and drop everything 😂

    At the same time, I feel like these characters more than representing teens completely, are a form of inspiration to them? A way to dream and cross difficults parts of their own life. I would love to hear more from teens and how they relate to this, if they feel the same as us or similar.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think we often have book protagonists because they are larger than life. They’re not necessarily supposed to be what everyone could be. Even an adult isn’t necessarily going to be as good a thief as Kaz! They have more opportunity to train certainly, but that’s mostly what they have going for–more time. But plenty of people do start sports, for example, at an incredibly young age and end up maybe even peaking in their teens. So it’s not impossible to have a teen be the best at something.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Kat @ Novels & Waffles says:

    I’m completely with you on this. When I was reading Six of Crows, I was like, “Dang, these characters are teenagers? Whaaaaaaaa?” I guess it’s hard to imagine (at least for me) because as a teenage, my biggest problems had to do with boys and homework, not death and starvation. This was a really great discussion post! Thanks for writing it, I know I enjoyed reading it!

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  11. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction says:

    I agree that some fantasy books have teen characters with very grown-up lives and responsibilities. I remember a sci fi book that I read once where I kept having to remind myself that the characters were teens because they didn’t feel that way to me at all.

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