Recently my critique partner and I were discussing the age of his main character, and whether or not he might age his character up a year or two. His main character was a young boy of sixteen years old, and we had both realized that sixteen just sounded young. But why? Was there really much difference between a sixteen year old and a seventeen year old? As it turns out though, sometimes a year or two does make a difference.
To YA, or not to YA?
Most writers probably have an idea of whether they’re writing an adult novel or a young adult novel, but what some writers may not realize is that the exact age of the protagonist directly influences whether a publisher will publish it as adult, or young adult. A young adult novel must, generally speaking, have a main protagonist that is no older than eighteen years old, and generally, that protagonist will be closer to sixteen or seventeen. This does not mean that every novel with a teenage protagonist is a young adult novel, but what it does mean is if you intend to write a young adult novel, you have to limit the age of your protagonist. There may be exceptions, but an unpublished author shouldn’t count on being one. It also means that if you have an older protagonist, like mine, you might find your novel in a bit of an awkward place — not quite adult, not quite young adult. There was a point when it seemed like new adult may take off as a publishing category, but the category fizzled a few years ago. However, there is a growing market for books with protagonists on the younger side of adult — young adult crossover books, they’ve been called. Books such as the Daevabad Trilogy and the Winternight trilogy, featuring young women who are in their early adult years, their late teens and early twenties.
If your manuscript has sexual content, particularly sex scenes that are more than just fade to black, consider aging your characters up to at least seventeen. While it is true that teenagers do have sex, and there is nothing really wrong with teenagers having sex, as long as it is consensual, some readers are going to feel uncomfortable reading about the sexual exploits of minors. If I think about smutty scenes, generally the older the character is, the more comfortable I feel with the smut, but if I had to draw a hard line at a particular age, seventeen seems to be, for me, where my comfort level is. Perhaps this has to do with the age of consent. While the age of consent is different in different countries (and in the United States it even varies from state to state — in my state the age is 17), by age seventeen a person has reached the age of consent in most places. And, before anyone says “yeah but back then,” remember that first of all, while it is true that in medieval times marriages were often arranged for young teenagers, those marriages were frequently not consummated until both parties were older. Second of all, regardless of what the norm might have been in medieval times, you are writing for a contemporary audience with contemporary sensibilities. A contemporary audience is likely going to find a sexually explicit scene involving a young teenager at best, awkward and at worst, disgusting. The television version of Game of Thrones famously aged up the main protagonists, the Stark children, as well as Daenerys Targaryen, from the young teens that they are in the novels, to older teens for precisely this reason. If you plan to have sexual content, think about the necessity of making your character young enough that having sex with them in our world would land their lover in jail.
Teenagers are teenagers. While it is true that people may have matured faster in the “old days” than they do now, an adolescent was still an adolescent. A sixteen year old is not going to be able to make decisions as carefully as a twenty year old. A twenty year old will not make decisions as carefully as a twenty five year old. Teenagers are going to be, to a certain degree, impulsive and emotional, no matter how mature they are. In the historical series by Sharon K. Penman following the lives of the Plantagenet dynasty in Europe, Penman writes the true story of how young Henry II invaded England with a group of his friends at age fourteen. He did this without his mother’s permission and ran out of money to pay his mercenaries while in England. Then, Henry had the audacity to turn to Stephen, then king of England, to ask for money to pay his troops and return home. Stephen was so amused by the whole thing that he actually agreed! In the novel Penman brings to life for us this young man who, despite being a prince and despite being born in the “old days” when teenagers were supposedly so mature, did an incredibly boneheaded teenage thing. Even medieval teenagers still need to act like teenagers in order to be believable. If you want your sixteen year old to be mature and levelheaded, give them a reason to be. Make it a part of their character, why they are unusually mature. Don’t assume, however, that a sixteen year old will handle things like a grown man. If your reader forgets how young your character is, then you’ve probably not done a good job portraying their age.
Age, in writing, isn’t just a number. Just like our age and maturity affects us as individuals, it will affect your characters as well. Not only that, it will affect the way the reader sees your characters, and the way your market sees your characters. So before you just pull a number out of thin air, think about the implications of this choice.