Act Your Age

One of the most frequent errors that I see very new writers make, is that they don’t know what age to make their characters.  For example, I very often have writers tell me that they are writing a “young adult” book, but then I learn that their protagonist is twenty years old, or ten, or fifteen.  Sometimes authors will even have three or four characters of varying ages.

What these authors don’t understand is that they are using very specific terminology for this industry, and they’re using it wrong.  How old is your protagonist in a “young adult” novel?  Sixteen.  Not ten.  Not nineteen.  Not even fifteen or seventeen.  He or she is sixteen.

You see, “young adult” is a marketing term used by publishers and bookstores for a predefined audience.  Last year I was listening to a panel of agents talk, and someone asked, “What is the most common mistake that you see authors make that makes their young adult book unsellable?”  The consensus answer was, “The writers make their protagonists an odd number—say 15 or 17.”

You as an author might think that there is not much difference, but there is.  If you write a twelve-year-old character and have to “age them up” to make your novel into a young adult novel, if you’re a very sensitive writer, then you will find that it can’t easily be done.  You can’t just change the numbers on the ages.  Juveniles just grow too much in four years, and it is reflected in the way that they think, speak, and act.

So how old are your protagonists supposed to be?

Here are some definitions:

Lower-middle Grade—your protagonist is age 10. These books use a limited vocabulary and are written for children ages 8-10. They typically are pretty “safe” books that don’t have heavy violence, profanity, and so on.  They’re often fun books that are meant to get kids reading.

Middle Grade—age 12.  This is a much larger market than the lower-middle grade.  The vocabulary is a bit larger and subject matter more broad and dangerous.  Examples of a book for this age include things like Harry Potter, though publishers initially thought that it was too long for its market and was written at a reading level that was too high.  Generally, sexual content—even kissing—is still considered taboo at this age and violence is held to a minimum.

Upper—middle Grade—age 14.  As the protagonists age, the restrictions begin to ease.

Young Adult—age 16.  You’ve seen what can be done in books like Twilight or The Maze Runner, where the violence is often fanciful but carries the ultimate consequence, and issues of love and sexuality are frequent.

New Adult—age 18, was conceived as a category of stories for young adults who go out into the world, go to college, begin to party and have sex and explore their freedoms, but as one author recently put it, “It seems to be becoming a new category that might be called ‘Young porn.’”

Anything with a protagonist above the age of 19 is considered “adult” material.  But please note that having a nineteen-year-old for an adult thriller is probably not a good idea.  In most cases, your reader of adult literature (romance, mysteries, drama, thrillers, etc.) will be older than nineteen and might not bond to your reader well.

As you prepare to write your novel, you need to carefully consider the cast for the novel and ask yourself, “Will my intended audience like these characters?  Will they find them interesting and likeable and believable?”


For a temporary time, my online classes are open for those who would like to take them in January. You can view them or register here.

I still have room for more students in my live workshop taking place in Phoenix, in February. You can learn about that here.

If you are looking for a book to read or give to someone this season, you might be interested in checking out my novel Nightingale If you’ve already read it, why not leave a review? Thank you.

Bron Jones was abandoned as a newborn. Thrown into foster care, he is rejected by one family after another, until he meets Olivia, a gifted and devoted high-school teacher who recognizes him for what he really is—what her people call a “nightingale.”

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