Writing Tips

The YA Protagonist’s Age: You’re 17? Me too!

The young adult genre is normally defined by coming-of-age stories, where the protagonists are often between the ages of 14 and 18. That being said, if you are publishing a YA story right now, chances are your protagonist is 17 years old.

So why are most YA protagonists 17?

Short Answer: The protagonist is old enough to be on the cusp of adulthood but young enough to still be considered a young adult.

Long Answer: Adding to the short answer above, 17 years old is also highly regarded because the target audience reading YA right now is not necessarily teenagers. In fact, most studies indicate that the main audience buying YA is 18-27. (Many teenagers are more focused on fan fiction online—another topic for another day.) But focusing on the older aspects of teenage years is currently more sellable than the younger teenage years of 14-16.

Basically, 17 years old seems to be the sweet spot in YA right now, especially for crossover YA, but I would love to see more variety.

In fact, I find it incredibly uncomfortable how much we are focusing on the age of 17. It’s almost as if every teenager on the planet will have a revelation in that year of their life…and that’s highly unrealistic.

Teenagers do not go through the same issues at the same time. Not everyone falls in love for the first time at 17. Heck, I’m pretty sure half my class was “dating” in middle school, and, yes, that “dating” included some pretty adult things. In fact, let’s talk about that.

Sex is being introduced to YA on a more often, regular basis. (And that’s another debate.) But I think this addition is one of the main factors behind the focus on aging up protagonists. The average reader might feel okay reading about a 17-year-old, who is practically “free” of childhood, but a 14-year-old might cause different reactions. But people face different issues at all ages. Let’s take historical fiction as an example. The average age of a Civil War soldier might have been 26, but boys as young as 12 served as drummers. You’re now talking middle grade fiction, let alone young adult. I think it’s especially okay to give younger protagonists bigger roles in YA historical, but 17-year-olds still take the center stage, and while I understand the marketing aspect, I wish we could get over it.

I went against the grain when I featured a 14-year-old protagonist in my latest YA series, because I think variety is important.

In fact, I’m going to stick my neck out and say one of the reasons young readers (actual teenagers) are reading less YA and focusing on Harry Styles fanfiction on Wattpad is because of how much YA is currently being marketed for older audiences. Ally Carter, author of the Embassy Row series, recently talked on Twitter about how “sweet” young adult fiction is all but missing from the main market. Darker, older, edgier materials are hot, and while that’s awesome for readers like me who enjoy those books, many teens are feeling left out of their own genre…and that’s not okay.

When I was young, I grew up with Cammie in the Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter. Her character aged over a few years, and I loved it. The series starts off quick and short and sweet, and as Cammie grows, the content gets darker, more mature, and complicated. In fact, there were a lot of series like that when I was younger, and I LIVED for them. (Hello, Harry Potter.) When I’m at book signings and teenagers tell me how they struggle to “relate” to YA anymore, I feel for them. I truly do.

Teenagers deserve younger and older protagonists—all going through a variety of topics and struggles. They deserve to feel welcome in their own age bracket.

I lost my mom at 11. I moved for my seventh time when I was 12. I had a stepfamily when I was 13. I started high school and my first long relationship at 14. I got in my first car wreck at 15. Heck, I got my license at 15, because, Kansas. (Farmer’s permits—driving by yourself to work and school—were pretty common.) I started my first job at 16. I published my first book at 16! I graduated high school at 17. I turned 18 one month before I moved out and went to college. And sex? I was 19. All of these topics are seen in YA…but they’re mainly assigned to 17-year-olds. Why?

Not everyone has their first “coming-of-age/independent” moment at the same time.

So why are all of our protagonists the same age?


22 thoughts on “The YA Protagonist’s Age: You’re 17? Me too!

  1. I wonder if another aspect is the surge in YA movie and TV show adaptations. Weird segue, but I remember reading that the older teens are the biggest movie audience demographic. So, many protagonists fall into that age for a connection because there’s this odd shift that we can’t connect to a character who doesn’t look or act like us. A lot of writers seem to be doing it as a stepping stone to a movie/television series instead of as a book series, which is why the older teens tend to get highlighted. Although, I remember it being 15 and 18 being the big ages when I was younger. Perhaps there’s a reason 17 became the new sweet spot because of how modern teens are acting.

    Another possibility is that many people see 17 as the ‘last full year of childhood’. 18 is where you’re leaving high school and entering college, which kicks off a new set of stories that tend to be listed under New Adult. Almost like people think a switch is thrown at 18 where all innocence and naivety is stripped away.

    1. This is a great point! Even if characters are young in the books, I know that many adaptations age up characters when they hit the screen. Octavia in The 100, I believe, was 14 in the books, but she’s 17-ish in the show. And Shadowhunters decided to make all the characters college age rather than follow the teenage years of the novels. I do think one of the reasons people stay in 17 rather than go up to 18 is because of the stigma New Adult has in the traditional publishing world. It’s not really considered a sellable genre yet. (And basically written off as strictly romance rather than having a plethora of genres within it.) I hope that changes though!
      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      1. Didn’t know about the age changes, but I can’t say I’m surprised. I’ve been asked if I write New Adult, but it seems to be a very rare category. I’d put my stuff in NA, but you are right about the stigma. Might take a few years and 1-2 big trends in the genre to clear those. People thought YA was for kids until Potter and Hunger Games.

      2. Exactly! It always take that one big hit for people to realize we are setting our own limitations on genres. A genre can be whatever we want it to be. It doesn’t have to follow the same rules forever.

      3. This reminds me of a few comments I saw on a forum about the new King Arthur movie. A handful of people were saying that they were getting tired of all fantasy being gritty and dark. I wonder if the pendulum is about to swing back towards the brighter, more colorful adventures. Wishful thinking for me though.

  2. It may also be that publishers are trying to place the younger-aged YA into a different category, Tween, which is ‘between’ middle grade and YA. But this is strictly for the publisher’s and bookstore’s convenience on deciding where to put books on the shelves. It sounds like it falls flat with actual young-teen readers.

  3. Hmmm I never noticed this really 17-year-old feature but looking back I can see you’re right. Most of the YA books I’ve read recently the MC is roughly 15-18.

    This was very interesting to read. I’m currently working on a YA novel and my protagonist is 13 at the start and ends at age 15. It’s gonna be a four-book series but I don’t think my protagonist will get much older than that.

    In YA, the younger end of this age spectrum can yield an equally amazing story as the other end. This younger age is the beginning of one of the biggest changes – physically, mentally, and emotionally – people go through.

    1. Yeah, any sort of crossover between MG and YA is really difficult to sell, but I do wish there was more of it. I mean, I think that’s one of the reasons Harry Potter was so popular. It’s nice to grow with a cast.
      (Not going to lie, I would love to see what happened to the cast in The Magic Tree House series as they aged up.)
      Good luck on your book series!

  4. To be honest, I’ve always thought it was a little weird how books are placed into age categories, not based on the level of mature content, but because of the age of the main character. I understand how some younger teens might find it hard to related to a character 30 yrs+ but I find the amount of mature content more important than the age of the protagonist. I always thought it was weird that The Host was considered YA because of an older protagonist, but A Court of Thorns and Roses (reading the series right now… LOVING IT) is considered YA when it has some pretty explicit scenes. I don’t know, it’s just jarring when I’m going into a book expecting a typical YA but I get a book with more explicit sex scenes than any adult novel I’ve read.

    1. Agreed! On a side note, I have heard SO many people mention the graphic scenes in ACoTaR. I own it, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, so I can’t really comment on it specifically, but it sounds like it makes a great example for how genres need an upgrade or clearer distinctions.

      1. Yeah the graphic scenes really threw me off when I was first read ACOTAR. It’s not that I have anything wrong with them, but when you’re expecting YA… it’s a little jarring. I think it could easily classify as NA. Speaking of NA really needs better advertising. I’m getting around that age range and would love to read books with older protagonists but I know nothing about that genre…

  5. Absolutely! A lot of this has to do with marketing, plain and simple, and 17, apparently, just resonates with buyers the most, so you can’t really blame anyone for latching onto the number. Thank you for sharing your story about writing!

  6. Great post, looking at YA books right now in my writing class, and to be honest because of the amount of adults reading YA, the reading age can get a bit befuddled as can the content suitable…

  7. Shannon, I don’t know if you’re still responding to your excellent blog post, but I’m wondering where to place my fantasy story–YA or NA–due to the minor difference in ages between the two lead characters.

    I have a 16 to 17-year-old female protagonist and a 19-year-old male love interest, who helps the gentle but gutsy heroine find hope and independence (as she does for him). There is no explicit content other than kissing and (potentially) a brief paragraph of the male cussing, which the prim and proper girl quickly nips in the bud. It promises to be that poignant, lyrically-written love story (I hope!) that so many young readers are clambering for…if I can only figure out whether it is YA or NA. I think NA fiction is a fantastic idea in theory, but clean NA seems to get lost in the shuffle among the heaps of steamier stuff. Thoughts?

    1. Hi there! First, thank you for reading and commenting, and congrats on writing a novel! Personally, I think YA vs NA often comes down to the central theme, (is this coming of age or something else?), but I also think it’s important to know your publishing goals. If you’re self-publishing, for instance, you can label what you feel is the best label, but if you’re going for a top 5 house, I’d suggest making your book YA, since NA has yet to make a place for itself in the market (especially, like you said, clean NA). Even in self-publishing, readers tend to expect more explicit scenes in NA, and though I disagree that NA has to be explicit, you have to keep in mind what readers’ expectations will be. Plus, your main female lead is 16/17, which is generally YA. Basically, I think your book would sell better as YA, based on what you’ve told me here. I hope that helps!

      1. Thanks so much for your helpful reply. Sorry to take so long to respond, but I really had to think this through. I have been plotting and writing an epic futuristic family saga over the past seven years, and I didn’t want to make some of the same structural/genre/demographic errors with potential new projects as I did with my old one. (The restructuring and rewriting process has been brutal!)

        After much consideration, I believe I will market the story for a YA audience. Your insights, coupled with a conversation I had with a nice college-aged saleswoman in Barnes & Noble, have shown me that expectations do indeed have a profound effect on the reception of a particular manuscript. Since a 20-year-old male lead would age me out of YA and come with certain steamy expectations if placed in NA, I will keep him at 19 and the protagonist at around 16/17. The age difference does not present a problem in the story because the female lead is rather mature for her age, growing up how and where she did. (She’s a mermaid!)

        Thanks again for your sage advice. It truly helped clear this matter up for me.

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