Recently I stumbled across a thread where a group of fans were emphatically agreeing that the protagonists of a book should have been written as 19-22 instead of 14-18.

“Kaz acts more like 20-21 than 17. Like I understand traumas and life can force kids to grow up too fast, but his whole personality and maturity seems better suited for someone older. Even 19 would be better than 17.”

Here’s why this is a ridiculous stance to take.

As a fellow author, I’m pretty sure the author of the book in question wrote these characters as the age the author wanted them to be. By time I finish writing a story I’m 100% sure what age I envision the protagonists being.

“The fact that people who are the same age as the protagonists think they act older is proof. I know it’s more difficult in fantasy books to have the most age-appropriate characters, but this book is the epitome of one that should have been NA.”

Look, this is going to be really hard to swallow, but you are not the arbiter of what a “real” 17-year-old acts like. No one is, because maturity can vary a lot due to background, life experiences, and individual personality.

There are a lot of places in the world where most people are considered adults by age 14 or so. They’re married. They’re soldiers. Farmers. Mothers and fathers. Craftsmen and craftswomen, vendors and factory workers. They have jobs and responsibilities; they run households. And the thing is, up until quite recently in human history, this was the norm.

I’m not saying that was or is a good thing; there are benefits to giving people more time to mature before they’re expected to be wholly self-sufficient. I’m saying that our extended adolescence is relatively new, and still limited to relatively wealthy nations.

If you can suspend your disbelief for dragons, vampires, werewolves, fairies, ghosts, and all kinds of magical hocus-pocus, why can’t you imagine a 17-year-old that’s just a bit more mature than you were at 17? Having accidentally read a few YA books, the protagonist’s age is often the least unbelievable element of these stories.

“I found myself forgetting that they were 15-18 and kind of auto-aging them up in my mind.”

I’ve done this too. And that’s perfectly okay. What isn’t okay is bashing the author for writing their characters in a way that doesn’t match your personal life experiences. Even if you can’t imagine a person that age being that mature, many people can.

Some of us lived it. At 16 I spent a summer and fall working construction jobs (paid in cash and without benefits,) and I was invited out to the bar after work on a regular basis. Not because my coworkers knew I drank, but because they didn’t realize I wasn’t old enough to buy alcohol legally. People regularly expressed shock upon learning my actual age.

That reaction puzzled me for years. I didn’t spend much time with other people my age; we had little in common. To my 16 to 20-year-old self, I was normal. I had my shit together. I was self-sufficient. I hadn’t realized I had PTSD yet, or that drinking wasn’t helping it, but no one ever commented on my problems and it didn’t interfere with my ability to hold a job.

Looking back, I realize that was unusually mature for my age. If I could regularly pass for four or five years older –a real person from a first-world country– why can’t you believe that a character in a novel could too?

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