The age of the protagonist

I’ve read plenty of fantasy novels where the main character is usually a teenager who goes on a journey, discovers themself, and becomes an adult.  This is a very common theme of epic fantasy stories.  I’ve read some in which the main character is an adult, as well.  However, a lot of fantasy stories are about self-discovery, and it’s usually teenagers that go through this process, both in literature and in reality.  Teenaged characters may also appeal more to younger readers.

So, this is what I’m wondering, how old do people prefer to have their protagonist? For me, it depends on the story.  Young characters are often needed, especially for self-discovery stories.  Adults can go through this, too.  But adults are usually less adaptable and more set in their ways. The two fantasy novels I’m reading right now are quite different.  “A Game of Thrones” has an ensemble cast of characters of many different ages.  There’s no particular lead character, as the point of view changes between several adult, teenage, and child characters. The other is an eBook I’m reading called “Voidhawk” where all characters are adults. But usually, I read fantasy novels with a teenaged lead character.

As for my planned trilogy, the main character starts out as a teenager for reasons I won’t get into now.  However, he is nearly an adult.

What age do you prefer protagonists to be?

8 thoughts on “The age of the protagonist”

  1. For me the age of the characters isn’t so important in a direct sense, but I guess it plays a part in my like of said book/characters. I think teenage characters can be done well (Harry Potter), but some of the hallmark characteristics of teens and children, while not unique to that age group, can really turn me off to characters. In particular – excessive impulsiveness, rebeliousness, and brooding can get old very quick. On the other hand, sometimes teenage characters are written to be unbelievably precocious, which can also be a problem. I think part of the trouble stems from the fact that most writers are so far removed from that age that they either have to resort to stereotypes or don’t really make an effort to make their teenage characters act like teenagers.

    1. Good point. Teenagers can be inaccurately characterized quite often. I’ve read a few books in which I couldn’t stand a character because of how their lack of judgment and brooding were exaggerated far too much. It’s been quite a while since I was a teenager, but I remember the years well. I teach several teenagers, and they are complex people. They don’t really resemble any stereotype.

  2. I was a bit of a prick when I was a teenager, I think most of us are/were. Making your protagonist a prick is always something of a risk. I think it depends on your target audience as well. I read Catcher in the Rye in my mid-twenties and found Holden Caulfield to be an insufferable cockend. I suspect I’d have felt differently if I’d read it earlier.

    Coming of age novels are really losing their appeal for me. The last couple I read (over on my blog, if you’re that interested) were 69 by Ryu Murakami and The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers. The first was great, the second, not so much. Teenagers have a tendency to be pretty self-righteous and self-obsessed, which are not especially attractive if portrayed realistically. So how much can you circumvent those typically teenage traits without appearing unrealistic?

    I realise I’m basically echoing Paul here, so just to mark this out I’m going to say that I thought that as a teenager Harry Potter was done pretty badly, but by the time he’d got to his late teens the whole series was collapsing under its own weight anyway. Almost Literally.

    1. To be honest, I wasn’t that kind of teenager. I was always the quiet, nice kid. Never popular, though I was a target of bullies in junior high school. But I knew several people like that in my school. I wasn’t naive, I was a realist, and I knew a lot about what was going on in the world. Yet, I was never a negative person, always the optimist. I don’t think I’d be a typical teenage character.

      Coming of age books aren’t the kind of thing I enjoy reading so much, unless it’s done well.

  3. Harry Potter isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I guess I thought the teen protagonist was well done there because (a) he was flawed without being insufferable (though he was too broody in the 5th book, overall I thought he was a likable character) and (b) his transition from adolescent to adult was gradual but observable and came off as believable enough, for me at least.

    1. I agree to an extent. The thing I didn’t like about Harry was that he was too impulsive at times. He got into trouble, and it was easy to predict.

  4. I generally identify best with characters who are in the mid- to late-twenties, simply because that’s where I am in life. Ultimately, though, if someone can write a character well, I don’t care what age they are. One book that had an older main character that I thought was well-done was Daniel Abraham’s A Shadow in Summer.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree that most people identify with characters that are the same age. I’m in my mid-30s, but I feel like I can still identify with 20-somethings. I guess I’m young at heart 🙂

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