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Old 01-06-2013, 09:11 PM   #1
Hypatia
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Dilemma regarding character age

I am writing a fantasy novel set in a Bronze Age society. To be realistic, I had my protagonist get married at the age of sixteen, something common in primitive times. About a year and a half later, her husband divorces her because she has failed to conceive a child.

That makes her seventeen years old, an adult by her culture's standards, but still a kid by our culture's standards. I don't want anyone assuming that I'm writing YA. Will adult readers accept a teenager as a protagonist, if she acts like an adult?
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Old 01-06-2013, 09:39 PM   #2
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If she acts like an adult, then I don't think you have anything to worry about. Since YA is such a huge thing right now, you might get a few people encouraging you to write in a more YA voice, but that's completely up to you. If that compromises your vision of the story, then don't do it.
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Old 01-06-2013, 11:21 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Hypatia View Post
Will adult readers accept a teenager as a protagonist, if she acts like an adult?
Yes.

Age is not the only thing that makes something YA. Theme, voice, plot, and all sorts of things go into making something YA or not.

I tend to think of YA as exclusive, whereas adult fiction is inclusive. (Not a bad thing, just different.) To be YA, you must follow certain conventions. It's a more clearly and narrowly defined category. Adult fiction, OTOH, is broader and vaguer, and there have been many, many books with child or teen POV characters that are considered adult fiction, e.g. The Lovely Bones. The opposite, however, is almost never true.
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Old 01-06-2013, 11:39 PM   #4
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There are tons of books with young protagonists that are categorized as adult. The Lovely Bones and Prep immediately come to mind. Age is the factor that everyone focuses on, but that's not the only (or most important, imho) one that exists. Tonally, the book should feel "adult" regardless of the age of the protagonist.
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Old 01-07-2013, 12:07 AM   #5
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Some of GRRM's main characters are only 13 or so, don't worry about it
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Old 01-07-2013, 01:26 AM   #6
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The Clan of the Cave Bear series by Jean Auel had a teenage heroine without being considered YA. The cultures represented there seem to be more what you're looking for.
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Old 01-07-2013, 01:31 AM   #7
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She exists in a time before there was such a thing as being a 'teenager'. So I would expect her to act accordingly.
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Old 01-07-2013, 02:11 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Hypatia View Post
I am writing a fantasy novel set in a Bronze Age society. To be realistic, I had my protagonist get married at the age of sixteen, something common in primitive times. About a year and a half later, her husband divorces her because she has failed to conceive a child.

That makes her seventeen years old, an adult by her culture's standards, but still a kid by our culture's standards. I don't want anyone assuming that I'm writing YA. Will adult readers accept a teenager as a protagonist, if she acts like an adult?


I don't think people will assume that it's YA if you package it for an adult audience.

Also, if your MC is in adult situations and the scenes are well-written, the reader won't be thinking... "Wait, she's only 17." They'll focus on the story.

It seems most fantasy stories have young protagonists so I think you're good!
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Old 01-07-2013, 02:28 AM   #9
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Bronze age...surpised you waited until she was 16 to marry her off...
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Old 01-07-2013, 04:14 AM   #10
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Think of Ender's game. I would not consider the book "YA," but straight-up sci-fi. A child protag who keeps everyone (young and adult) engaged.
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Old 01-07-2013, 04:24 AM   #11
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Do they even think about ages, or is she simply regarded as an adult? Personally, I wouldn't mention numbers. It's more important how her community treats her.
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Old 01-07-2013, 06:02 AM   #12
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Originally Posted by DeleyanLee View Post
Do they even think about ages, or is she simply regarded as an adult? Personally, I wouldn't mention numbers. It's more important how her community treats her.

This is a brilliant point.

Would they even know how old they are? Do they keep track in your world? If they are living day-to-day, they may not even know how to count past 17, if they can count at all.

Of course, it's all up to you and your world. Maybe age does matter.

But, like others have said...if she's getting married off, living as an adult, then she will be an adult to that community.
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Old 01-07-2013, 07:02 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Fantasmac View Post
There are tons of books with young protagonists that are categorized as adult. The Lovely Bones and Prep immediately come to mind. Age is the factor that everyone focuses on, but that's not the only (or most important, imho) one that exists. Tonally, the book should feel "adult" regardless of the age of the protagonist.
And there are even books that are (or were at one time) considered kid's books that have adult characters. The Hobbit is one, with the author's tone very much in the manner of a dad telling his kids a bedtime story. There are other classic works with adult protagonists as well, though most are quite old (the books, not the characters ). A common denominator seems to be an adult who is an outsider or in over his or her head in some way. Probably a situation most kids find relatable.

Mr. Popper's Penguins is a more "modern" story for kids with an adult protagonist (though it's still been around a long time). Stories about adults that involve animals seem to appeal to kids.

Still, it seems like adult protagonists are a harder sell in children's literature than they once were. A google search yields far more examples of adult novels with children as protagonists than the other way round.
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Old 01-08-2013, 03:59 AM   #14
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While it may seem obvious to you as the author that your main character is only seventeen, if you write her as an adult, the readers will assume she is an adult.
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Old 01-08-2013, 10:55 PM   #15
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Quote:
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She exists in a time before there was such a thing as being a 'teenager'. So I would expect her to act accordingly.
This. In her culture she is a woman, and if you write her as such, she will be thought of as a woman.

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Bronze age...surpised you waited until she was 16 to marry her off...
And this. My ancient Egyptian character is 16. She's very self conscious about not being married, because it implies there is something wrong with her (actually her father failed to secure a husband for her because he was up to his eyeballs in debt and looking to turn her into a line of credit, but no one went for it)

And all the other girls are especially gobsmacked that she's still a virgin. Most of them lost theirs as 12 or 13.
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Old 01-08-2013, 11:59 PM   #16
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I still say that whether or not a story is more juvenile, YA or adult, regardless of the "social age" of the protagonist, though, has to do with voice and tone of the work as well as the underlying "attitude" the author has about the situation the protagonist is in. I'd encourage you to read some YA books and some adult books with protagonists of the same approximate age as yours. This may help you get a sense of what some of the differences are.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Kallithrix View Post
This. In her culture she is a woman, and if you write her as such, she will be thought of as a woman.

And this. My ancient Egyptian character is 16. She's very self conscious about not being married, because it implies there is something wrong with her (actually her father failed to secure a husband for her because he was up to his eyeballs in debt and looking to turn her into a line of credit, but no one went for it)

And all the other girls are especially gobsmacked that she's still a virgin. Most of them lost theirs as 12 or 13.
One has to be a bit careful when assuming that girls in all ancient cultures (I don't know about Egypt in particular--I do know they married their royalty of both sexes off young for political reasons, but I don't know about the more common folks.

It seems to be a common misconception that girls in all pre-industrial societies were/are expected to become women and start having babies by the time they were 12 or 13 (typical ages of first menarche in modern, western societies). Even in modern America, where most girls hit puberty very early in historic terms, most girls are not terribly fertile at that age, nor are their pelvises usually fully developed for squeezing out babies.

Although it's varied in different times and places in history, the age of adolescence has actually declined sharply in recent years. In the 1800's, for instance, it was more common for girls to start their menses around age 15, even 16. Girls in many pre-industrial cultures had/have later onsets of puberty as well. Historically, there was also a period of adolescent subfertility, which means that a girl was not necessarily fully fertile or developed physically as soon as she hit puberty. This period of sub fertility may be somewhat truncated in modern societies because of hypernutrition and a relatively sedentary lifestyle make kids accumulate body fat more quickly. But in a more historic setting, a girl who gets her first period at 14 may not be fully fertile until 17.

So while it is certainly true that the lag time between adolescence and the assumption of an adult role was diminished when compared to the postindustrial (where girls hit puberty much earlier and are expected to delay reproduction until well into their twenties at least), the notion that girls in all, or even most, pre industrial societies were being married off at 12 or 13 is not entirely accurate. The book Mother Nature, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (1999) discusses this issue, actually, especially in chapter 8 (around page 186 in the hardcover edition I have). It's an interesting read, by the way.

I also suspect, though, that even in cultures where kids (especially girls) were expected to marry very early, there were still differences between them and older adults. There is a fair amount of research that suggests that the pre frontal cortex of the brain is not mature until the mid twenties.

Presumably, though, your protagonist is not a "typical" member of your society, and she's being thrust into a highly atypical situation for her culture. If she is to make her way in the world, devoid of the normal social support network that young women/mothers in her society usually had (elders, mothers, aunties, grannies and so on), she would have to grow up very fast or perish. She will likely have the traits that allow her to do this, or she won't survive or make for a very uplifting story .
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