Thursday, November 13, 2014

How Old Is A Hero (or Heroine?)

How old should a hero be, if he or she is to appeal to a kid? I read a blog piece written by an agent who represents authors of Middle Grades books, and he thought the hero should be no older than the oldest age of target market. He'd been reading queries (notes authors send to agents trying to entice them to look at their books) that had 13-year-old protagonists. He thought they should be no more than twelve.

My book has a 13-year-old protagonist. I want this particular agent to ask to see more of my book. I decided it really didn't matter that much to my story whether my hero was 12 or 13, so for the purpose of this particular query I was writing, I changed him to a 12-year-old. He'll be fine. But it doesn't answer the question. How old should a hero be?

Harry Potter, after all, was famously eleven when we were introduced. The Narnia siblings ranged from eight to thirteen. the Orphans of the Mysterious St. Benedict Society are all 12 and under, and Jess in the Bridge to Terabithia is in fifth grade, so, Ten or Eleven. But I had the feeling when I was was writing that he had to be thirteen.

I think the important distinction is what concerns the character, and for that purpose I don't think there is much difference between twelve and thirteen. In fact I think  you could look at the span from 10-13 as the period of transition from child to teenager. My daughter cried the night before her tenth birthday because she wouldn't be in single digits anymore. She sensed the beginning of what we all experience as we grow older. We look forward eagerly to whatever comes next, but we still mourn what we were.

In those early double-digit years we are still children, but we are champing at the bit. We want to grow up badly, but we still hang on to the vestiges of childhood. That changes in the teens when we realize we are much smarter than our parents and can't understand why the world doesn't welcome the contributions we are ready to make.

So why did I make my hero thirteen? I think I wanted him to be a little older than the kids who would be reading the book. I know I always read up a bit in age, and I think many kids do the same. But when I dig deep to remember why I picked that magic age out of a hat, I realize it had to do solely and completely with one fact. It goes back to the time when I dreamed up the book and starting bouncing plot points around with an important consultant - my youngest son. Guess how old he was?


  1. That little forgotten year--13--really is a problem with the divide between Middle-grade and Young Adult. Neither of the book categories generally have 13-year-old protagonists, and yet, 13-year-old kids exist in real life! It's tricky. Though I'm with you that the difference between 12 and 13 is negligible and if that's all it takes to get your query read, then it's worth the slight change.

  2. I agree that middle grade kids seem to enjoy heroes that are a wee bit older than they are. Fourth, fifth and even sixth graders like to read books that appear "cool", to the other children in the class. Sometimes an older main character, will accomplish that. Also, younger kids like to know what's ahead for them. They can vicariously experience the future through an older character. Good Luck!

  3. Thanks, readarose (I like your name!). I guess the rule should be if it works, it works!