My story is set in The Walking Dead universe. Quick explanation for those who don't know what that is: Comic and TV show about zombies and more about how the survivors deal with the apocalypse than the zombies themselves. The idea of a zombie doesn't exist in TWD'S universe, which makes observing the people of this world deal with them that more interesting, but the zombies very quickly become a background environmental hazard as survivors quickly realize humans are the real threat.

My story is set in New York, following an adolescent character that was a tourist before the apocalypse happened and is now stuck in this foreign land forever. He becomes the leader of a very prominent community residing in Manhattan. Because of New York's density, everybody fled out of the city when the outbreak began as it was filled with zombies, but with time, the zombies moved out, either from being attracted to noise outside the city or just shambling around. Because nobody dared to enter the city, it was like heaven to any survivor, a ghost town of a city filled with almost completely unlooted stores. Because Manhattan was the closest and most familiar borough, the adolescent and his group resided there and that's where the group grew up to become an empire, regarding Manhattan as their "turf" and mainly residing in central park, but also in a couple of other outposts in Manhattan. With time, the group comes across two more large groups, one in Bronx and one in Queens. They aren't as big as his group, but they are big enough to do major damage, and would be even bigger if they decided to team up against him, so he builds an alliance between the three group and they all agreed to trade, but there is still some uneasiness between them all, as all three keep a close eye on each other in case one decides to plot against the other for more land and power. Think of it like the relationship with USA vs Russia vs China.

That's kind of the "gist" of the story. Now about the character. He very quickly adapts to this new and cruel world, and his ways early on are deemed "inhumane", "monstrous" and even "barbaric" by the people still clinging into their humanity, but with his skills and confidence, people have no chance but to follow him as he seems to know the most out of the group.

He's around 17-19 years old, and is by no means a goodie two shoes or a perfect hero, he's actually pretty ruthless, manipulative, cunning, insecure, opportunistic and is willing to do whatever it takes to increase his power whether it's wiping out an entire group and taking their stuff or giving them no choice but to join him, killing a group member who he feels might plan a revolt against him, publicly torture and/or execute people and decorate the surrounding areas with their bodies for the people to see and make any other person/random traveler/surrounding groups fear him. With all of those scary qualities, he has some good ones and morals to some extent. He doesn't like hurting children, the elderly, and parents as they remind him of his family that he couldn't see anymore (but he would still punish a parent(s) or an elderly person if they commit something against the rules, but he would either think long and hard about it or/and lessen the severity of the punishment based on the offense) and because he doesn't have any friends and family like back home, he truly tries his best to build bonds with his comrades and people in his community. They all drink together, have fun together, tease each other, play games and such. Even though he likes power, he hates being separated from his people and being regarded as a superior, and wants to be WITH the people, as it reminds him of being home, because they are the closest thing to family he has. So he's ruthless, manipulative, opportunistic, but fiercely loyal, friendly, and usually polite even to his enemies (or sketchy allies, like the Queens and Bronx groups)

Now here's the problem, how do I make it believable that people still followed him roughly a year after the apocalypse? since a year has past, surely people have adapted to this world and the weak ones were weeded out early on, how do i make it believable that hardened adults would listen to this hardened, but also adolescent boy? How could they follow him and take him seriously? (Which is another issue I touch on in this story, he's too mature to befriend some of the adolescents of the group, but also feels some of the adults don't take him as seriously as he thinks they should, mostly the ones he initially meets/from surrounding groups.)

Hope my great wall of text sorta made sense! (This is my very first post; I apologize if it looks ugly.)

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! I didn't downvote this myself, but I bet the downvote is because the question as phrased is too likely to collect opinion based responses. Stackexchange is a question and answer site, not really a discussion forum. As presented, this might be a better fit for writing stack exchange. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Apr 14 '18 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ Have you read Enders Game/Enders Shadow? These books together explore the concept of children and youth as leaders. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Apr 14 '18 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ I am not sure what you need us for anymore. You are already providing plenty of reasoning to why people still follow him. $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Apr 14 '18 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ If he's 18 or 19 then legally he's an adult. He could have been doing a responsible and dangerous adult job like being in the Army or the Police. Unless you mean he is 17-19 after more than a year of leading them (i.e. he was 15-17 at the start of your story). $\endgroup$ – DrBob Apr 16 '18 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ You said it yourself: "he's actually pretty ruthless, manipulative, cunning, insecure, opportunistic and is willing to do whatever it takes to increase his power". People like that are quite likely to become leaders in extreme conditions. Say, like a zombie apocalypse. You're overthinking your own set-up. To quote an colleague: "Cream and bastards rise." $\endgroup$ – a4android Apr 30 '19 at 7:39

Your teenaged tourist in NY was not originally American.

isis child soldier http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2017/06/15/islamic-state-philippines-recruits-child-soldiers-promises-islamic-education-poor/

He is a refugee, having spent the first part of his life as a child soldier. He has experienced terrible things in his short life. He has not been in the US long and America seemed almost too peaceful. It turns out that this peace was not to last. His old habits and hardness served him in good stead. If this is prose fiction, do not lay out this backstory all at once - hint that he might have some PTSD, that some things in the US are still new to him. He can have a flashback. He can make use of the things he learned.

The New Yorkers who form his group include several immigrants among them, but none with his experience. And none of them are going to catch up with him, no matter how hard life after the zombie apocalypse is.

Your leader can feel like an outsider because he is a teenager, because he is a foreigner, because his skin color is different from that of the group, because he remains an observant Muslim. But he learned early that leaders lead and show no weakness to those below them. Sometimes he can leverage that difference into effective leadership.

Ultimately the reason they stay with him is the same reason people stay with any leader. He is good at it and he gets the job done.


Poise, competency, and success.

I have a 12 year old on my webcast team that looks and sounds about 10, but when he's in the technical directors chair the rest of team knows Exactly Who's In Charge. It's amusing to me to see him light into a 20 something year old that's more than twice his size for playing with their cell phone when they should be watching their camera, but he mostly commands by earned respect and rarely has to raise his voice, even in the noise levels of a live webcast production.


History is full of teenagers and children who were official leaders and who did somewhere between zero percent and one hundred percent of the actual decision making for their groups, depending on various factors.

For example Francis II (19 January 1544-5 December 1560) Dauphin of France, reached his legal majority at the age of 14 in 1558 and became King of France on 10 July 1559 aged 15 years 5 months and 21 days. But he let his mother and the Guises make the decisions.

On the other hand, King Edward VI of England (12 October 1537-6 July 1553) had his age of legal majority set at sixteen, and so never reached it. But he had a considerable influence on the policies of his regents as he grew older.

And the difference is due to their different personalities.

But they were hereditary monarchs. Who would follow the orders of even the bossiest or most competent child or teenager who was not their hereditary monarch?

It is believed that the ancient Germanic and Norse people didn't have any role for minors to inherit the thrones.

In 575 Childebert II became King of the Austrasian Franks age 5 when his father was assassinated. When Clovis died in 511, his four sons became kings, the youngest three aged about 16, 15, and 14. Clovis himself became king in 481 aged 15. Athalaric (516-534) inherited the Ostogothic throne in 526 aged 10.

So there are examples of children inheriting Germanic kingdoms in the 6th century and of teenagers doing so in the 5th century.

According to the Roman History of Cassius Dio, book LXXII, in about AD 170:

Marcus Antoninus remained in Pannonia in order to give audience to the embassies of the barbarians; for many came to him at this time also. Some of them, under the leadership of Battarius, a boy twelve years old, promised an alliance; these received a gift of money and succeeded in restraining Tarbus, a neighbouring chieftain, who had come into Dacia and was demanding money and threatening to make war if he should fail to get it.


Since this was centuries before the earliest known examples of Germanic child monarchs, I don't know if Battarius inherited his leadership or earned it somehow.

in the US Civil War, many thousands of men were commissioned as officers in the various armies and navies. And most of them were men almost old enough to be the fathers of the typical soldiers, who were mostly young men in their twenties. But a few of the officers were very old, and a few of them were very young, but somehow managed to command positions.

Most Union soldiers in the Civil war were members of jointly controlled federal/state volunteer units. Volunteers would be organized into companies and regiments by states and territories. They would be mustered into federal service and then paid and supplied by the Federal government. The men would often elect their officers who would be commissioned by the state or territorial governments. The federal government only commissioned general officers or officers in the rarer federal units.

The Provisional Army of the Confederate States of America was formed in a similar way.

Because the majority of the Civil War units were such volunteer units, most of the officers, especially at first, commanded because their subordinates had agreed to obey them, often by elections. At the beginning of the war the officers and non commissioned officers were usually not imposed on the privates by outside authorities, but chosen by the privates from among their friends and members of their communities.

During the Civil War, most companies had only one first sergeant, six sergeants, and four corporals in their tables of organization, and most or all of them had command duties.

Thus it was much more impressive to be promoted to those ranks, especially corporal, than it is at the present time.

For example, Thomas P. Gere (December 10, 1842-January 8, 1912) was a lieutenant when he earned the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Nashville on December 16, 1864, aged 22 years and 6 days. That's doing pretty good as a young officer, right?

Actually Gere enlisted in the Fifth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, and was mustered in January 17, 1862, and was promoted to first sergeant and then second lieutenant. His company was stationed at Fort Ridgely, Minnesota, when the Minnesota Sioux uprising started on August 18, 1862, and Captain Marsh and many of the men were killed trying to rescue civilians. This left Lieutenant Gere in command, age 19 years, 8 months, and 8 days. Lt. Timothy Sheehan (age 21) arrived with reinforcements before the Sioux attacked on August 20 and 22.

Lieutenant General Arthur MacArthur Jr. (June 2, 1845-September 5, 1912) enlisted in the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry and was commissioned a first lieutenant and adjutant August 4, 1862, aged 17 years, 2 months and 2 days. At the Battle of Missionary Ridge, November 25, 1863, thousands of Union soldiers ran up the ridge without orders to drive away the entrenched Rebels at the top. Lt. MacArthur was one of the leaders in that attack, carrying the regimental colors and planting them at the top of the ridge, age 18 years, 5 months, and 23 days, and was awarded the medal of honor. He was promoted to major January 25, 1864 aged 18 years, 7 months, and 23 days, and to lieutenant colonel May 18, 1865, aged 19 years, 11 months, and 16 days. MacArthur was thus called "the boy colonel".

Henry King Burgwyn, Jr. (October 2, 1841-July 1, 1863) also became known as "the boy colonel" (of the Confederacy). He was commissioned lieutenant colonel of the 26th North Carolina in August, 1861, aged 19 years and 10 months, and colonel in August 1862 when still 20.

Uriah Galusha Pennypacker enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 and rose from private to quartermaster sergeant. He recruited a company for the 97 Pennsylvania volunteers and was commissioned captain in August 1861, and Major in October. He was commissioned colonel August 15, 1864, and led a brigade. He was promoted to brigadier general, United States Volunteers, April 28, 1865, and after the war he became a colonel in the regular army in July 1866.

Various sources said that Pennypacker was born June 1, 1844, making him a Major aged 17 years and 4 months, a colonel aged 20 years and 4 months, a brigadier general aged 20 years and 10 months, and a regular army colonel aged 22 years and 1 month. Other sources say he was born on June 1, 1842, thus making him two years older when he achieved those ranks.

Charles Cleveland Dodge (September 16, 1841-November 4, 1910) was commissioned a captain in the 7th New York Volunteer Cavalry in December, 1861, aged 20 years and two months. He was promoted colonel August 14, 1862 aged 20 years, 10 months, and 19 days, and brigadier general USV November 29, 1862, aged 21 years, 2 months, and 13 days. He resigned in June 1863 but led militia against draft rioters in New York City the next month.

Ulrich Dahlgren (April 3, 1842-March 2,1864) was commissioned a captain on May 29, 1862 aged 20 years, 1 month, and 26 days, and a colonel July 24, 1863, aged 21 years, 3 months, and 21 days.

Many accounts of young Rebels claim that T.G. Bean recruited and trained two companies of recruits in 1861 aged 13 before joining the Rebel army 2 years later. But he was actually Thomas Greene Bush, born 19 august 1947, and he was about 16 years and 11 months old when becoming lieutenant and adjutant of the 62nd Alabama regiment in 1863, and 17 years, 8 months, and 15 days old when they surrendered on May 4, 1865.

W. D. Peake (born December 22, 1846) enlisted in Company A, 26 Tennessee Infantry (rebel) and was promoted to sergeant sometime before the war ended in April and May 1865 when he was 18 years and 5 or 6 months old.

Henry Weidensaul was probably born July 1, 1847 and enlisted in the 46th Pennsylvania Infantry in 1861. He was promoted to Corporal May 18, 1863 aged 15 years, 10 months, and 17 days, to sergeant October 1, 1864, aged 17 years, and 3 months, and to first sergeant on July 1, 1865 aged 18 years.

There is a possibility that a James H. Deal became a Rebel lieutenant aged about 13 to 18 but there is no proof of his service.

There is a story that a T.D. Claiborne was born in 1847 and became a captain in the 18th Virginia Infantry in 1861, a Major and a lieutenant colonel in 1863, and died in 1864. However, there also a statement that Captain T.D. Claiborne of the 11th Viginia was born December 25, 1835.

John C. Delany was born April 22, 1848, and enlisted March 5, 1862, in the 107th Pennsylvania Volunteers and apparently promoted to corporal aged fourteen years, eight months, and thirteen days, sergeant sixteen years, five months, and twenty four days, first sergeant sixteen years, eleven months, and seven days, and second lieutenant aged seventeen years, one month and five days, and earned the Medal of Honor aged sixteen years, nine months, and fifteen days.

Gustave Albert Schurmann was born February 4, 1849 and enlisted in the 40th New York Volunteers in 1861. He was apparently promoted to sergeant in 1863 around the time of his 14th birthday.

An E.G. Baxter allegedly enlisted in the 7th Kentucky cavalry (Rebel) aged about 12 and was commissioned an 2nd lieutenant when aged 13, but I have not found any record of that officer.

Musician Charles Edwin King was probably born on April 3, 1849, enlisted in the 49th Pennsylvania Volunteers September 12, 1861 aged 12 year, 5 months, and 9 days, and died of wounds on September 20, 1862, aged 13 years, 5 months, and 17 days. It has been claimed that he was promoted to drum major during his service.

John Lincoln Clem (August 13, 1851-May 13, 1937) of the 22nd Michigan became one of the most famous drummer boys in the Civil War. He was promoted to the little known rank of lance sergeant on September 20, 1863. Thus he became a non commissioned officer aged 12 years, 1 month, and 7 days.

A Charles Carter Hay claimed to have joined the 15th Alabama age 11 and to have been appointed a lieutenant and a captain, but there is no record of such an officer.

Gilbert de Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, (6 September 1757-20 May 1834) was commissioned a Continental major general on 31 July 1777, aged 19 years, 10 months, and 25 days, though he didn't receive large commands suitable for a general until he was 20.

So there are some examples of young leaders who people followed from history.

  • $\begingroup$ You forgot that for a long time it was a common practice in the british navy for wealthy parents to buy officer ranks for their teenaged sons and send them off with the royal navy. During that time frame the Royal Navy performed quite well overall, and the young officers had to learn leadership skills since they couldn't rely on experience or size. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Apr 20 '18 at 19:07
  • $\begingroup$ @pojo-guy - I deliberately didn't include any teenage or child officers in training in the Royal Navy for a reason. Instead I concentrated on young officers and non coms in the US Civil War because in many cases they had been elected or otherwise agreed to by their fellow volunteers, and thus came closer to being followed by free will as in the OP question. $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding Apr 22 '18 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ When you're on an 18th century sailing ship, officers either learned that being a minority in close quarters meant being accepted by their underlings, or faced an uncertain future in the ships lifeboat. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Apr 22 '18 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ This is a great list to remind people that by most standards, soldiers are children. They sign up aged 16-18 and some of them get rank of some sort fairly early. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Apr 30 '19 at 6:56

The four main qualities that contibute to ending up in a leadership position are: Knowledge, Leadership, Luck, and Appearance.

Knowlege of the relevant issues that impact the community, or the ability to listen to good advice on those issues.

Having good leadership skills, being able to give orders in a way that commands respect instead of foster resentment.

Being in the right place at the right time, Dumb luck and strange coincidences have been major factors in many people ending up in leadership positions.

The last one is that you need to Look like a leader, or be able to command respect through appearance alone. (Warren Harding was one of the least qualified presidents of his time, but was elected anyways because he looked presidential.)

Anyone could become a leader by having even 1 of these 4 qualities, but for someone to be a good leader you may need to have 2,3 or even all 4 of these qualities

The character you describe may have a hard time looking like a leader, or may not have a wide pool of knowledge, but with the right leadership skills could still earn enough respect to end up in charge of a community.


A nineteen year old can look quite adult, especially behind the usual dirt, facial hair and attitude changes that tend to come after an apocalypse. There's no need for anyone to know he's an adolescent. Espacily if he's not necessarily a paragon of virtue.

Alternatively you could lean into his adolescence trying to lead in hard conditions when many of the people beneath you think that you're "actually just a kid" is a hard struggle. Generally in writing struggles for your protagonists can be embraced, I personally would read about a child ruler desperately juggling internal politics, managing subordinates and rivals alike regardless of any zombies.

Finally its possible you don't even need a justification, the walking dead is primarily a world gone mad. Child rulers have exsisted in the past and I'd happily follow a twelve year old in twd


If he was of greater stature that those around him (say 6'4", 220 lbs), and was competent at keeping himself alive, protecting his people and keeping them fed, his age would be a minor nitpick.

He would be someone that most everyone would have to, literally, look up to.

That goes a long way towards "leadership" material.


Kids and teens have lead things before. In WW2 Yevdokiya Zavaliy hooked up with a calvery unit headed for the front at 16 by 17 she was commanding her own machine gunning platoon she won 40 medals for her command and bravery under fire. Frau Black Death was her war name, she made her men, who initially were not happy with a teenager for a leader, fall under her command quickly due to her actions, tough discipline measures and bravery under fire. Her unit soon became a routine go to for front line heavy fire and difficult battles as they were fearless and maintained themselves well under such conditions.

I forgot the war down in South American in the 90s were two young girls (twins) became commanders of a forest rebel group holding supreme iron fist rule they were only 10 so why? Partly local village legend had them being war gods due to their twinship the other part? They'd shoot you so much as look at you. When they were interviewed they came across as adult grizzled war vets in demeanor and attitude.

So your person needs to eventually be the most capable and cool headed leader in the group when the tirbe needs him even if they weren't looking at him at to him at the very beginning. It might be even better if his traits come out slowly the group take notice when the group favored say two others for the job but issues weren't always going thier way. It helps if they have some bravado if they have to kill the former leader and have tact as well. If they inspire, organize people well, make them feel like they're contributing to the mission, their society, and maybe slip in a bit of undetected manipulation he could go far.

Think of the qualities you like in a leader or what historically would be required? The group needs security, food, shelter, but as this group wants to get larger and larger they need a relative safe zone for rearing and having children and those children having some success of survival. Your kid could've been brought up with critical thinking and practical application skills at first this is what makes him more qualified or his willingness to infiltrate the enemy and blow up things without support it depends on what his tribe needs from a leader in the time it is required he can grow into the other traits that make them feel confident, strong, and willing to allow him to lead.


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