Is having a young Protagonist... unrealistic?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Ewolf20, Oct 12, 2018.

  1. Ewolf20

    Ewolf20 Master

    maybe i'm worrying too much but today i realize how....weird and overdone for the main character to be a preteen or a teenage that somehow saves the world. one story i'm outlining in question has a young boy from some tribe in a canyon managing to stop an tribal conflict, an ancient empire's plans to regain supremacy, and a possible alien invasion. it's one of those stories....a story about boy trying to get his dragon despite those odds i mentioned.

    i feel a bit a shame for making most of my characters teen as some folks aren't into that sort of thing but i can't for the life of me make a convincing adult character.
  2. ScaryMJDiamcreep

    ScaryMJDiamcreep Lore Master

    The important thing is to make it obvious that the protag doesn't know how to deal with anything like what's being thrust upon them before the story begins, and clearly show the process of them learning as the story progresses. Though through my own advice I realise that if I want my characters to be as prepared and knowledgeable as I have them, I need to bump up their ages a bit.
    DragonOfTheAerie likes this.
  3. DragonOfTheAerie

    DragonOfTheAerie Valar Lord

    Lots of major historical figures were teenaged when they were accomplishing things of major importance, so...

    But, if a character has skills that would require tons of training and experience, like years of it, I might be a little suspicious. The character just can't have been alive long enough. This is my problem with a lot of YA novels.
    Night Gardener likes this.
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

    There are a couple of tricky aspects to age that young. The first is, every year matters, so choose your MC's age carefully. The big divide, of course, is puberty.

    The second is, culture matters. Kids are kids, but how juvenile behavior is manifested, and how it is regarded by adults, varies widely from one society to another. The big divide here is industrial versus agricultural and, closely related, whether or not school is compulsory.

    A third consideration is if you are trying to adhere to some historico-cultural precedent or whether your main concern is to have your readers believe. In the latter case, it's often safer to play to stereotypes, so just take a look at good-sellers in your genre.

    The old canard about children being treated as miniature adults has long been thrown out. In the Middle Ages, at least, you could rule England at age fifteen. Marriage was permitted (after 1200 or so) at age fourteen for boys, twelve for girls. Alexander the Great commanded a wing of his father's army at age sixteen or seventeen. Boys went off to college in their mid-teens and, at the same age, could be given major responsibilities in the family business.

    I have to tell my favorite kids-are-kids story. The place is Venice, the time is the 1500s or thereabouts. As you may know, Venice is divided into a number of districts, and because the place is laced with canals, the canals formed the dividing lines between districts. The paths between were the bridges.

    Young men being what they are, gangs formed in each district and, young men being what they are, there were fights between these gangs (typically ages sixteen into the early 20s). These fights took on such scale that they became big attractions, with people watching from boats and windows. Because the fight took place on a bridge, and there were no railings or such. You can see some images if you look up "war of the fists".

    Anyway, my favorite part involves younger boys, ages ten to twelve or fourteen. These younger boys would dash over into a rival's territory, shout insults, then race back. It was something between a dare, a taunt, and a challenge. Sometimes they'd be ignored, sometimes there would be retribution, and sometimes there would be a bridge battle.

    This is exactly the dynamic in modern gangs. The leadership and muscle clusters around the late teens and early twenties, but there is always a group, almost to the point of a sub-gang, of younger boys (and girls, nowadays), who pretty much are the very definition of a toady. Gangs-in-training. The same virtually spontaneous social interactions in 1518 Venice as there are in, say, 2018 Los Angeles.

    Kids is kids.
  5. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    If that's what your stories demand, then that's what they demand. I mean, does anybody question why an author only has adult main characters? There are entire genres in which the main characters are kids. People search out stories that appeal to them. They don't think, "Oh I've read too many books with young protagonists. I won't read this one even though it sounds exciting, and I'm sure I'd like it." You're writing for your intended audience, anyone outside of that, well, the story may not be for them.

    As for making convincing adult characters, just write them as real people, not stereotypes. Give them solid motivations for acting the way they do. Don't ask if an adult would act this way. Ask if Bob or Jane, your characters, would act this way. Because there are childish adults and serious adults, and there are mature kids and immature kids. It's up to you to decide who your characters are and how they should react based on who they are.
    Night Gardener likes this.
  6. MrBrightsider

    MrBrightsider Acolyte

    Having a young character do amazing things isn't unrealistic--having a character do unrealistic things is unrealistic. Alexander the Great conquered most of Europe by 21, and started when he was 18. However, he had the resources to do it, and happened to have studied under some of the most successful people around. Also, since he was a hyper-egotistical a**-hole, he would have plenty of character faults to be an interesting protagonist.

    I really agree with Scary on this point--your audience will believe that your young character can successful do anything that he's familiar with doing. They WON'T believe that the protagonist can succeed instantly in a situation they've never been in before. For example, they might believe an orphan boy living in a desert city who has been stealing for the past 8 years is a pretty good thief. They won't believe that same boy is also a sword master who can swim like Michael Philps and also captain a ship.

    I like to give my characters 'talents' in terms of 'how many years does this skill cost'. Skills take time to learn, usually years to learn. If your character is learning certain skills, they wont have enough time to learn others. Kids can start learning how to do things well at around 9 or 10 years old. So, for example, if your character is 14, and he's been training with his dad since he was ten, you can 'spend' four years in sword fighting. This would make the audience believe that he's an o.k. sword fighter, and they won't bat an eye when you have him destroy a 17 year old who JUST joined the army and picked up a sword.

    However, because sword fighting is a difficult talent, it's likely that this 14 year old didn't have the time to spend mastering, say, magic. That might cost another 4 years to be proficient at--this protag. has already spent his years on sword fighting; he can't have too many skills that take time to learn.

    Hope that helps!
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

    Um, Alexander didn't conquer much of anything in Europe, outside of Greece. His playground ran from Turkey to India and down to Egypt. Sorry, the historian in me blurted.
    A. E. Lowan likes this.
  8. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Staff Article Team

    We have a few younger protagonists in our urban fantasy series. One is brash, fierce, and dabbling with alcoholism at seventeen to cope with PTSD. The other is a little older, resourceful, strong, respectful, and quiet. They are both crucial to the plot in their own ways, and their ages have a lot to do with that. Are we writing YA? No. Most of our characters are adults. But The Books of Binding is a multi-generational family saga, and kids abound.

    Don't worry about whether or not you have young protagonists. Just worry about writing them true to character.
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

    I don't believe in YA. I believe in stories and whether or not the reader likes them. As for audience, I do confess I write with humanoids in mind.
    TheCrystallineEntity and Gurkhal like this.
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

    >Having a young character do amazing things isn't unrealistic--having a character do unrealistic things is unrealistic.

  11. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Shadow Lord

    Depends on what kind of story you want to tell. One can reasonably expect, or at least I think so, a younger character to grow more during the story while an older character would perhaps be more set in his or her ways. But on the other hand an older character would perhaps have more experience and maturity to find solutions, while a younger may, if we're going with classical stereotypes, be more prone to passion or make impulsive actions that could come back to bite them, or on another turn open up a new solution to an old problem.

    If you for example have a kingdom in problem, having an older chancellor take up the stick to solve it will be a very different story than a testerone-filled young knight going to do the same. The basic problem they face could be the same and the same opponents, but they'll go about it very differently and pick different solutions.
  12. Helen

    Helen Mystagogue

    There are tons of stories with a very young protagonist. You can always write in an older mentor who guides.

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