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Is having a young Protagonist... unrealistic?

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

  1. Ewolf20

    Ewolf20 Minstrel

    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 Troubadour

    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. 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 toujours gai, archie 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 Scribe

    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 toujours gai, archie 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 Forum Mom Leadership

    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 toujours gai, archie 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.
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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

  11. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

    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 Inkling

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

    Alora pendrak Scribe

    i tend to have my characters background shape what they can and cann't do dispite their age. Someone who is raised in a harsh world surounded by dangerous monsters is going to be way more expierenced then an older person from western civilization who lives in a luxary high class apartment. That's my take on it also its fiction so don't worry child protagonists sell pretty well no matter how modern the audience. I mean everyone loves Robin and child sidekicks to this day, so it seems we can suspend our disbelfe enough to enjoy the story.
  14. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    I felt the same way which was why I always avoided young adult 'teen saves the world' 'teen forms a rebellion' - yeah right. How many adults would honestly feel safe and confident following a 16/17 year old? They can still be very child-like and have fantastical ideas.
    Then I found myself writing a young adult novel - I know.

    But the thing is could your character be older? If they don't have to be a teenager then opt for an older character maybe. Unless of course you have themes in your book that could only work for a teen. My characters is a teen because you make her any older the book simply wouldn't work and the themes couldn't be covered and the symbolism wouldn't work. So many ask yourself why your character needs to be so young. Is it important to the plot? Like your plot is about child gladiators so no adult can take part. To the themes? like coming of age, first love.

    That's my advice but others may disagree. Hope I helped anyway.
  15. pmmg

    pmmg Istar

    No issues with me. If you feel compelled to write a young one, then that's what you got to write.
  16. T B Carter

    T B Carter Dreamer

    It all depends how you write your story. Read some of the more famous children's books, see how the likes of CS Lewis, J K Rowling and Terry Pratchett deal with young protagonists.
    Tiffany Aching from the Terry Pratchett Discworld books started saving the world when she was 9 with a frying pan, a sentient cheese and a gang of Scottish fairies.
    If 9 is too old for you Harry Potter was 1 the first time he saved the wizarding world.
  17. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    This could [perhaps] be seen as an outlier from the group that could be ignored [for statistical purposes].;)
  18. EMoon

    EMoon Dreamer

    A very young point-of-view character can work well in a story that includes more mature POV characters...it gets around the "too young to have much agency" thing. A good example is Cajeiri in Cherryn's FOREIGNER series, which I've been re-reading. He's a very bright, very determined, very impulsive kid (not human: atevi) whose father holds high political office. Reading all the books in which Cajeiri figures (the later ones in the series) I get the feeling that Cherryh did not plan all Cajeiri does from the first: his infancy and early childhood had political implications without him doing anything, but by the time he got up a few years, he had turned into one of those characters that grows out of the intended role. We see him learning--learning fast--see his curiosity, his eagerness to learn some things more than others...and we see him in the company of very intelligent adult atevi and one human who try to keep him in one piece. What he does seems just a little beyond what we think a kid that age could do, but then the atevi are "aliens" (native to that world) ...and then his story arc begins to merge with the main story arc. The story really sparks when he's the POV; he's a great plot-driver.

    But if a young protagonist doesn't feel right to you, then don't write one. There's no compelling reason to do so. No writer has all the talents; let someone else write young protagonists.
  19. RKM

    RKM Acolyte

    My protagonist is young too - the age of my ideal reader in fact. I think one reason why protagonists are often young is because authors want the child reader to relate to them. Perhaps this is due to the belief that children can't relate to a number of teenage/adult issues because they've not come across them yet in their own life journey, whereas teens and adults can still look back and empathise/understand a child protagonist.

    My advise is to not worry about whether its overdone. Write the character as you see them and not change them because some people might not like them that way. Good luck :)

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