Vistas of Reality

Young Adult Protagonists


In which I alienate fans of lawyer books…

Young people: horny, stupid and capable enough to get into major trouble.

First the news: I am about a quarter of the way through editing Firesage. I don’t have much inclination to do anything else because editing is so rewarding. I thought about doing a blog post on my editing procedure, but actually editing is so much more fun, I thought I would share some thoughts on the age of protagonists. I got two more short stories rejected this week, and will post them here soon. If you haven’t read “Talons of the Sun” or “The Lapis Dragon-Tamer” yet, head over to my short fiction page, and stay tuned for more.

The subject came up on Facebook about why so many stories are about people of a particular age, and I have some quick thoughts on this.

The Age of Main Characters

The question comes up quite often on social media of why so many protagonists in action-adventure, sci-fi and fantasy are young men, typically between eighteen and twenty-five. If you are a propagandist, someone who believes all stories depict certain kinds of people only for political reasons, then you would answer that this is because, according to the dominant oppressive social paradigm, white males 18-25 are the best kinds of people.

I don’t know why this would be true in real life, much less in books.  Protagonists are not always good people, though we usually have sympathy for them in some way.  Furthermore, someone who always does the right thing and knows what it is (usually going by the name “Superman”) makes a pretty boring character.

So young, so naive, so determined.

You can probably tell by my sneering tone and redundant modifiers that I don’t believe (all) stories are propaganda. I can’t really think of why white people make better protagonists, and in many cases they don’t, so that doesn’t account for their prevalence, but age presents a particular problem for the propagandist. I for one love to read and write about women, almost as much as I like to be married to one, but there’s a good reason, particularly in the adventurous subgenres that young adults make good protagonists.

The first is John Gardner’s idea that young adulthood represents an optimal time for being in a story. Children, real kids, are great for fairy tales where their stupidity gets them into plenty of trouble, but there’s little about these stories that is believable. Kids are really not capable of getting into major trouble until they reach a certain level of independence.  If you’re writing a novel that attempts believability, then children are usually unsuitable.  Think of The Outsiders or Rebel Without a Cause: those kids were at the very cusp of being able to get around independently of adults.

People older than about twenty-five, Gardner reasons, are too caught up in the stability of adult life to get into adventures. On top of that they’re not stupid enough to get involved in trouble that leads them on an adventure. They tend to depend on authority rather than ingenuity and bravery. I try to write about “married people with married problems,” but in most cases they have ended up being married fairly young and not able to let go of their youth and get into stability. Elspyth, the protagonist of Firesage, is moving too fast toward the stability of adulthood, and adulthood isn’t ready for her intensity.

You need a protagonist, for an adventure, who is capable enough, i.e. knows how to ride a horse, sail a ship, kill orcs, and so on, but who isn’t caught up in having kids or tired of adventure. I have three kids and can personally testify that my orc-fighting gumption is completely exhausted by about 9:30 AM. There’s another reason, I think, that people this age make pretty good protags. We expect people over thirty to be sensible enough (or tired enough) to avoid stupid adventures, but we also expect people under thirty to have to go through an adventure to grow up. The Hero’s Journey is relatable at any age, but people relate to it the most, at its archetypal core, for characters who are just reaching independence.

Rand Al’Thor, with all the qualifications, on the knife-edge between capable youth and all-out adult disillusion (after 6 books).

Believe me, there are other crucial archetypal ages: there’s a reason Jesus was crucified at age 33 and the Buddha reached enlightenment at age 35, but the real adventure of life starts as we just enter our independence. You have to be that independent for a while before you realize everything is BS and your life goes to hell (that’s more like 35-40). When you’re young and you know what your principles are, that’s a good time to go on an adventure. The Mormon Church knows this. My impression is that Robert Jordan discovered a protagonist this age works better through trial-and-error: the protagonist of The Wheel of Time was originally going to be an old man, but after years of drafting, Jordan changed him to a much younger, more typically aged hero (and he’s not a hero, by the way).

Notice that these young protagonists are not the best everywhere. John Grisham’s books wouldn’t make sense if he had a bunch of people applying to college or law school, instead of graduating. Stephen King has a lot of kids in his books. But Luke Skywalker, Rand Al’Thor, and Severian are at a particular age because that’s the age for adventure. Some things in storytelling are the way they are for very good reasons, and I’m always skeptical when I hear they’re only good for insulting particular readers. I could get onto the whole “I’m tired of medieval Europe” thing, but that’s a topic for another time. Spoiler alert: I’m not tired of it.