Young protagonists in the Fantasy genre are nothing new. Without even thinking too hard, I can remember reading about many of them in some of my favourite Fantasy books of all time. This includes several of the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey, Godstalk by PC Hodgell and some of the books in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series. There are many, many more.
In reading modern Young Adult books, I often find it difficult to identify with young characters. Having given it considerable thought, I’ve worked out that there is more to this than just the fact that the concerns of teenagers are several decades behind me.
What makes the young characters in my old favourite Fantasy books work is that they have something more interesting happening in their lives than concerns about dealing with parents and high school. Menolly, in the Harper Hall seriesof the Pern books, is driven to pursue her music in a world where girls are not normally admitted to the Harper Guild. Jame, in Godstalk, fights supernatural creatures as well as human opponents. Regis Hastur, in The Bloody Sunfrom the Darkover serieswants to adventure in the stars when his birth in the ruling family prevents him leaving the planet.
While part of the appeal of these stories is some awesome world building, teenage protagonists can be interesting in a more real world backdrop as well. Grace, in Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater has a strange relationship with a wolf in the forest outside of her house. Her experiences will involve her high school at some point, but as a secondary backdrop to a far more interesting plot line, one that has carried the series through four books with sales figures on the paperback versions at least looking very successful.
I had an unusual childhood. Without digressing, many of the concerns of teenagers in the more modern books never played a role in my life. I know I’m not alone in this. The average YA protagonist appeals to a very specific demographic; one where normality of average, usually American, white middle class provides the backdrop until something unusual breaks the monotony, like a vampire or werewolf bite.
While this description might fit the book Shiver, mentioned above, the difference is that Grace has a connection to the supernatural from childhood and her inner thoughts are of a more interesting nature than the standard, boys, grades and hairstyles that I find irritating at best in many modern female protagonists. This would apply to the older books I’ve referred to as well.
With a little ferreting through the slush, I’ve found that the art of good Fantasy hasn’t disappeared or been replaced entirely by shallow, young protagonists. It just takes a little digging to find the more original stories; the hidden gems, lurking within the pile. Kindle samples have made this relatively easy.
Among the real gems I’ve found are authors C.M. Gray, Lin Senchaid, Helen Harper and Alwyn Hamilton. Part of the appeal of these authors is just quality of writing, but also a talent for world building, always an important aspect of Fantasy writing.
In Gray’s Flight of the Griffin, he’s created a world where magic plays a significant role and the culture is redolent of small village and fishing cultures of days that have been forgotten by modern city dwellers. Senchaid, in her debut book (a new release) visits a question that occurred to me when I was watching the second of the Omen films: What happens if the antichrist, having attained free will as a result of incarnation, has a teenage rebellion or simply chooses not to fill the role prescribed for him?
Harper has taken the Shifter theme and added her own original spin to their society, even incorporating vampires. Hamilton produced a magical, mock-Arabic world with rules for the Djinn that make amazing sense in the backdrop of her colourful setting.
Writing teenage protagonists doesn’t have to appeal only to teenagers or young adults. As much as I tend to skim past book descriptions that start out with “15-year-old [name]…”, I’ve rather enjoyed some of the YA literature that develops the person outside of defining them by their age. I think this is the key to a really good teenage protagonist; to develop the character personality through their qualities rather than their age and to give them something more interesting to deal with than ordinary teenage concerns.
A good plot, after all, involves addressing a conflict and the character’s evolution through finding solutions to circumstances beyond normal day to day life.
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