I started reading Fantasy novels with an adult target audience at the age of twelve. I’m sure a lot of the children’s stories I enjoyed before that will have had Fantasy elements, but the jump to standard-sized novels with covers often drawn by Boris Vallejo serves as a demarcation of the year I began to choose my genre preferences and shape my future choices as an adult reader.
In those days, we didn’t have categories called ‘Young Adult’ or ‘Middle Grade’. There was a definite demarcation between books for adult readers and children’s books, with age recommendations for the latter which would include what is now called Middle Grade. By the time a reader got to 14-16, they were reading the same books as Fantasy fans across the adult age spectrum.
Many of these had teenage protagonists. Some had primary characters in young adulthood, but some of the common tropes, like the pair of brothers with one a warrior and one destined to be a magician (Such as in Magician by Raymond Feist), usually depicted characters who were not quite full adults or perhaps not even quite pre-teenagers. This never bothered me or any of the Fantasy readers I’ve ever known. We accepted characters for who they were and if some were young and coming of age, well, that was just part of their story.
Who could forget the quandary of young Regis Hastur in The Heritage of Hastur, craving adventure and travel to other planets, but bound to Darkover by his royal blood and developing psychic abilities, or young half-human, half-elfin Shea Ohmsford in The Sword of Shannara, torn from his peaceful life to go on quest to save the world in the post-Lord of the Rings era of similar quest stories? Or young Menolly of Pern who longed to become a harper, though girls were traditionally not considered in that role in her world?
One of the differences between those stories and a lot of modern Young Adult books is that many of those released this century have protagonists dealing with teenage issues like high school, college, parents and other concerns far removed from a reader like myself who is many decades past such matters. There are some authors who can tell a story with a high school backdrop and still keep my interest, like Lin Senchaid who wrote Force of Chaos where a fifteen-year-old antichrist seeks to have something like a normal adolescence despite his foretold destiny or Maggie Steifvater, in her novel Shiver where teenager Grace develops an attachment to a wolf shape-shifter she encounters in the woods behind her house. This story has a depth to it that surpasses the standard Romance tropes.
The trick to this is focusing on story. The books I’ve started to read and usually abandoned were because trying to construct a teenage character through peripheral elements like school too often results in whiney, shallow teenagers. I had to chuckle when a review for one of the above mentioned books said that the characters were too mature and didn’t behave like ‘real’ teenagers, because that particular group of characters reminded me of my own high school social circles. We didn’t agonise over homework or drone on about latest fashions. We had interests beyond grades and designer labels.
A teenage character can carry a story effectively in a way that will hold the attention of readers across the age spectrum. For example, in my Goblin Trilogy, the protagonist in the first book is around 30, but in the second book, the lead character is a young girl fleeing an unwanted arranged marriage. Several of the significant characters she soon meets are children and young teenagers, though adults also feature in the story.
Namah’s journey to discover a new life beyond the repressive society she grew up in is similar to many coming of age stories, but her development is woven into a larger panorama of a world developed in the first book where magicians are the ruling class and goblins have been rediscovered in a world divided by prejudices and some very real fears.
Similarly, Regis Hastur’s coming of age occurs against a backdrop of Darkovan history and customs, as well as a primary plot that has little to do with his youth and more to do with a serious crisis in his world.
The stories that really work with teenage protagonists, in my opinion, are those where the youth of the character is secondary to a main plot line. Teenagers live in real worlds and have concerns beyond those things that define them as teenagers. Even many of the better Middle Grade books take the characters on quests or journeys where school and parents are incidental at most.
What books do you love that have teenage protagonists? Have you ever written a story from a teenager’s point of view? Let’s chat in the comments.
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