On the morning after my mother’s memorial (a tearful, giggly. heartbroken whirl of homemade Halloween costumes and butterfly wings) I learned that my very YA-flavored story “In the Woods Behind My House” had found a home in Podcastle, the world’s first audio fantasy magazine and one of my favorite pro-rate markets. Listen to it here: http://podcastle.org/2016/01/06/podcastle-397-in-the-woods-behind-my-house/
Truthfully, my story of a twelve year old boy and the secret animal companion who dwells in his backyard was not a story I ever felt I had much hope of selling. It was a story very dear to my writer’s heart. But I supposed that, because it centers around a young adult protagonist, and because it relies on a young adult’s impressions of the world without being a story especially for young adults, that it must be (sin of sins) Unmarketable.
Now that I have actually sold the thing, now that the gnawing, blinding fear of being found to be Unmarketable and (gulp!) Weird has passed, I am able to remember three very obvious and important things:
- Every story I have ever sold has featured at least one child or young adult protagonist, and the majority were not written for young adults.
- This is not something I invented. Youthful protagonists abound in speculative fiction, without apology. The fields of science fiction and fantasy have always been home to young heroes in very big and serious worlds, and the question of readership, of who those worlds are for, has always been fluid.
3. That fluidity is what I’ve always loved about speculative fiction.
So why does so much of speculative fiction center around child or young adult protagonists? It’s a question that always seems to be of particular concern to those who don’t read or write genre fiction. Why do all these adult writers feel the need to write stories about children if they’re not intended to be for children? What’s the psychology behind that?
It’s a question that becomes about a hundred times more pointed if your protagonist is a young adult, and its a question I’ve never been able to get past the subtext of: Children? Why would they matter? Why are we talking about things that matter to them? We’re all adults. What’s up with you that you’re so obsessed with depicting children as people? Is it because you’re not really an adult?
(Note: nobody has ever once said anything even approaching this to me. I apologize to the poor phantom non-fantasy reader to whom I am attributing so much callous self-absorption.)
A family member once posited (without any offense intended) that the reason behind fantasy’s predilection for young protagonists is the same reason for its widespread popularity. Because reading fantasy requires an intentional childishness, a purposeful transporting of oneself back to the unseasoned, immature mindset of a child. In other words, people who read fantasy are doing so because they really want to be children, so it follows that many of the protagonists in fantasy stories are going to be children.
This theory takes a pretty dim view of humanity, though, and not just the humanity of our present Harry Potter-loving culture. Historically, most stories across civilizations have been what we’d call fantasy. The story entirely without magic is a very new thing. Even in the thoroughly disenchanting shadow of the Protestant reformation, some of the first and most popular novels were Gothic novels, rife with supernatural occurrences and- incidentally- teenage protagonists.
Are we really prepared to entertain the suggestion that most of storytelling throughout human history has been one giant exercise in ignoring adulthood? (some people truly believe that this is all stories are for, but such people tend not to read very much of any sort of fiction.) No, the child warriors and martyrs and revolutionaries of speculative fiction are not inviting us to be children, at least not in an indulgent, nostalgic sense.
I think the true reason that speculative fiction stories are so often populated by children is that they simply make better, more dynamic, more decisive protagonists than adults.
I am currently in the midst of writing yet another story with a child protagonist, a girl surviving and thriving in the dilapidated recession ghost-town of her childhood by adhering to a mysterious, nonsensical barter system, the magical reasoning of which she does not understand.
She is absolutely a child. She is full of the immediate childish concerns of how to get most pleasantly from one day to the next. She prioritizes like a child. She solves her problems like a child. And I am utterly in love with her for it. Writing this girl and her friends as they scramble busily around an empty boardwalk town that would put despair into the hearts of most adults has been an eye-opening crash course in the shaping of a protagonist.
Like any good dynamic protagonist, children have little time in their schedules for despair. They are natural adapters, natural solution-seekers. They lack the patience or the full-blown grownup narcissism to sit and wonder why something is happening to them. They are often over their tantrum, up off the floor, and onto a next, more rewarding course of action before an adult is through scratching their ass, or pouring their first self-pitying glass of wine.
Because children understand that it doesn’t matter how unfair or outrageous or nonsensical a situation is. They know instinctively that the grownup world isn’t prepared to take their feelings into consideration. Unfairness, strangeness, having to operate within a system of rules that don’t make any sense and often seem stacked against you, that’s all just part of being alive for a child.
A child doesn’t collapse into a puddle of rage and permanent inaction because the odds are against him and his world is spinning out of control. The odds are always against him. He was never in control. He simply takes in the new rules governing his situation, assesses the courses of action that are open to him, and then chooses one. (“Will it change anything if I kick and scream like someone’s beating me? Nope. I better try something else. What if I told a lie?”
It’s that kind of active seeking, that kind of decisiveness, that causes a protagonist to be a true mover of the action
Particularly in speculative fiction, where “the rules” of a world are often as strange and new to its central character as to the audience, child protagonists are a natural fit. You don’t want a protagonist who is going to be too bogged down by the irrationality of what is happening to them to properly drive the story. To have a protagonist take as long to adjust to his new circumstances as the average adult would be tedious in the extreme, and often is. Every seasoned reader of speculative fiction has at one point or another found themselves in a story where a protagonist’s hard-headed refusal to accept what’s happening brings the action to a screeching halt. “I can’t be turning into a were-boar! There’s got to be some other, much less simple explanation. Were-boars do not exist. HOW COULD THIS BE HAPPENING TO ONE SUCH AS ME?! I have to think about this for four or five pages while I lie to my girlfriend and worry about keeping my job at the bank.”
Simply choosing a child protagonist sidesteps a lot of the rage and stupified self-pity and CT scans and visits to the psychiatrist’s office that seem so natural in adults, but are so undesirable in most protagonists. When the child protagonist makes the discovery that she is turning into a were-boar, she can be relied upon to do something with that discovery. And it’s what a protagonist does with new information that most often makes a story.
Children understand the uselessness of inaction. Even if the actions they end up taking are not altogether well-informed, or well thought out, a child protagonist understands that only deliberate action leads to deliberate change in circumstance. There is no way to change the rules of the world by negating them or by lamenting their unfairness. The story only really begins when you decide to accept the rules. The tale can only be spun from within, from betwixt and between. If a protagonist hopes to break free of the rules, he or she must do so from the inside.