For some time now, I’ve been aware that the protagonists of my stories have never scraped past the age of 22. On average, I write characters whom are around my age, which means that they’re usually 18 years old. And what seemed to be one of those fleeting thoughts that pops into my head for a split-second became a detail that I’ve pondered over for a decent chunk of the week. And from the look of it, I’m not alone in this crowd. There’s a swath of individuals whom enjoy making their protagonists young.
This is isn’t necessarily a good thing…nor is it a bad thing either. At its worst, it’s just a peculiar quirk in which authors partake in often. I would think that people would get tired of seeing this kind of youthful hero portrayed so many times in media, books, and movies, but people eat it right up. And I can’t blame them!
We all have our weird quirks when it comes to the aesthetic in a work. I, for one, am not a white person. But for some reason, I tend to prefer fantasy worlds in which the majority of the population are based on the European Middle Ages, and by sheer happenstance, most of the characters happen to be of white skin! So my approach to this kind of aesthetic preference is that the author ought to create whatever world he wants to, be it whitewashed or not, and anyone whom complains about it ought to create a world of their own. I find it pointless to argue about another person’s creation based on something so arbitrary, but if I’d left it at that, I would just writing off the Young Age Factor in novels as being something based purely on aesthetics.
But as with all things I deign worthy enough to appear in this blog, once I spent a nice session thinking through it, I found that my choice to make young characters was far more utilitarian than I thought. But enough mindless exposition, let’s just dig into whatever the hell it is I found.
1. They bring the best blend of external and internal conflict to the table
As with all bullets I include here, know that there will always be exceptions to what I say. But on the whole, I find this to be true.
Specifically in adventure stories, the protagonist while undoubtedly trudge through a gallery of chases, mazes, fights, and acrobatic feats. Now, unless you’ve ever seen your 90-year old grandfather win a sword duel, it is undeniable that young people are more physically apt for whatever devilish trials you wish for him to undertake during the course of the book. Let’s face it, youthful people tend to be capable of more feats physical prowess, it’s just science. But that isn’t to say that young characters are better at everything.
While they are resilient on a physical levels, a young character is still vulnerable when it comes to the mind. Many themes such as identity and the quest for meaning just tend to mix better with young characters. This is because it is implied that their inexperience in life is the cause of their minds not being so mature, as a result, writing a young character is almost always the go-to path for stories about “Finding Oneself”.
2. They align seamlessly with the concept of a character arc
When writers say that they want a character to have an arc in their story, what they really mean is that they want the events of the story to mold the character into something new. This way, once you close the paperback you’ll know that the heroes you started reading about might be different people by the end.
“But, QuestingAuthor!” you ask. “Old folk can also be changed by the events of a story. They can have character arcs too you ageist!”
Fine, fine, I’ll concede that point. Save for one caveat. The longer that a person is alive, the more stubborn they become. This is for a number of reasons, namely because you’ll have seen so many things by that point in your life that it becomes hard for just about anything to faze you. Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible to change the perspective of an older individual, but it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Sure, it can be done, that doesn’t mean you have high chances of success, however.
A young character presents the author with a blank canvas that is just waiting to be painted upon. Since a young character works like a blank slate, he can fit into almost all kinds of plots and have room to grow as a human being. Kids such as the likes of me are just impressionable at this time of our lives, in a way that older folk are not. So using a young character can grant you much freedom in terms of how you wish your characters to react to the events in a story.
3. Youth Represents the Future
I know I’m beating a dead horse when I say that, but like so many fundamental truths, the value in that statement outweighs the cringe. I guess that this bullet point applies most specifically to myself, as I tend to write tales with optimistic morals, which is why youth is an invaluable tool to me. When we envision innocence and happiness, what tends to come to our minds are young people, and that’s alright!
The youth will supplant the peoples of this current generation, and then their youth will in turn supplant them. A character’s young age can be the most effective symbol for change or the path to an optimistic future. When you have an 18 year-old protagonist who can wield a sword for some reason, don’t just look at it as an attempt of the author to give himself a young avatar (although this is not uncommon). Instead, see how that character has an effect on the world.
Youth can be a powerful symbol in this regard, on that I’d be hard-pressed to see replicated in any other manner. Young heroes can serve to remind us of the joy that marks childhood–and how that joy can still have an impact in the present day.
I hope I allowed you to see that this isn’t just a mere aesthetic preference. Many of the features or tropes that we take for granted in our storytelling are actually key insights into the message or goal a story wishes to convey, despite how superficial it might seem. So if you were to ask me if young characters were becoming tired, I would answer with a definitive no. But the question remains, how would you answer that?
As always, this has been the QuestingAuthor. Keep writing, my friends.