It helps, I think, that a) I’ve been looking forward to this rant, and b) the fantasy books that I’ve enjoyed the most in the last month were both adult bildungsromans. One, Charles de Lint’s Memory and Dream, was a reread, and perhaps better than I remembered; the character’s adolescent past is entwined with recollections of her adult life, and she gets to see her mistakes in all their embarrassing detail before she gets to fix them. The second, Kim Wilkins’s The Autumn Castle, is wonderful for the consequences that linger on in the character’s life (despite what could have been typical Dead Parent Angst), for the different conception of Germanic(!) faeries, and for a portrayal of what really happens when adults act like spoiled children—or Mary Sues—in what the author aptly refers to as the “Real World.” I’ll be looking out for more of Wilkins’s books, definitely.
If you need a quick reminder of what a bildungsroman is, here’s the original rant I did on them, and here’s the definition: A novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character.
1) The adult will have some experiences that shouldn’t simply be tossed aside.
While teenage protagonists may, at the beginning of the story, be innocent, naïve, untroubled by the outside world, nonjudgmental, crammed within the own narrow spaces of their souls, or all of the above, it’s going to be harder to get away with that when your hero/ine has seen twenty-five or thirty years—or more. Even if they live in an isolated Fantasyland village, their age means they’re more likely to have seen sickness, death, gruesome accidents, famines, and other consequences of harsh life, and to have been included in discussions of them. A woman twenty-five or older in a medieval environment probably has children of her own, and knows the pain of childbirth, the worry about them, and the risk of their death before they reach adulthood. A city environment, or one where the adult protagonist is actively involved in the secret group that’s determined to save the world, will have opened more eyes. It doesn’t mean that adults have to have experienced everything your world has to offer, or that they can’t have some innocence left. But in most fantasy worlds, it would take a very special combination of circumstances—like a rich parent, a completely sheltered environment, and no catastrophes at all—to have produced an adult who’s still essentially a teenager.
So. Rather than starting out with an innocent, shattering that innocence, and building on what’s left, as is the pattern of many bildungsromans, the author needs to work with an adult who’s aware of mistakes, including ones she’s made, of danger and catastrophes and lessons about her world that someone younger would still need to learn. She may come back and face mistakes she made in the past and fled from. She may undergo a complete change and descend to unknown depths before she ascends again. She may encounter something new but not devastating. But the author, if she establishes an adult background for the character, has to remember and respect it. No tossing it out the window, as many teenage protagonists tend to have happen to them with the lessons of their childhood.
This may sound like a challenge, but I think it’s an exciting one. Anything may have happened in your adult’s life—moments of great tragedy and joy, occurrences that will make the plot easier, a set personality that will cause her to react in inconvenient ways, physical injuries that have left her in pain. That gives you a richer palette of colors to paint with than if you have a protagonist who’s spent fourteen years doing essentially the same thing.
2) There are themes of connection to play with.
Other than complete loner protagonists who spend their time wandering from city to city and never make any friends because—
Actually, I can’t think of any good reason for that. A loner protagonist who depends on the kindness of others for food and shelter will have to have friendly acquaintances, if not friends. And unless he’s incapable of forming emotional bonds, then he’s likely to pick up tenderness for people who amuse him or intrigue him or enter a rivalry with him. There’s really no reason to freeze someone over, say, one occurrence in his past and use it to torture him into having no friends. To me, that’s a sign of someone with psychological problems too deep to be cured by whatever plot coupon the author has thought up to offer him. /end digression
Anyway, unless you can think of a really good reason otherwise, many adults in fantasy are going to be part of communities. If they’re settled in one place, they’ll have friends, neighbors, acquaintances, enemies—rivals, business rivals, gossips whom they don’t like—people they buy the fish and bread from, perhaps a spouse and children. Really good reasons to go back home, these can play havoc when the author wants the character to adventure, and give someone a true reason to hurry back. An adult who changes her mind about them, or discovers deeper truths about them, is fun to watch.
If the adult already wanders, then he can have people he knows in each village or city he passes through. If he’s working for a Cause, then he might meet with spies, other people working for the Cause, members of secret groups, and so on. It would make a lot of sense to stir up a plot involving an old enemy, someone he knows suddenly betraying him, and so on.
Many adolescent-centered fantasies have the theme of the protagonist breaking out of some confining stricture, standing on his own two feet, and fighting against troublesome enemies or parents for the sake of Destiny. An adult-centered fantasy can study what happens when one person, linked to others, starts changing. It can lead into spillover, ripple effects, violent reactions and counterreactions, and even rebirth, if the adult breaks free and does start living on her own. There’s nothing wrong with independence as a theme. From the perspective of a community, though, the changes that independence makes don’t flow up to the boundary of one person’s soul and stop there. They’re going to alter many more people and relationships. Studying those people and relationships will give you a reason to deepen the secondary and minor characters, and the world, as well as the protagonist.
3) There can be different levels of perception.
Many “normal” bildungsromans hand out the earth-shattering life lessons as if there were an expiration date on the things. The adolescent protagonists might learn that the “evil” witches are really the persecuted peaceful ones, or that friends they assumed cared about them really didn’t, or that it’s okay to use the magic they were always told was evil. Once told, they usually convert completely to the new life-lesson—something I complained about in the previous rant—and enter a supportive group of people, like the witches or some new friends or mages like them. And though I can roll my eyes at this, sometimes it’s done right, and entertainingly. When the protagonist really hasn’t experienced much but one kind of life in one kind of place, the mildest contradiction can be earth-shattering.
With an adult, however, things can get subtler. Assuredly, he or she will already have learned some axioms of his or her culture, so the mere repetition of them won’t change anything. The author can, however, introduce:
- Variations on the life-lessons (the protagonist might suddenly realize just what “the cost of true love is sacrifice” really means).
- Subtler levels to the revelations—the witches were indeed persecuted, but not everything the protagonist previously learned about them was a lie.
- Ironic or cruel revelations. The protagonist learns something, but it alienates her from those she loves while not providing an immediate supportive community for her to enter. Given that adults often have credibly greater experience and survival skills, this wouldn’t be an automatic death sentence the way it would be for a naïve teenager.
I say go for some subtlety, for multi-layered lessons, for ethical complexity. Teenagers might believably see the world in black and white, and the author might not see any way around showing their perceptions as absolute. With an adult, however, there are fewer excuses for that kind of thing, and I for one am glad of it.
4) An adult can negotiate with new people from a closer-to-equal level.
I grind my teeth when the protagonist, snatched from her village by a group of mysterious, dangerous people, just nods along with whatever these mysterious, dangerous people tell her. Most of the time, she’s not keeping silent out of fear; the narrative assures me she’s curious and hot-tempered and bold enough not to be awed into silence just because someone wears a black cloak. Besides, these people tell her they need her, and will explain everything—just not, say, the prophecy or the true extent of her secret powers, because those would be information she needs to know blows against the author’s intention to string out “tension” as long as possible dangerous.
An adult could set her feet a little more firmly, I imagine, and if she couldn’t, then the author would be gracious enough to explain to me what about her personality or circumstances prevented it. There’s not the age difference between a thirty-year-old swordsman and a twenty-five-year-old woman that there is between the swordsman and a teenage girl, so the “I am older than you, I know what’s best for you, be quiet!” card is less likely to get played. The adult is probably better able to bargain and compromise than the teenager, too, from more practice. “You say you need me. I am not moving until you tell me why.” And the adult will most often have a life of her own (see point 2); even if she has daydreamed about adventure in the past, she’s not going to throw her husband and children and glassblowing business over her shoulder just because some mysterious people tell her they need her for some equally mysterious, ill-defined purpose. The adventurers would have to present her with a damn convincing reason for that.
I’ve heard before that teenagers make better fantasy protagonists precisely because they can run away and not worry about coming back, especially if they’re orphans or their families don’t care about them. That strikes me as the easy way out. You don’t have to write a journey story, you don’t have to write about an orphan, and you don’t have to write about someone completely detached from the world. And an adult also offers the advantage of someone who can be more an equal participant in the adventure, not a plot device who’s carted from place to place, the way many Destined teenagers come off.
5) Adults often have more to lose.
This is yet another reason that the teenager who can blithely toss away her whole life—because her family is dead, her daily tasks bore her, she has no driving passion, and everyone who might have been her friend is jealous of her—to embrace the insanely dangerous saving of the world strikes me as less than interesting. Fantasy quests bang the self-sacrifice drum pretty hard. If nothing else, the teenage protagonist is in danger of losing her life as the Dark Lord’s forces hunt her down. She’s also in danger of losing…
She cares about no one behind her. They don’t care about her. The “friends” who take her away end up wanting to train her as a weapon, or they can’t help her (often for contrived reasons) in the final confrontation; she has to stand free of them. The “true love” she discovers along the way is shown, and is treated by the author, as a teenage passion, explicitly based on hormones in some cases. How do people in a fantasy world with medieval-level technology know about hormones? And the true love isn’t standing with her in the final confrontation, either. It’s just her and the Dark Lord.
What does she have that is worth losing? What does she have to fight for?
Too often, it’s an ideal, not a person. She fights not for her true love, but Love. She fights not for the people she knows, but The People, a faceless mass of individuals whom, of course, she is nobly dying for even though they hate her for her magic talent and throw rocks at her. She fights not for a god she passionately adores and believes in, but some god who “chose” her and then threw precious little help her way. And, whether it’s because of the prophecy or the teenage conviction that they’re immortal, she doesn’t really believe that she’ll fail anyone or die, considerably lessening the suspense for me. The lightness of being able to walk away from everything you’ve ever known introduces a corresponding lightness into the narrative, I think, and then when the author tries to drop the protagonist into blood-smeared danger, the tone clashes. Why should I cheer for someone who can hurl everything away at a moment’s notice? Couldn’t she do the same thing with the final confrontation, if she decided it no longer pleased her?
An adult? An adult often has a lot more to lose. Beloved, children, people she’s known all her life, a passion or vocation or job she’s devoted years to, a religion she’s loved all her life. See point 1, and point 2. She may be standing on her own, but that doesn’t change her past experience or her connectedness, though it may throw them into a new light. She doesn’t just fight for a newly-minted life the author handed her at the beginning of the story with a promise that it would be so much better than the old.
And I think it would be even more interesting if other people did fight with her. Why not a common trap to take down the Dark Lord or his invading soldiers, one in which the whole damn village participates? It’d complement the theme of both sacrifice—some people are probably going to die—and people as opposed to ideals—they exist in the battle, and not just inside the protagonist’s head.
Fantasy without magic is next.