Again, I need to admit my biases here. I’ve read so many fantasy books with teenage protagonists that I’ve really gotten tired of them. It takes either an author I already know can write well- like Terry Pratchett- or an interesting premise to make me start a story now when I know that a teenager is going to be the main character. And since a lot of the fantasy fiction on the Web is of the “Teenage princess runs away and finds out that she’s the savior of the world and the most powerful mage ever!” variety, I feel my caution is largely justified. I think adult protagonists have a lot of advantages, while teenagers are used so often and in such similar ways that it’s hard to escape the traps I describe below. Just like bildungsromans, I think they can be done well, but, also just like bildungsromans, it’s harder to do them well when so many people are influenced by such similar stories.
1) Teenagers whose perceptions are identical to reality.
This, to me, is the number one sign of a Canon Mary Sue/Marty Stu. Most characters have a subjective experience of the fantasy world, so that they find out the system of magic they were using actually has a horrible basis (the people in Dave Duncan’s “A Man of His Word” series) or that some people aren’t as bad as they thought, while others are worse (Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”). Canon Mary Sues/Marty Stus may make factual mistakes, but they never make perceptual mistakes. When they look at something, even if it’s for the first time, they are seeing the true nature of it.
This is very fucking boring.
It makes even less sense with a teenager than with an adult. Teenagers often have little experience of the world, and even more often, fantasy authors deliberately choose heroes or heroines who have been sheltered, so that they can tell the reader about the fantasy world while telling the protagonist about it at the same time. However, most of these teenagers experience no change inside. If they’re traveling in a group of people and suspect that something is wrong with someone, that person always turns out to be the traitor. If they respect and trust someone, that person is always good and kind and deserves their trust, even if others have reasons to suspect him or her. It’s annoying, it’s boring, and it means that the teenagers, instead of changing in response to the world, are essentially right about everything even before they leave home.
This has no basis in reality. Probably most teenagers can recall at least one situation in which they were forced to revise their initial perceptions of someone as ugly, fun, stupid, jealous, or so on, and as they grow towards adulthood, those situations only become more frequent, not less. Yet somehow the sheltered teens in fantasy are instinctive geniuses about the world.
They’re not, really. They only are because the author wants them to be.
2) Education, or the lack of it, is romanticized.
An uneducated teenage protagonist will be presented as pure or innocent, not disadvantaged or lazy or stupid. An educated teenage one will be presented as someone who doesn’t study all the time, and grows impatient with his or her teachers because obviously those tutors aren’t presenting what he or she really needs to know. In reality, there are a whole lot of people who aren’t good at some subjects, who do slack off on schoolwork, and who have the chance to learn what they need to know and forgo it.
I think a lot of this is work is avoid the nerd stereotype, but unfortunately all it does is dump the protagonists into the “instinctive genius” trap again (see point one). Don’t expect me to believe that someone who resented learning to read and hated geography will be able to learn a foreign alphabet fluently and remember maps flawlessly. Sometimes I wonder if fantasy adolescents really aren’t human at all, just aliens to whom knowledge comes when they need it.
Of course, a much simpler explanation is the author interfering again to grant advantages that are never granted to any other character.
3) These don’t look like teenagers.
Try to remember the number of teenage girls in fantasy who have zits, pimples, or any other form of acne- or, for that matter, oily skin. Try to remember the number who have hair that gets dirty when they wander through a forest, or wounds that actually leave scars, or bruises that get mentioned more than once.
Not very high, is it? This despite the lack of skin creams, advanced medical treatment, or shampoo in most fantasy worlds. Amazing!
Teenage boys in fantasy sometimes seem more realistic, since authors like to describe them as “gawky,” “awkward,” “coltish,” and will sometimes talk about a pimple-faced boy staring in awe at our heroine. However, these characters are almost never the heroes. The heroes are produced from the same Flawless Skin and Hair Factory as the teenage girls.
Now, some people might argue, “Who wants to read about zits?” To which I would reply, “I would prefer to read about that to yet another sixteen-year-old girl with flawless skin.”
The point: If you really don’t think that your readers want to know, or that you can deal with, teenage protagonists with many of the common woes of teenagers, then just avoid the extremes. Don’t describe every flaw if it bothers you, but don’t expect me to believe that these adolescents are little adults, either, in everything except…
Whining, bitching, moaning, complaining, groaning, angsting. It has a lot of names. And it gets old reeaaaly quickly.
It is very unlikely that teenagers who have grown up under harsh conditions (in the poorest section of many a fantasy town, as serfs, as poor children on a farm) would be unused to the demands placed on them by these lives by the time they reach fifteen or sixteen. They might still not like to do certain tasks, such as milking cows, but I really don’t think they would bitch to themselves that their parents are using them like slavemasters.
The converse is also true. If you have a traditional medieval fantasy world where women are expected to play the roles of marriage pawns fine ladies, how likely is it, really, that a sixteen-year-old noble girl would be wailing to herself about having to wear dresses or have an arranged marriage? Particularly if every other girl or woman around her accepts it? A sudden change in lifestyle, yes, would account for it; a girl who has been allowed to run wild for fourteen years and then forced into a dress is different from one raised that way from the cradle. But, again, how many nobles in medieval-based fantasy worlds are really going to allow their daughters to do that? The authors usually don’t bother to develop a background that would make this kind of angst seem realistic. It’s just, “Oh, everybody else just wants to wear dresses and act silly, but not Krystalynne! She’s different! She’s strong! She’s smart!” Even though Krystalynne has had the same education in languages and music and sewing as the rest of the noble ladies, and even though Krystalynne’s way of being strong and smart is apparently to bitch about how stupid everyone around her is.
That’s another thing to consider. How much moaning and whining is it really necessary for the audience to put up with? Adult characters in fantasy often have unrealistic patience with teenage whining, coddling and indulging the character long after I have the urge to slap them silly, or else abuse them for nothing at all. Either extreme should be avoided to avoid the cliches. And again, these can be done well, but only usually with a sharp, sudden shock such as a drastic change in lifestyle. After a lifetime of abuse, the teenager probably wouldn’t whine openly anymore. After a lifetime of coddling, most parents would probably have either an alcohol or opium addiction, or, at the least, would have resigned themselves to no one wanting to marry such a whiny brat.
I don’t understand why brattiness is considered a sign of strength.
5) Show teenagers actually changing in ways that don’t involve physical aging or the sudden gain of magical powers.
Supposedly, the great appeal of a teenage protagonist is that it exemplifies the growth in power of a hero, which is part of the appeal of myth and fairy-tales, too. Yet most amateur fantasy teenagers I’ve read show no growth at all.
This ties back to point 1, with the teenager somehow miraculously knowing everything about human nature despite growing up in a small village, but it evinces in other ways, too. In the most extreme cases, teenagers don’t learn to move past anything that happens to them, such as the deaths of friends. They cry and weep and whine and moan, and they are still doing the exact same thing at the end of the story. When the author can put their character through a battle and still have her emerge unchanged on the other side, except for more of a tendency to whine, something is very wrong.
As another example, consider Robert Jordan’s characters. Ten books, dozens of battles and deaths and an enemy trying to conquer the world, and yet they’re still more worried about petty insults and who’s going to sleep with who. These are paramount teenage concerns, but they should not be allowed to take over the fantasy world. The focus should not be things that matter primarily, or even only, to teenagers. There are appropriate places for those kinds of things, but they’re not in fantasy. They’re in high school, and soap operas.
Finally, new skills do not mean new enlightenments. Plenty of times the teenager turns out to be the savior of a world or a powerful mage, but they don’t have to adapt to that; they just accept it and somehow gain responsibility. In reality, most people with great power make mistakes, sometimes devastating ones, and get distrusted by other people. Try to avoid turning your teenagers into gurus just because they’re the heart of a prophecy.
6) Reconsider importing modern issues into the fantasy world.
In cases where teenage protagonists do not have dead parents on which to spend their Mighty Angst (TM), they have parents who “don’t understand them,” “want to restrain them” or (for girls) “want them to act like ladies.” Groan, groan groan groan.
This makes me have three immediate reactions:
1) Living in a world where starvation and plagues and evil magic are problems, and they worry about that?
2) I wonder how much of the author’s own issues are in here?
3) There goes the characterization of the parents.
Taking the last point first: most times, parents who “don’t understand” their teenagers in fantasy are not presented as flawed people trying to do their best to raise their children. Instead, they’re wrong, or outright evil. At the end of the story, they either wind up destroyed, or humbled to the point of apologizing to their teenagers for things like forbidding them to go to a mountain rumored to be haunted. The depth of the bitterness towards the parental characters in fantasy is astonishing.
This leads to the second concern. Demonizing your own parents in the name of adding realism to a story is never a good idea. In particular, it doesn’t really makes sense if a girl has to worry about being the heir to a throne she can’t claim, has enemies trying to kill her, and has magic threatening to burst out of her and annihilate everybody, yet what bothers her most is that her mother was trying to raise her to be a lady. This smacks of the author using the character as a mouthpiece for his or her own issues instead of writing a person separate from themselves.
And finally (this applies to things like teenage love interests, too), if your characters really have other things to worry about, then don’t make them most concerned about things that you might hear discussed in the halls of your local high school. That girl who was jealous and tried to steal their boyfriend away will be nothing next to Asedrin, the dream-master who wants to torture your character to death slowly for stealing something of his- or at least she should be. When the very last action of the story isn’t the defeat of Asedrin or some quiet contemplative scene, but the heroine going back to her village to humiliate the jealous girl, I close the book or hit the back button disgusted- though relieved that I know where the author’s priorities lie.
On occasion, adult protagonists fall into these same traps, but often the fantasy authors who write them seem to assume that they, at least, are allowed to think about things other than what they look like and if someone likes them or likes-likes them.