Yes, I realize the phrasing is odd, but it is true that many, many fantasy protagonists are, if not teenagers, in their early 20’s—particularly if they’re the heroes of a quest or crossover fantasy, in which they’re sent away from home or from Earth to a fantasy world. So what happens when you start getting into people in their late 20’s, or (settle yourselves, for it will come as a shock) even in their 30’s and 40’s and 50’s as characters?
1) Here is a living representative of a pattern of days.
I’ve said (and read, and had explained to me) that one of the major advantages of a teenage protag is not having him saddled with adult responsibilities yet, particularly if he’s an orphan and thus has no aging parents or younger siblings to tend. He gets whirled into adventure easily.
You know what? Screw “easily.” And, for this point, screw “adventure.”
Why not have an older, settled adult as your main character in a story that stays in one place and eschews the journey and “adventure” as we usually understand it? I think that this, better than any other kind of story, will let you demonstrate the operation of your fantasy society from the point-of-view of one living inside it. It isn’t shaken up by some huge and earth-shattering conflict, so that the usual rules don’t apply. It isn’t part of a mad journey across places so quickly sketched that I sometimes feel the author just strung together a bunch of letters, mentioned a few trees, and said it was a kingdom. It isn’t from the point-of-view of a teenager or child, whose age and (usually) lack of power limit him or her from seeing everything that happens.
Here is an adult settled in the social hierarchy and aware of it, able to trace living conditions, and responsibilities, and the means by which gossip spreads across a town, and how people get their food, and how parents raise their children—to name just two elements often missing in fantasy societies. Here is someone going about daily life in another world. Make it fascinating and deep and different enough, and that will carry the story on its own. There can still be conflicts, of course, but they will be conflicts that travel like ripples on a pond rather than a Dark Lord attempting to drain the pond. It’s a different kind of story.
I like it because I think world-building is fascinating enough in its own right, properly done. And also, no teenage orphans, yay!
2) Responsibilities don’t halt when an adult’s on a journey.
But Fantasy Author A says, “Damn it, I want an adventure story.”
Okay. I can still help, as long as Fantasy Author A doesn’t say, “Damn it, I want an adventure story with a teenage character.” Then I will have to patiently bop Fantasy Author A over the head with a cluebat before I can explain anything.
So adventure comes and gets your older protagonist anyway. He’s thirty-one, married to a wife who’s pregnant for the second time. Their daughter is four. He’s a weaver. She’s ordinarily a mage, but can’t use any magic during the pregnancy for fear of turning her womb inside out. The adventure insists that the weaver come along.
Yes, you could have him leave his wife and his daughter behind, and make the agonizing decision I talked about in the reluctant hero rant, to choose the good of the world before the good of his home.
Or you could have him bring his wife and his daughter with him.
Because it’s too haaarrd. Oh, cry me a river. I think life for a woman who has to take care of a young child, is pregnant herself, can’t use her most tried skill in her own defense, and is, incidentally, in the path of whatever Dark Threat the author has conjured to attack the fantasy world would be pretty damn hard. At least, on the road with her husband, she could be moving away from the Dark Threat, have help with her daughter and her pregnancy, and be assured of the company of someone who loves and knows her and has helped her work around the magical side-effects of two pregnancies by now. Meanwhile, the weaver has people he cares about with him, and does not need to go slowly mad with worry.
Yes, there would be complications. Figure out how to handle them. Once again, they get dumped in the name of “easiness,” even though many authors do include children in fantasy parties; it’s just not ever the teenage protagonist who has to take care of them. There are ways around them. There have always been ways.
Could someone figure out how to do this, please? I would give a lot to see an adventuring father or mother or family on the roads. If nothing else, children have a habit of making Callow Farmboys or Impetuous Fiery-Tempered Maidens grow up very, very quickly.
And then you get a whole plethora of family interactions and responsibilities to play with, and parents who are not just punching-bag characters for teenage angst. So there.
3) Age can make and shape a story.
If you have a character who’s an old campaigner in his forties, chances are he’s not going to be bounding around like a young buck after a night of sleeping on dew-wet ground. His old wounds and once-broken bones are going to ache, he’ll need to spend some time stretching cramped muscles, he’ll want to have something to eat instead of starving himself in a fit of teenage pique, and he’ll probably pause to rest if time isn’t a pressing concern so that he doesn’t utterly exhaust himself. Meanwhile, he’ll know how to walk carrying a sword and a pack of food, but those weights themselves will slow him down. If the weather is extremely hot or cold, those extremes will wear on him more in turn, unless he can keep up a comfortable steady pace.
I think those are opportunities, not limitations.
So your campaigner is on his way south for the winter, to a little town that will shelter him when the heavy snows fall that keep people pinned inside for months on end. He finds a roadblock on the path. He slows, taking the opportunity to rest and let another traveler get ahead of him, and listens. From his listening, he discerns that the soldiers are looking for any man carrying a sword, to impress into the king’s armies. They’re going north to fight in winter. Utter madness, but tell that to the king.
He eyes the sides of the roadblock. They’re shallow declivities, raspberry bushes filling them. He’s not going to be able to scramble through them in agile silence, the way that a twenty-year-old might. He sits back to think about what he’s going to do, and have some raspberries while he waits.
Is he going to be able to charge the roadblock and run over it? Probably not, thanks to the weight he’s carrying and his old wounds. Is he going to be able to hack through an enemy’s neck in a single swipe, then turn and kill the rest of them? Probably not, thanks to the same things. Is he going to challenge them all to single combat? Probably not; that he’s lived this long argues that he’s not rash.
So what will he do?
I don’t know yet, but I’m really interested to find out. Writing an older protagonist and coping with the supposedly horrible-ew-I’ll-never-write-about-that effects of aging on their actions can make a more interesting story than many a one where the teenager defeats all the soldiers in single combat.
4) And where dreams die, dreams may be raised.
I enjoy stories about dreamers in fantasy, those with one driving, burning passion that they want to accomplish. (I am less impressed with the ones who “dream,” but then never do anything to make the dream come true, and have it all just dumped in their laps instead).
Bit I would really be fascinated with people who have multiple sets of dreams, not just ones they forge as children or teenagers.
I know that I have ambitions now that I didn’t have five years ago, and I’m really not that far past the cut-off age for this rant (26). Does that never happen to a fantasy character? Couldn’t there be a middle ground between having no dreams at all—which seems to be the case for a lot of fantasy adults—and only having one set that you get to blame other people for not letting you fulfill? Why not many, even ones that ripple and give way to new ones as life circumstances change, as children are born and die, as adults move from village to village, as new fields are planted and storms devastate them?
I will admit to finding stories of healing and recovery and second springs among my favorites lately, rather than stories of uncomplicated growth or wallowing angst. And adult characters who refuse to just lie down and die when one disappointment comes along are marvelous centers of them.
5) Here are patience, endurance, stoicism.
Emotional outbursts are a frequent part of fantasy centered on teenagers. Hormones, y’know. (I do wish those weren’t used as excuses for everything, or, at least, that someone occasionally fell into lust that turned out to be lust and not true love). Sometimes the narrative takes on such a tone as to scold the adults who, themselves, aren’t wailing to the sky about how unfair the universe is or bubbling with joy over first love.
Well, yes. That would be because, while the teenager is wailing to the sky or bubbling with joy, the older characters are keeping on keeping on.
Enduring characters aren’t any more popular than duty-bound ones as the center of most fantasy stories. If you’re taciturn, there’s something wrong with you; you might even turn out to be Traitor. You’re supposed to be talkative and cheerful, or witty and sarcastic. If you get through the suffering and refuse to blame anyone for what were unfortunate mistakes rather than acts of malice, you’re unnatural. If you’re strong from the beginning of the story and only grow stronger as you go through your challenges, well… that’s…that’s just WRONG, damn you.
No, I don’t necessarily expect teenagers to be pragmatic and indomitable, unless their childhoods have shaped them to adapt and survive. But adults can hone their character that way, sometimes by deliberate choice, and often have the experience to be serene when it would be best to be serene, rather than raging just Because.
6) Many, many facets.
Characterization among fantasy teenagers is often done by extremes—extremes of emotion, extremes of child abuse, extremes of destiny. Sometimes, especially with the bad characters, I find all the facets of their characters fading into one grand trait. I see Hot Temper when all a teenage heroine ever does is get angry. I see Flirting when the only action a hero in his twenties takes is to try and find a girlfriend. This is a relative of point 4, really. The author seizes on one defining moment, an ambition or trauma usually, and fuses their character into a lump using that laser.
A carefully characterized forty-five-year-old woman, by contrast, can have multiple character facets. The people she attends church with might know her as a reserved person, usually quiet, but a passionate singer in the choir. A stepdaughter might know her as the loving stepmother who never let her down. Her daughter might know her as the mother she hates, who refused to support her monetarily when she became pregnant and dropped out of school. Her granddaughter might know her as Grandma, a distant person whom they never visit and who never sends Christmas cards. Her ex-husband might know her as quarrelsome and bitter. Her present husband might love her with a love as strong as mountains. Her neighbors might know as a rock, absolutely dependable when someone needs help or a place to stay. The small business owner down the road might know her as the woman who helped keep his business alive, walking a mile every day to buy something from him.
Are these seemingly contradictory facets? Oh yes. Can they make a whole person? Of course. Do they imply a living person? Also yes, one who continues growing and changing and forming different relationships with different people at different stages of her life. Perhaps, for example, if her daughter had become pregnant when she was older, her mother would have supported her then. Or perhaps, if the business owner mocked her religion, she would stop patronizing his store.
Write an older protagonist properly, and it’s a lot harder to pretend that she’s Hot Temper or Flirting. If nothing else, you’re going to have to come up with all the people she’s known and met, and all the ideals she’s forged, during forty-five years of life.
I liked that. It was fun.