Well, it was going to be about castles, but then I made the mistake of trying to read a fantasy story on Fp.com with a teenage protagonist, and decided to write this instead.
But first, more awful, terrible, very bad poetry, from the glory that is Very Bad Poetry. This one is by George Sims, and is only a fragment, but madly and unintentionally hilarious.
From Beauty and the Beast:
He gazed on the face of the high-born maid,
And saw the mark where the tears had been;
He knew that a daughter had wept and prayed,
He knew that a mother had feared a scene—
Had torn herself from the weeping girl,
Whose love was away o’er the distant sea,
And had sold her child to a titled churl
Who had just got round from a bad d.t.
Yes, I did the other teenager rant, but that was mostly about teenagers who are woken up in the night with the news that they are the Heir of the Grand Whatever and are to be taken away to the White Stone to find the Jade Spider right this minute. This rant deals with the kind who run away on their own, and generally make such a hash of it that they should be dead in two days. Author whim allows them to survive.
I hate author whim.
1) Give him or her a damn compelling reason to leave home.
Reasons for teenagers leaving home in fantasy often fall into these categories:
- parents not understanding him or her
- parents want her to be a lady (there has been nothing original done with this since the first one)
- arranged marriage
- last guardian/person who knew the truth dies and new guardian is evil
What most authors don’t seem to consider is that it’s a nasty, dangerous world out there, usually by their own admissions. Children of almost any class aren’t going to fare well, unless they’ve been raised by nomads. Village children who haven’t traveled far won’t have the necessary knowledge base. Noble children may have learned to speak languages and so on, but they won’t be used to fending for themselves. They may be able to ride and hunt, but can they cook the prey they shoot? For that matter, can they skin it? Can they wash their own weapons, and will they remember to retrieve their arrows and bring along plates?
Given that so many teenagers seem like lambs wandering to slaughter, I find the usual reasons to leave home insufficient. The author has to convince me that, yes, dying out in the wilderness from exposure or slowly starving to death really would be better than remaining at home. Arranged marriage isn’t usually enough on its own, even though it’s supposed to be compelling, because the reason is not “she’s planning to murder me” or “he would rape me,” but “oh, I don’t love him/her!” Yes, of course, noble and farm children who have been raised with marriage expectations all their lives would toss everything away for a chance at marrying for an ideal that’s almost entirely a product of the modern world.
2) The clothes they take with them are rarely sensible.
Princesses pack their gowns. Their gowns. I ask you. Do they think they’re going to balls in the wilderness? It can be an indication of naïveté, of course, but it should also mean that the princess would be very cold and wet. She almost never gets to the point where she has to wear the gowns, though, because of the Helpful Stranger (see below).
You can count on fantasy teenage runaways to pack their favorite toys and their favorite rocks before sensible clothes. And they don’t think about washing them, either. That would be one thing if they were used to living in dirt and grime, but nobles who bathe every day wander around in the same wide-eyed, itching-for-a-stick-in-the-face fashion. Either note the dirt and grime and the character’s disgust about it, or include a scene where the character finds a river and washes her clothes.
3) Don’t dump all the problem-solving on the Helpful Stranger.
You know the ones. They must have high-duty sensors that tell them when fantasy teens who would die in two seconds flat otherwise flee their guardians. Then they follow behind them, meet up with them, and wipe their noses and asses for the rest of the quest, until the climactic battle when Lord or Lady Clueless somehow defeats the Dark Lord.
Sure, your character has got to get help, unless we’re talking about the aforementioned nomad teenager, but that doesn’t mean that someone should pop out of nowhere and decide to help out of the goodness of his heart. It goes double if most people are suspicious of strangers (for whatever reason). It goes triple if the Helpful Stranger has no magic, destiny, or high-duty sensor, but somehow happens to know everything about the protagonist’s fate and bloodline anyway. This often comes from recognizing a piece of jewelry or the protagonist’s face. But then, no one else in the book seems to notice, including the clueless evil guys (whom I privately suspect are fantasy teens who for some reason never left home and got snatched up by the Dark Lord instead). It doesn’t work that way. Either it’s common enough knowledge that a total stranger would have a good chance of knowing it, or you make the Helpful Stranger not a real stranger. Chance meetings that turn strangers into the teen’s retainers are sickening.
Helpful Strangers will pick up after the teen, teach the teen cool things about the world, give the teen lessons in swordplay or magic (at which the teen will surpass them in a matter of days or months, never mind their years training in it), get angry but always apologize when the teenager turns out to be Right ™, and fight to the death for someone they met only a few days before. And they always show up before the character really suffers.
Here’s an idea: Introduce some suffering, and it helps me suffer the teenagers much better.
4) Danger need not always be dramatic.
Someone who’s clueless about the world beyond his village doesn’t need to get beaten up by bandits to get into trouble. He might not know what quicksand is, for example. He might not know the road he’s following leads into the middle of a swamp. He might not know not to touch the pretty red and yellow snake coiled sleeping around a tree. Hell, he might not know that some mushrooms cause you to see pictures, and others cause death.
Noble teenagers are in much the same situation. They probably haven’t trekked ten miles before, made their own dinners, or maybe even put on their own clothes or brushed their own hair. They might be able to name all the plants in a field, but can they tell you how to prepare them for dinner? Do they know how to bandage any wounds they get, or have they always been magically healed? Book knowledge quite often doesn’t translate well to the wilderness, and unless the character has a photographic memory, he or she is unlikely to recall the information perfectly. Double that while panicking. Think back to some of those tests you took as a teenager. How well does book knowledge stay in your head when you’re that stressed?
This is where some modification of the character would be good. Giving them an appropriate background isn’t something that’s done all that often, or it only serves while the character is traveling in her home country. For example, an herbwoman’s apprentice might be at home in the woods and easily able to find food there, and by the time she reaches the edge of the woods, the Helpful Stranger has picked her up. Other times, the character is traveling through strange country but spends, at most, one night alone before finding a village or his own HS. No trouble, no danger, that’s not in the character’s head.
5) Fantasy runaways often don’t have realistic emotional responses.
There’s almost never any fear, for example, or uncertainty, or doubt about what to do next. Fantasy teens who run away from home for whatever reason should experience it; after all, they’ve probably been told monster tales in the way that children raised in a global culture aren’t. But unless they actually see the evil guys following them, they’re usually spunky—and then it’s only fear of the evil guys, never of going hungry or thirsty or dying from any of the one thousand and one dangers just awaiting ignorant kids in the wilderness.
Sometimes the very cluelessness can excuse the reaction. If a princess is used to having everyone bow down to her, she might be astonished when she realizes the innkeeper actually wants to be paid for the meal. She might stand up and declare she won’t pay, and get hauled away to the lockups. But she should not continue to react this way. Cluelessness loses its cute effect and its shielding excuse after one such incident, I think. If the princess pulls the same trick at another inn, or thinks that these people are rude even when she understands that they thought she was a thief, then she’s dumb, not cute, and somehow oblivious to the world around her.
Make those runaways shake.
6) Luck can’t protect them all the time.
One of the fantasy staples is the runaway teenager stumbling on a bandit camp, or the evil guys, or a village with strange customs, or whatever, and “somehow” getting by, saying all the right things and doing what won’t get them killed. This without any idea of what bandits are really like or how the village’s customs are different from their own.
I truly dislike this kind of mysterious knowledge. It’s used far too often in fantasy, and “somehow” is used to excuse things that are impossible for the character to know or guess. If the correct countersign to “Rain and wind” is “Air and lightning,” and the runaway hasn’t overheard it, how in the hell could he reasonably guess it? He couldn’t, but there’s the wild guess, and wow, look, he’s right! (There’s the fantasy author fear of letting the protagonist make a mistake again).
This is where a noble’s book knowledge or a Helpful Stranger could actually come in handy, but very few authors ever use them. They’re content with luck and mysterious knowledge and “somehow” and “intuition.” (I really have to wonder how many of these authors think that “follow your heart” mantra is always best. Or if any of them have observed just how rarely gamblers win).
Give them a reason to run away. Give them a reason to survive. Give me a reason to like them instead of thinking they’re only still alive because the author’s pulling the strings.