So instead of reading the many library books I’ve got collecting dust around the house right now, I grabbed some junk reading on my kindle. It’s a werewolf story, which makes total sense as I often want werewolves in the winter (still blaming Patricia Briggs). This particular book is teen lit with a very teen protagonist and setup. And though I haven’t stopped reading it yet, I can’t help but keep thinking…
What is with society’s obsession with teenager protagonists anyway?
For the sake of transparency, I’ll let it be known that I’ve been reading teen lit for years. I was reading teen lit long after I was a teen and far before it became cool for adults to read teen lit. Obviously, I still enjoy it enough to keep coming back to it. But often, I find myself reading a teen lit book and going “this would be so much better if it weren’t about teenagers.” Other variations on this thought include “man, highschool sucked so much,” “oh look, more boring teenage angst,” “this setting is boring,” “damnit, protagonist, can you stop being a teenager for five seconds and get over yourself,” and “wow I’m so glad I’m not a teenager anymore.”
And yet, everywhere I turn, the shelves are full of books featuring protagonists ranging fifteen to eighteen, all in high school and dealing with the same ridiculous teenage drama. And people are eating this shit up.
I understand why teenagers want to read teenage protagonists. Teenagers are still of an age where they want to read about characters like themselves. For many, it’s easier for them to connect with a character their own age. I remember being of an age where I wanted to read about kids my own age! Of course, looking back, I realize that a lot of this feeling was because I was about eight and reading outside of my age range, so of course I was having trouble finding a protagonist under the age of about twelve. If I’d dropped the level of the books I was choosing, I probably could have found more things with eight year old characters! But I was an oblivious child, if an overly literate one, so this never occurred to me and eventually, the desire to see protagonists my own age faded as I connected with characters for reasons other than the number of years they had been on their (often fictional) planet.
So I get teens wanting to read about teens. It’s a common, easy to understand drive. But what is with grown adults having a fascination with teen lit? Okay, sure teen lit tends to be an easy, quick read, but can contain some pretty spectacular ideas. I myself reading teen lit for this reason. But I read a lot of other things because sometimes (often) I get absolutely fed up with teenage protagonists. Why?
Here’s some of the advantages and disadvantages of choosing a teenager as your protagonist.
Teen lit is hellaciously popular with a wide range of people at this time. It sells. Both to teenagers and adults, so there is money in teen lit. And things that sell are appealing to publishers and agents, so if you want to go the traditional publishing route, there’s this financial reason to consider when considering your protagonist. Not that money is the only reason to write a book and writing teen lit isn’t going to guarantee you success. But the truth is, one of the pros to writing teen characters is money.
There are certain logistics that must be considered. Legally, your teenager should be going to high school. Even if they’re really intelligent. There are ways around this (emancipated minors, home schooling) but the fact is, you at least need to address why your teenager is not going to school. And speaking of legal, there’s all of the awkwardness around sex. Now, generally speaking, teen lit does not have explicit sex. But it does have sexuality, self discovery, and crushes. Your options for love interest are either someone close to your protagonists age and thus, another teenager with the emotional stability of, well, a teenager. Or somebody older and then, yup, things get kind of illegal. And I don’t care if your vampire looks like he’s seventeen, unless he was turned within a year or so of the novel start, he is OLDER than your teenage protagonist. Worryingly older than your protagonist. Does anyone else find that squicky? Because yeah, hundred year old vampire dating a teenager has never seemed any better to me than a forty year old dating a teenager. Seriously, my fellow writers, do you really want your primary love interest to be someone who is forty but willing to date a sixteen year old? So yeah, sex and dating can easily go worrying places in a teen novel. Also, driving. Throwing that out there, but most kids are getting their licenses later and later, which limits your character’s mobility. And, on that note, kids have parents, unless you’re playing the orphan card, and even then, they generally have some adult looking out for them. There are ways to get adults out of the story equation, but think about it logically. If you give your protagonist absentee parents, that’s going to have an affect on the person your protagonist is. Abuser parents? Even more of an affect. And if you give them loving, kind, if distractable parents, they are probably going to notice something when your protagonist starts dating a werewolf. If not the werewolf thing, then definitely the dating thing. And there’s a good chance the parents will recognize your protagonist is keeping a secret. And if the parents don’t notice, another adult in their life might, such as a teacher, guidance counselor, older sibling, nearby neighbor, a social worker. Acknowledge this. Plan for this. Don’t just blow it off because ~*~MAGIC~*~ or a complete lack of desire to deal with reality in your book. That’s just lazy. Adults are part of a teenager’s world, even if they aren’t necessarily a good or active part of their life. And if they aren’t, make me believe why not.
It’s a fascinating time in a person’s life. You have someone who is just stepping from childhood into adulthood. They are a changing person, the truth of who they are may not be what they thought. Character growth happens much the same way puberty does at this age. Suddenly, awkwardly, and when you’re least expecting or wanting it. It’s a common time for people to look at the best friend they’ve had their entire life and realize the only thing they had in common was gender and living on the same street. Or that they really don’t want to be a doctor, they’d rather become a professional dancer. Things are in constant flux for a teenager’s life, so it’s a great time to have a character who evolves and changes over the course of the story.
The waaaangst! The waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaangst! Look, even when you give your teenager legitimate reasons to angst, teenagers are dramatic and self centered and damn can that be annoying. Nothing is worse than a moping teenager and just because it’s in-character to have a teenager moping, that doesn’t mean your audience actually wants to see it. Teenagers are experiencing a lot of emotions for the first time on the merry-go-round and yeah, they’re probably not going to take it well. While this can amp up the drama, it can also easily overwhelm the plot and story you actually want to tell. Your teenage audience will probably resonate with your characters’ reaction to life around them. Your adult audience will probably roll their eyes and thank the stars they aren’t a teenager again. At the same time, if you’re writing a teenager, you need to have some amount of strong emotional response or your character is not going to be believably the age written.
Comfortable, easily recognizable setting that can be painted with few literary strokes. Most of your readers have been to high school and even if they’re home schooled, they’ll recognize it from other media descriptions. Even if you take it out of the high school setting directly, there’s still a number of high school styled problems that can easily be inserted. This out of the box setting gives the writer time to focus on other things. Plot, characterization, that bitchin’ world building idea you really wanted to develop.
Teenagers have dumb priorities. There are vampires out to take over the world and kill everyone and for some reason, the lack of a date to the school dance is a WAY BIGGER DEAL. There’s an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that revolves around Buffy and her rival both competing for homecoming queen. They get abducted by bounty hunters and at the end, their friends ask them if it really matters which of the two get the title. Both respond with a resounding “YES IT MATTER.” I love that episode. (Especially because neither gets the title, it’s given to Miss Not Featured In This Show.) In contrast, the second Vampire Diaries book revolves heavily around the drama of one character’s diary being stolen and the mean girl plotting to read it in front of the whole school and embarrass the protagonist. Aaaaand this plot was so painfully dumb in my opinion. Everything centered around people believing that yes, protagonist was dating a vampire! And this would lead to lynch mobs! Horror! Or worse, she’d be cast out as a freak! When… all she had to do was claim that it was a work of fiction she was scribbling on in her spare time because who the hell believes in vampires I mean seriously? Maybe I’m misremembering that particular plot, but it still struck me as dumb. Certainly the kind of thing that a teenager would believe, that the diary reading would lead to the end of Everything As She Knows It, but that didn’t make for an interesting or compelling plot or even one that held up under much scrutiny. Because, yeah. Teenagers have dumb priorities and this can be really annoying for the reader who isn’t stuck in their self centered bubble.
Teenagers are inexperienced and have yet to learn how to compensate for their flaws. Thus, you can have your protagonist do some mightily dumb, dumb things without them necessarily being a stupid person. There are plenty of things that, at the time, sound like a great idea! And then when you’re older, you headdesk because seriously, did you really think your parents will believe that your watch is running an hour late and that’s why you’re home late and not that you were really out talking to boys? Things like this open up a lot of potential for conflict and interesting happenings caused by your teenager literally not realizing this is a stupid, stupid idea.
Don’t lean too heavily on inexperience as a flaw, because that’s a character flaw they will presumably grow out of. And if they grow out of all their personality flaws, they aren’t a very interesting character at all. Also, if a character keeps making the same mistake, its not the fault of being inexperienced. That’s actually them making the same bad choice repeatedly. Which, on the good side, is a flaw. On the downside, can just come off as incredibly dumb on the protagonists part to your reader. There is a line to walk between ‘this character is young and does not know better’ and ‘this character is an idiot who should not survive any of this.’ Similarly, if you don’t give your teen any teen qualities, they’re unbelievable. If you make them too good at a skill, it’s unbelievable. Where did they find the time to master that ability? They’re only blankteen, if they’re that good at one skill, then they should suck horribly at a different skill that’s common for their age group. Because, by rights, if they’ve been polishing that skill to gleaming, they’ve been shorting time given to other skills. This can be things like making friends or interacting with other people their age, but if you want to go that route, actually take some time to study what socially awkward kids are really like. NEVER just tell your reader that ‘oh, protagonist is socially awkward and has trouble making friends’ then follow it up with protagonist making a whole bunch of friends because they are sweet and wonderful and kind and also plot requires more characters than protagonist. Show me the social awkward. If you don’t, you have an unbalanced character who is at best uninteresting and at worst, is going to irritate the reader.
In conclusion. Teenagers have a lot of potential but they also come with a truckload of issues that should be addressed. And I’m realizing that this statement probably applies to actual teens as well as literary ones.
Have I mentioned how glad I am not to be a teenager any longer?