The topic of the day is teenage heroes. And believe me, do I have a LOT to say about this topic.
By now it is such an ubiquitous trope across both Eastern and Western popular culture, people simply take it for granted. The entire reason the genre becomes what it is today is the target audience. Children’s books can’t really have grizzled veterans in their late 50s looking at life with philosophically jaded outlooks, Machiavellian warlords who may or may not have a vision to uphold despite his methods, or morally superior heroes doomed to fail because the balance of power simply does not favor them.
Hence we have teenage heroes: improbably or impossibly young protagonists that the target audience can identify with. This is not a product of modern culture, no: The Monomyth and the Hero of a Thousand Faces is a thing, and obviously the trend has its root in folklores regardless of countries.
This is a topic that – surprisingly – emotionally traumatizes me. I cannot explain why very well without dwelling into the upbringing I have received and by extension my nationality, which I am not comfortable to just yet. I also realize it night seem – at this point in time – a bit hypocritical to talk about this topic since my novel involves teen heroes too. Until it doesn’t any more, but neither you nor I know how or when it will happen, or whether the wham point should come at all.
But I will certainly try. I will certainly try.
A bit of background information. I have mentioned before that I work in international relations. I will also mention right now that as a child I was a big fan of not Animorphs or Roald Dahl or The Hobbits or even Harry Potter, but of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, Gods of Honor and a plethora of Chinese historical fictions and historical nonfictions written centuries before even J. R. R. Tolkien was even an embryo. The best way I can describe Romance of the Three Kingdoms alone to an uninitiated Western reader is that A Song of Ice and Fire has a hard time topping the former in sheer grimdark, especially if you are sympathetic to the characters the author wanted you to support (I might talk about RotTK one day in greater detail and how I think it measures up to GoT. That, however, might requires me reading GoT without my biased lenses).
These, in addition to my upbringing, made me an extremely cynical person even as a child regarding heroic fantasy. Case in point: RotTK seems like a typical Chosen One storyline from chapter one – and then it systematically tears down the statue. Luo Guanzhong could not rewrite history, and the attentive reader will realize he was crying tears of blood as he penned the book. It was a conduit for his Han Chinese nationalism in a time where the Chinese was at their lowest in known history, and history itself did not support the narrative he really wanted to weave.
Why so cynical, Coward? Let’s find out!
2. The Analysis
Because I am such a big fan of RotTK, this analysis will disproportionately follow the one character in this entire novel whose backstory is possibly most familiar to any reader of Young Adult fantasy novels.
Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you Liu Bei. Great-grandchild of a member of the Han Dynasty’s royal family disowned by a frankly really stupid reason, reduced to poverty and forced to earn his living by weaving hay carpets. Then came the chaos of the late Han, where like any other dynasties East or West the nation was stricken with pestilence, floods, famine and eventually a widespread peasant revolt. In this chaos Liu Bei realized his destiny and rose to the challenge as the Han Dynasty’s Chosen One as a true descendent of the royal family, recruiting his band of brothers in the iconic peach blossom garden oath (in Eastern narrative only, unfortunately) and a freaking army along the way. After facing off against multiple villains, overcoming multiple challenges and struggling time and time again with his archnemesis Cao Cao (who had received, because of Luo Guanzhong’s bias, a Historical Villain Upgrade the size of the MOON), he finally succeeded and was crowned the Emperor of Shu-Han as a legit successor of the royal family he was born into. Just like every Hero’s Journey ever…
… except it took him upward of FORTY YEARS to do this. And when he finally ‘succeeded’, he had lost… pretty much everything he ever loved: his oath-brothers, his wives, his sanity and moral integrity, his youth and vigor. Everything he still had by then – including his life – he tossed it all away in a desperate, revenge-fueled war against a kingdom he was repeatedly warned by everyone with two brain cells rubbed together NOT to make an enemy out of. To rub salt into the injury, his son and successor as the last third of the novel shows was such an inept and feckless ruler King John of England looks like Octavius Julius Caesar in comparison, who finally demolished everything Liu Bei ever stood for because of sheer negligence and incompetence!
The story of Liu Bei epitomizes the many beefs of mine with the teenage hero trope.
2.1. The scope of the adventure.
Now, I have no trouble with adventures set in a scope where teenagers can come into as teens and come out also as teens. Kawnliee might have some really harsh words to say about the Hardy Boys series, but these stories were spot-on scope-wise: you don’t need much willing suspension of disbelief to believe an ultra-all-stats-buffed trio can bust gangsters and terrorists and defend American national security. The threats are relatively small compared to other teen heroes on the market, the timeframe is just right, and most importantly they are backed by someone whose competence the (mostly American) audience are brought up to trust.
Most teenage adventurers have no such luck. Animorphs put a bunch of teenagers against a space empire (with feet of clay) capable of body snatching. Harry Potter, that against a Dark Lord who is effectively immortal and whose entire existence might count as a Puzzle Boss spread across all seven books. Narnia, an initially even less capable crew of children against a worldwide threat in the world they got into through the wardrobe. And don’t for the love of whatever deities you believe in get me started on The Hunger Games.
On the other side of the world we have practically every Magical Girl show ever. Although different writers have different ways to tell the story and deconstruct the concept, the skeleton remains the same: The odds the heroes face are virtually impossible unless you are aware of the existence of Plot Armor (TM). Logically speaking they will be able to achieve nothing but chip damage against the bad guys they are supposed to fight.
Hell, even Fallout 3 of all things fell prey to the trend: Tell me again, how does a 19-year-old fresh-off-the-Vault nobody can take on the most powerful post-war faction in the United States of America practically by themselves? In a few months?
To say nothing about actual capability, how long should those adventures seriously take our motley crew? It took Liu Bei FORTY YEARS, and that was just China (Then again, based on my beta reader’s view of the world, ‘just China’ might very well be much larger than it sounds). And that was his beginning as a 28-year-old mature man, not a wee teen. Luke Skywalker is a lesser example: It took him almost five years from taking up the call to the point he participated – participated, not winning – the climactic duel on board the Death Star II. Taking into consideration the EU, his adventure is STILL not over yet by the time Disney made their buyout – at which point he has become a grey old man who has practically been directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of more creatures than there are humans on Earth today, with almost as many personal tragedies to his name as Liu Bei himself.
2.2. The Balance of Power and the Power Dynamic
The timeframe itself underlies far more notable problems: The balance of power between the protagonist and the antagonists (and how it has to be tweaked).
This, my friends, is where the Mary Sue argument come mostly into play. Now, you can say all you want about the Mary Sue argument being a flawed concept from day one – which it possibly is. However, Mary Sue litmus tests are spot-on in one aspect: Willing suspension of disbelief. Is the character logically capable of the skills he is supposed to have to undertake the journey and overcome the challenges? If he doesn’t, is the speed at which he acquire the aforementioned skills believable?
As I mentioned before, the enemies presented in any story should be no pushover – otherwise there is no conflict and that kills the story dead. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about raw military power. Take Star Wars for example: Darth Sidious is possibly one of the most powerful people in known fictions between his plainly insane Force power and his supremely overpowered industrial capacity he has at his disposal as Emperor (whether Super Robot Wars Alpha 3’s Alpha Number is stronger an army than the Empire is subject to intense debate. Alpha Number wins – but only on account of Space Runaway Ideon being the ultimate suicide bomber in known fiction.)
Guess what happened to Sidious in Return of the Jedi.
That demise, my friends, makes him far less impressive than his raw power indicates.
Herein lies my rule of thumb: if at any time you find your villains needing to hold the Villain Ball – where they have clearly superior choices they can make but don’t for no logical reason whatsoever – kill your last few chapters and try again.
The problem is, if you use a teenage cast that is so much below the weight class of the conflict they are part of and if you want them to play the role of a major player, you will have to resort to the Villain Ball. Either that, or you have to put the teenage casts’ acquisition of skills on steroids to come to terms with the weight class they are supposed to be in. Both has technically the same effect: making the opposition far less of a threat than they are supposed to be.
Take Eragon, for instance. What would happen if we take away the assumption that the titular character can learn his essential fighting skills to come toe-to-toe with the top dogs of the Empire in virtually no time at all? Something like Star Wars’ The Empire Strikes Back will happen far worse than the actual TESB, because the Varda isn’t all that widely supported in the first place.
A better example is RotTK itself: Liu Bei’s excruciating FORTY YEARS struggle and eventual failure is entirely attributable to Cao Cao and Sun Quan (and their respective ensemble) being anything BUT pushovers. They make their share of deadly errors (The Battle of Chi Bi for Cao Cao; and Wu’s insistence to take back Jingzhou at the cost of the most capable general of the faction, a younger sister and thousands of troops for Sun Quan), but they can take on most modern pop culture Dark Lords in a perfect game of strategy and win handily. That‘s what happens when the balance of power is not tampered with. That’s what happens if the willing suspension of disbelief is not being strained.
The other approach that some writers take – especially Christian writers – is to have a Power That Be aka. God with a capital G under any other name back the heroes up. It solves the above suspension of disbelief problem and introduces a new one at the same time. The strength of this approach: Nobody beats God. The weakness of this approach: Nobody beats God. At the same time the hero is given a justification for holding their ground, they are also guaranteed a resounding win, because God.
But wait, Coward, you could ask me, what if the heroes win but die at the end? Christian saints do it all the time! That’s a legit risk!
That is true, but consider two things. First, the schtick of the Christian God that makes one billion men, women and children on this green earth follow Him is that He rewards the faithful. Heroes, teenage or otherwise, who explicitly fights for God, under his direct guidance WILL be duly showered with bliss mortal heathens can only dream of, up to and including, you know, fluffy cloud and sunshine heaven. That’s the entire reason there are martyrs in the first place: They believe in Him and they know they will be somehow rewarded.
Second, the bad guy and everyone who follows him is guaranteed to lose. Humiliatingly. Completely. Crushingly. I consider Tolkien one of the more progressive Christian authors – while his detractors cite the racism in his work, I cite the letter in which he basically delivered a verbal spit in the face of Nazi Germany for being what they are – and even he has Melkor and Sauron being eventually utterly destroyed in a Ragnarok-esque war after which the world will begin anew in the true vision of Iluvatar i.e. God. He died before this act could be penned, but the point is made.
Put one and one together, and you have a scenario in which the heroes can lose but cannot lose, and the villains can win but cannot win. That makes for a considerably harder time to think up conflict. Unless, of course, God cannot intervene directly or has abandoned the heroes, a la The Silmarillion. But that would count as a severe deconstruction in and of itself.
2.3. Themes , Philosophy and the Narrative
Finally, the thing that makes me feel most like Angry Joe on a bad day about teenage protagonists: Thematic focus and narrative priorities.
This is the reason why I hate a certain series that I shall not name with the burning passion of a thousand suns, fueled in part by the billions of billions of subatomic particles representing pure, unadulterated, undiluted… well, let’s not go there. Uncomfortable territories. My name is The Coward for a reason.
You who are reading this have all been teenagers at some point. Pray tell, then, what was the priority on your agenda then?
Let me tell you mine. At that time, I wanted a few, just a few things: To be seen as an adult, to find some (high school) romance, and to enjoy life as much as I can. There. That’s it. Nothing special, nothing outstanding, nothing too extraordinary. In this there are as many Cowards as there are teenagers who live and grow up in relative peace and prosperity.
These agendas underpins the teenage outlook to just about anything: Growing up. Every single story with a teenage protagonist can be seen as a coming-of-age story (That, or a crushing tragedy about child soldiering. Or both. Like basically every iteration of Gundam ever). And coming-of-age stories, being what they are, deal with very personal topics that cease being relevant by the time you have grown up. By definition. Dealing with the jump from adolescence to adulthood. Taking responsibilities. Struggling with young love and – depending on how much an author is willing to stomach it – sex.
Now, there is nothing wrong with this focus. Case in point: Practically everything by Key Visual Arts deal with these exact topics (taking Kanon into consideration, even the sex part), and – throw rotten tomatoes all you like – I am possibly one of the biggest fans of Key on this green earth.
Then again… none of Key’s works deal with a struggle between two massive sides with the stake being so much larger than life it might as well lie beyond the scope of a typical teenager’s perception. Speaking of perception, my beta reader confessed once that she will fail to grasp the sheer scope of numbers beyond the thousands – and she is a grown woman.
The argument is, the scope of every conflict even nation-scale is so great, so vast and so ripe for the exploration of so many deep philosophical and ideological issues. Take Animorphs for instance: It is deeper than most children’s books, and the core yeerk-human STILL comes off as black and white most of the time. So much blanks was left even as the series close that my beta is – being the devoted fan she is – trying her very best to fill in the void with her personal fanon. I personally found key aspects of that universe very underexplored. The Yeerk-Andalite conflict, for instance, is thematically similar to that of between the Xel-Naga and the Protoss, the only difference being the Andalite weren’t consciously cultivating the Yeerks to serve themselves the way the Xel-Naga raised the Protoss. It is ripe for the exploration of such themes as racial superiority and inferiority, the role of technology in (space) colonialism, making the right decisions to hurt the few to benefit the many, and my favorite topic scarcely touched: Yeerk nationalism.
Yet the story itself showed very little of the potential philosophical-ideological aspects such a creator-created race relation can bring to the fore. Instead what we have is dozens of books of teenagers doing silly things that are way beneath the scope of the conflict at stake.
Compare and contrast with Fallout New Vegas, where a “war” of much lesser scale between a rebuilt democracy in the image of the United States and a slaver tribal’s confederate born from the will and guile of one single man brought to the fore the likes of Hegelian dialectics. To say nothing of the main choice, where it’s authoritarianism vs. flawed democracy vs. technocracy vs. anarchy all over again, each having their own argument over the rest. To say nothing of the plethora of other aesops scattered literally all over the place, the most obvious being the ability to “let go and begin again”. To say nothing about the fact that even the unambiguously evilest of the bunch have their own arguments why they do what they do (Not Caesar’s Legion, oh no. The Powder Gangers. Yes, those Powder Gangers.)
The most jarring thing to me is that this thematic focus and priority issue does not preclude the writing from being objectively good. A young adult book, therefore, can be one of the best written thing on the face of this green earth, and I may still hate it with every single bone in my body because it deals with none of the issues I find the most relevant to the setting. There is a phrase for that: being outside of the target audience? To the eye of a casual onlooker, I would be insane: why bother with a book that isn’t even written for you and then get mad because it is not written for you?
The same reason many detractors of Twilight hate it, I guess: They found the underlying message anything but positive.
The underlying message of any young adult book that has teenage protagonists taking part in a far larger conflict than they are logically – mentally or otherwise – prepared for as a leading figure is far less innocent than it looks: the oversimplification of conflicts. This leads to the oversimplification of motives and goals (Why do they fight us? Well, because they’re monsters!) which leads to the oversimplification of characters which leads to the dehumanization of the opposition. If the entire existential and motivational struggle of an entire faction thousands or millons or trillions in size is worth less screentime than the will-they-or-wont-they teenage angst of the protagonists, something is very, very wrong.
Now this is where the hypocrisy comes in: I am not innocent of this crime. As the people from the Canberran Speculative Fiction Guild who has read the draft of (yet another of) my novel two years ago can testify, I showed far less of the moral ambiguity I wanted that world to have. For instance, one of the female deuteragonists is supposed to – as a newcomer to a needlessly complex political machine – bribe her way up to convince people she is something. None of the narrative focus was on this, for the male protagonist and viewpoint character spent the whole time being dragged around by the other female deuteragonist doing schoolgirl things having nothing whatsoever to do with the actual political greyness the players around him are engaged in. I believe this will rear its ugly head in The Children of Zero too (you can argue it already HAS. The verdict’s open.)
3. Concluding remarks
In conclusion, what do you think my answer is for the question I posed in the topic?
The greatest thing about writing is even the most difficult thing to pull off can be pulled off well by someone who knows what they are doing. The second greatest thing is that… not everyone can do this, i.e. Sturgeons’ Law.
My essay thus far does not argue that teenage heroes are automatically bad, unworkable, Mary Sues or otherwise not a hallmark of good writing. On the contrary, they can be done well – very well – if the writer pays attention to all the pitfalls and shortcomings of this older-than-dirt character stereotype. There are many things to pay attention to: the power balance, the character scope, the people-who-aren’t the heroes… None are impossible.
Let me know what you think.
Alternately, go watch Neon Genesis Evangelion or something.