Does A YA Protagonist Have To Be A Teen?
Are there exceptions? What about the immortal protagonist? I’ve mentioned this topic in passing in other posts—but it’s the current thorn under my skin so I figured it deserves its own article to mull over.
One of the key attributes of the YA (Young Adult) genre is that the protagonist is a teen. This is true so frequently that its often seen as a requirement. The reason behind this is reader identification—teens aggressively select protagonists they can identify with. An obvious component of this is age. Thus, YA books need teen protagonists.
But is it always that simple?
The Immortal Protagonist
Sure, teens don’t want to identify with their parents—their parents are the enemy. But, what about the immortal protagonist? The Fantasy genre is powered by wish fulfillment—and one of its long standing fan favorites is the immortal protagonist. The other major “in” to identification is through wish fulfillment. It’s not all about similarity—desirable difference also has a strong pull.
The obvious and frequently used work around is to give your immortal protagonist the physical appearance of a teen. This gets you the best of both worlds—superficially similar but desirably different. But are teens that shallow? Can they really not cope with a protagonist without the veneer of a high school countenance?
My Problem Book
I’m chewing on this conundrum due to a future book I’ve got in outline—it’s still a ways out, 5 or so books at least. But it’s a strong concept, and it requires the protagonist to have an older appearance—will his immortality be enough to excuse this violation of reader taste?
Life as a Teen Sucks
Surely teens would know better than anyone else that being stuck as a teen forever would not be ideal. In fact, teen readers should be acutely aware of the disadvantages—high school, not having your own income, restrictions about staying out late, inability to drink, questions about buying property, increased visibility of the fact that you aren’t aging, authorities wanting to know who your parents are. Not having parents is hard to pull off as a teen and teens don’t want parents.
But not wanting parents doesn’t mean teens never imagine themselves as older. An older, wealthier, bad ass version of themselves—that’s certainly in the day dreams.
How many teens identify with Batman and reject the Robin route? Do all teens want to dream of themselves as teens—that doesn’t match their consumer behavior. I certainly dreamed of being Storm from the X-men: The Animated Series and loathed Jubilee when I was a teen. I suspect this would carry over to the topic of the immortal protagonist.
The immortal in a teen body isn’t nearly as cool as the immortal who’s older.
A Different Approach
A potential solution is to add another viewpoint character who is a teen. If so, I want to avoid them being the love interest. I feel like an immortal love interest with her own convoluted historical past is more interesting.
I don’t have good story reasons to add a random teen viewpoint character—yet. It’s a conundrum. But a problem, a gaping hole that needs to be filled, does tend to generate the more interesting stories if you stew on it. So I’ll stew on a teen, non-romantic co-protagonist for my immortal. A solution will rise to the surface eventually—it always does.