There is a stereotype that the age of a protagonist must be the same or similar to the age of the reader.
Of course, in adult genres this is less true, but adult genres, like fantasy and science fiction, tend to avoid child protagonists much the same way children’s and young adult books avoid adult protagonists. Yet there are books that break this mold and have become extremely popular.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card uses a young child as the protagonist to great effect. Ender is only six when the story begins, yet he immediately captures adult sympathies. Perhaps children cannot relate to many of our adult issues, but since we have all been children, we know what it’s like to be picked on, manipulated by adults, and have to fight our way through life, struggling to maintain innocence while being forced, at times, to grow up faster than we want. Ender is all this and more, and Card rocketed himself into the heart of many a fan with the book, despite its child protagonist or, perhaps, because of him.
|Maisie Williams as Arya Stark|
More recently, George R. R. Martin defied epic fantasy conventions and placed several children in the primary roles of his engaging and convoluted A Song of Ice and Fire. The Stark children play a central role in the events of The Seven Kingdoms, and Daenarys Targaryen, thirteen-years-old at the start, a child by our modern standards, is forced to step into a very adult role, one she excels in throughout the series. In fact, a large chunk of the primary point of view characters are under eighteen; though, the TV series felt the need to advance the ages of the children given the story’s adult material. Yet the series has held a place on bestseller lists for a long time.
And then we have Harry Potter. While technically children’s literature, the series appeals to all ages. My grandmother, in fact, was one of the ones who first introduced me to Harry and his magical world at Hogwarts. J. K. Rowling somehow managed to capture that bit of childhood that appeals to all ages.
|Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter|
While children as heroes in fantasy and science fiction are rare, children as villains are even scarcer. In fact, I cannot think of an example; though, I’m certain one of you could.
So why do we have this odd relationship with children in adult fantasy and science fiction?
The experience of childhood is universal, and for that, all readers can identify with it, especially when an author writes it well. Yet as adults and even as teens, we tend to shun the things of childhood in an effort to secure and maintain our adult roles.
At the same time, children are generally considered precious. They have a tendency to be cute and make us laugh. They represent our future, and for that, they should be treasured. Yet, what parent hasn’t wanted to yank their hair out and scream when their child turns particularly bratty? Perhaps from these moments and our experiences with tbe cruelty of our child peers come the child villains that so rarely crop up in adult literature.
One way or another, literature tends to span the range of human experience. How can we then neglect the universal experience of childhood?
What do you think of the use of child characters in adult literature? Do they work better in one genre over another? Do you personally enjoy reading stories where children play a prominent role?