Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Child protagonists

Ever thought of writing a child protagonist? I really admire an author who pulls this off, but so far I haven’t tried it — I mean, yes, young protagonists when I’m writing YA, but not really children.

Trei, in The Floating Islands, is my youngest protagonist. He’s fourteen, and a pretty mature fourteen at that, what with all he’s gone through. Obviously there are hordes of kids about the same age in YA genre fiction, and it really is fascinating to watch how different authors handle their young protagonists. Some ‘feel’ so young (Tamora Pierce’s earlier books), and some ‘feel’ so much more mature (Robin McKinley’s Dragonhaven, for example, to my mind features one of the all-time great fifteen-year-old-boy ‘voices’, but not (to me) a very ‘young’ fifteen.

Another great and very unusual fifteen-year-old protagonist is John Wayne Cleaver, in Dan Wells’ I Am Not A Serial Killer. Totally unlike any other fifteen-year-old protagonist anywhere! In fact, I just bought the third book of the trilogy and read it the same day it arrived, which very seldom happens.

But what’s really interesting and poses altogether different challenges, it seems to me, is to write a child protagonist.

One delightful example is Jaenelle in Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels trilogy. Jaenelle is a little girl of about eight or so when she first appears, and her ‘voice’ is just wonderful! I wouldn’t say the trilogy is flawless, but for me the books are ‘catchy’ — I wind up reading bits of them over and over. One of the reasons for that is the young Jaenelle and the interaction between Janelle and her foster-father Saetan.

Anne Bishop uses a really interesting technique with Jaenelle — if I run into Anne again at a convention this year, I’ll have to ask if she did this on purpose — when Jaenelle thinks she might be in trouble, she starts to talk quickly and in run-on sentences. This is vastly entertaining if you are the sort of reader who notices technique! It works VERY well.

Even more impressive is the four-year old protagonist in Dogland, by Will Shetterly.

It took me about fifteen years to read this book because the idea of a dog zoo is so utterly, totally, completely repulsive to me! I can’t begin to express how strongly I believe that dogs should be kept as pets: not on chains, not in solitary confinement in the back yard, and definitely not in a zoo! I mean, check this out, and you will see that I am not likely to fall in love with the background setting of Dogland. Though the historical setting is another thing, I loved that plenty!

Dogland is actually a really impressive book, and the dog zoo background is handled in a way that makes it as non-repulsive as possible, I guess, and when the book opens, the protagonist is four years old! Four! With a first-person narrative! There’s a gutsy move by the author. Naturally, Chris, the protagonist, misses so much that the reader picks up on. It’s a brilliant book.

I should add here, in case anyone rushes out, buys this book, and agrees with me, that the sequel is MUCH less good and reads like Shetterly jammed the front half of a possible sequel together with the back half of a completely different work set in an entirely different world, and it Does Not Work at all, at least not for me. Sorry, but my advice is, read the first book, skip the second. But truly, if you want to see a wonderful job handling a great child point of view, you really need to toss Dogland on your To Be Read pile.

Now: which would be more difficult to write, do you think — a child protagonist, a protagonist with an unusual handicap, or a genius protagonist? Any other categories of really unusual, particularly difficult protagonists I’ve missed?

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