Protagonists come in all shapes and sizes. Heroes are usually big, strong, and competent men with bulging muscles, because traditionally such an individual can solve most problems easily. But protagonists can be weak as water, often buttressed by competent and strong heroes.
A lot of the time, a protagonist won’t be very useful in the fight against good or evil–at least, not at first. It takes a competent, self-sacrificing person to be a hero, because without those traits the character is either cowardly or impotent. A hint of advice: when you make a hero, make them capable. Not all-powerful, but capable.
But protagonists are pretty much universally weak in the beginning. Unless you start with someone like John Wick or James Bond, (who are iconic characters) you need to start your protagonist at level 1 and have them level up to eventually beat the boss. Anything else creates plot holes.
But what if it was possible to take this challenge further, only for the hope that this will improve the quality of your story? What if you had a protagonist that not only was inept in the ways of heroism, but also incapable of leveling up? A character who’s stuck at square one for the entire story, but it’s not their fault?
I am, of course, talking about the child protagonist.
I have maintained that creating an interesting, relatable, logical, and original child protagonist is extremely difficult. The trope is an old one: it’s utilized somewhat in the epic fantasy classic The Lord of the Rings (where the Hobbits are basically relegated to being children) and even in older books like Otto of the Silver Hand. (my brother loved that book for some inexplicable reason)
Then why did I open with all that stuff about protagonists and heroes? Because there is a fundamental different to be recognized between the two. Just like some antagonists are not villains and vice versa (although the smaller your story, the more these two will be conflated), protagonists and heroes are very, very different.
Because of a hero’s heroic nature, they will often pick the morally right side of the conflict. Because they strive against evil, that evil will push back; thus, you have a plot with the hero as the protagonist. But what if the one striving against evil is a mere farm boy? Well, you’ll still get a struggle, but the evil will soon win, and handily…unless the hero (a separate character) steps in.
You see, when a the protagonist is not the hero (at least, not yet), they must be two different characters. You either have James Bond or Frodo and Aragorn. You either have He-Man or Rand and Lan. You either have Batman or Dante and Beatrice. One to walk a journey and grow stronger, the other to safeguard their charge’s path to heroism.
So, back to child protagonists. The thing about Frodo and Aragorn is that Frodo eventually grows strong enough to travel without Aragorn, eventually resolving to go out to Mordor alone and be his own hero. Luke eventually becomes enough of a hero to live without Ben and destroy the Death Star without handholding. Eventually, all future heroes will outgrow their mentors and set out to be mentors of their own.
But child heroes are like iconic heroes in this respect: they do not grow and become competent. Instead, you have to wait thirteen to fifteen years before the five-year-old becomes even marginally capable of taking care of themselves. They haven’t started growing yet, and won’t grow for much of the story.
This leaves the child in a sort of limbo where they always have to be protected yet never can really emulate said protection. As a result, the child becomes as much of a chore or burden as he/she does a character. And since the child is the protagonist and therefore vital to the plot, “protect the child” sorta overrides the narrative.
This is why creating a child protagonist is so difficult: they can’t logically have a meaningful arc. They can have a small one, but that’s about it. Other people, looking to spice up the narrative a bit, might forget about the difference between hero and protagonist and make the child a zombie-slaying warrior. This is the most common way people solve plot problems where the child is a protagonist, and it’s one of the worst.
Now, I can’t give you a strict “how-to” on this topic, as I haven’t written many stories about child protagonists myself. But I can give you some tips and point you to where most of the common blunders usually lie.
First of all: the child protagonist is not a hero. Some authors (particularly writers of fanfiction) like to assume that a zombie apocalypse allows children to gain amazing powers of survival and resourcefulness. The idea is infantile. Thirteen-year-olds are not warriors. They have to run and hide, scream, and wet their pants in a dark corner. Children oppressed by horrible odds are victims, not saviors.
Which brings me to my next point: introduce a hero as soon as possible. In most cases, this is a responsible adult with a layer of expertise. Make whoever it is intervene at an opportune moment: just like Obi-Wan arrived just in time to rescue Luke Skywalker, an ex-army ranger drives up to save our twelve-year old protagonist from a zombie. Have the child’s incompetency always balanced by the calm control of the hero.
Next point: portray the child honestly. The kid should be acting their age, and if you don’t know what that looks like, do some research. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game was criticized by some because of his portrayal of gifted children (I’m loving the book so far, but I swear everything would make much more sense if you doubled the age of everyone in the story), and as a general rule you should design your story so that it’s not accused of this.
Young children are hard to empathize with as people. Their movements are uncoordinated, they don’t know how to put their thoughts into words, and their language is unarticulated. But deep down in every human being is a desire to care about someone younger or less fortunate than them. If you can tap into that successfully…well, you’ll be in business.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!