The Case of the Teenage Protagonist: Guest Post by Alan Gratz
Alan Gratz is the author of a number of novels for young readers,
including Samurai Shortstop (ALA 2007 Top Ten Best Books for Young
Adults), Something Rotten (ALA 2008 Quick Pick for Young Adult Readers),
The Brooklyn Nine (Booklist's 2010 Top Ten Sports Books and Top Ten
Historical Books for Youth), and Prisoner B-3087 (YALSA's 2014 Best
Fiction for Young Adults). His latest novels are the middle grade
steampunk trilogy The League of Seven and the YA thriller Code of Honor.
Alan will be at Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, giving away free signed
copies of The League of Seven in the hospitality suite at 4 pm on
Alan Gratz: The Case of the Teenage Protagonist
You write a book for young readers. You pack it full of twists and turns and high stakes and derring-do. Great! That’s exactly the kind of book kids want to read. All contemporary books for young readers have young protagonists, so you create a twelve year old Doc Savage, maybe a seventeen year old Philip Marlowe. Excellent! Kids want to read books about characters their age, or just a little older than they are. You’re cruising.
Then you realize you have one very big problem. And it’s a doozy.
Why is your kid solving your mystery, and not the adults in his life? Why not his parents? Or the police? Or the CIA?
Making a young character the legitimate hero of a high stakes thriller is the biggest challenge I face any time I write an action adventure story for young readers. I’ve seen really promising middle grade adventure novels fall apart in the third act because there’s no valid reason for the young protagonist to be taking the chances she does. And I’ve read too many young adult novels where a young detective solve a dangerous mystery on his own just because he “decided not to tell his parents.” (The weakest excuse of them all.) There is a reason there are so many “chosen ones” in fantasy novels for children—why else would anyone ask eleven-year-old Harry Potter to face Lord Voldemort on his own?
One of my favorite ways to meet this problem head on is to have my young characters immediately go to the adults in their lives for help, only to have the adults unable—or unwilling—to help them. In my young adult detective novel Something Rotten, as soon as my young sleuth Horatio Wilkes gets a real clue to the identity of a murderer, he goes right to the local police with the information. Unfortunately for him (and fortunately for my plot!) Horatio finds that the local police are in the pocket of the suspected killer. Not only are they not going to help him, they’re going to make even more trouble for him.
In my middle grade steampunk fantasy The League of Seven, twelve-year-old Archie Dent’s parents are brainwashed by a giant insect monster. (Don’t you hate when that happens?) Archie’s first thought isn’t to take on the giant monster himself—his first thought is to seek help from the other adults in his life, the monster-hunting Septemberist Society that his parents belong to. When he discovers they all have bugs on the back of their necks giving them orders too, Archie and his young friends are forced to take care of the situation themselves.
Sometimes the best way to make your young protagonist the legitimate hero of your high stakes plot is to make him essential to the solution. That’s a trick I used in my contemporary YA thriller Code of Honor, about a Persian-American high school senior named Kamran Smith who goes on the run from the U.S. government to prove that his older brother, an Army Ranger serving in Afghanistan, isn’t a terrorist. There are plenty of people in my story more qualified to foil an international terrorist plot, so I had to have a compelling (and believable) reason for Kamran to not just be involved, but to be the only person who could save the day.
My idea was to have Kamran’s older brother, Darius, sending secret coded messages in his terrorist videos—coded messages based on the make-believe adventures he and Kamran used to have in the backyard as children. So now Kamran is involved whether he wants to be or not. Kamran is literally the only other person on the planet who could ever translate Darius’s codes. As CIA agent Mickey Hagan tells him, “That’s the best kind of code. Unbreakable.” It also makes Kamran indispensible to the story, seventeen-years-old or not.