It’s difficult to make main characters work in other-world-type fantasies.
In this case, I’m calling “other-world-type fantasies” stories in which the main character is transported or shown another world they didn’t think existed. Narnia falls into this classification, as does Harry Potter, and many other middle grade fantasies. The reason for this is simple: the middle grade reader likes to have a character who lives a familiar kind of life. For this reason, MG main characters usually begin the story in school, or playing a sport, or just living their normal lives in a normal place, reeking of normality. It gives the reader something familiar.
However, things are going to become a lot less familiar. The reader, of course, wants this to happen too. They didn’t pick up that MG fantasy to hear about little Timmy doing his homework– they picked it up to hear about something out of this world, which is exactly the point of the story.
Now, of course, little Timmy has no idea his life is about to change so drastically, and that’s good for the introduction. You want him to seem familiar. However, you also want to get across the unfamiliar aspects of the story in the very beginning, so the reader has a promise to count on. How do you juggle this?
It all comes down to the same concept I explained in my last post: show impending doom, then go into the character and how awesome they are.
Except… in this case, it’s a little bit twisted. The character is young. The character is inexperienced. The character might not be that awesome just yet. Little Timmy’s greatest concern is getting his homework turned in on time, and it’s kind of boring– but that little concern is crucial to making little Timmy seem familiar. So, again, as with capable characters, show the impending doom and then introduce the character in all his familiarity.
Now, a lot of problems come with this. First of all, if the forces of evil are prepared to pounce on little Timmy, and we don’t know who little Timmy is yet, who cares? They can have him! It’s one less annoying kid for us to worry about, and he really didn’t have all that much going on anyway.
This was the problem, I thought, with the beginning of Michael Vey: Prisoner of Cell 25. They begin with an ominous phone call, in which two unknown but undeniably evil people discuss what they’re going to do with this mysterious kid, Michael Vey (the main character). At that point, no one cared whether Michael lived or died– we aren’t all such paragons of virtue that discussing death is a hateful act. We don’t know Michael yet. We don’t know what to like about him, what to dislike. He could be a horrible person for all we know. At the moment, we’re giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, including these two bad guys.
Obviously, something that foreshadows the fantasy aspect of the book while involving the main character isn’t always going to cut it. You do need, however, something that foreshadows that fantasy aspect, and the slow reveal that often occurs in these books isn’t going to work either.
So I think, in this case, it comes down to what emotion you’re trying to incite in that beginning scene. Are you trying to incite curiosity, as in Harry Potter? The main character as a baby being delivered on a flying motorcycle to his new home, after some unspeakable thing happened– well, that’s weird. That makes a promise that the questions will be answered, and we’re intrigued about this character. Are you trying to incite horror about the antagonist, and curiosity about what he’s doing? The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson does a pretty good job with that. The prologue is from the perspective of a young girl being chased by otherworldly creatures. The main character is not featured, but the big problem of the novel is– who is this antagonist, how is he doing all this stuff, and how can the main character stand against such an evil person? Instead of pitting the ominous forces against the main character immediately, we are shown this young girl and the antagonist simultaneously and forced to choose which one we like better. The main character has no idea this is happening, and yet we see who we’re rooting against, and why.
Am I saying you need a prologue? No and yes. You don’t need a prologue, just like you don’t need a character who detests rutabaga. But who knows? It might be useful. Especially if you plan to introduce the weird parts of your story little by little, as is the habit in other-world MG fantasy. Introduce the weird parts first, incite an emotion and promise something good to come, and the go to your main character and show why everyone should like him.
Now, that’s only one half of it. I know, I know, I thought I was wrapping this thing up too. However, the main character in this sort of thing can’t just be a victim of circumstances. Just because you just did cool stuff in the prologue doesn’t mean you can just relax for the rest of the introduction. Of course not. The main character needs to feel real, and likable– sure, they have the legions of darkness chasing after them, but that doesn’t make them likable. Nor does it give them permission to be perfect.
One of the most easily overlooked things about writing MG main characters are their conflicts. They’re going to have plenty of conflict later, we think– when they meet the antagonist, they will have conflict galore. Unfortunately, that doesn’t matter in the introduction, because they haven’t met the antagonist yet. They still need conflict. Don’t leave them without it.
I really hope this post isn’t just a formula to begin an other-world MG fantasy, but that’s what it feels like to me. I apologize if that’s the case– please don’t follow this to the letter. However, be mindful of the promises you need to make to get the reader to actually read.