Many difficulties come standard in the task of writing child protagonists. To a certain point, a person is a person no matter how small, but there are subtle differences in younger characters. Their behavior can be slightly different from that of an adult— less logical at times, or not quite sure of morals yet. Their physical limitations, of course, must differ. A ten-year-old boy cannot take the same amount of knocks on the head as the adult hero of an epic fantasy (there is considerable debate on whether the hero himself can take that many hits realistically, but the point remains). Most importantly, however, there is a child’s place in society to consider.
Any middle grade fantasy will grind to a halt when the child’s parents decide she can’t cross the street without permission.
But books about children have been around for centuries, from the Brothers Grimm to C.S. Lewis. Many people have solved this problem for their stories, many different ways.
As the comic above shows, orphaning the protagonist is a tried-and-true method. A child’s parents would never let their kid run off with a couple shady looking characters armed with a prophecy and a slightly pointy stick? Goodbye ma and pa. You could pull a middle grade fantasy out of a hat and chances are good the protagonist is an orphan. Harry Potter. Ranger’s Apprentice, by John Flanagan. Castaways of the Flying Dutchman, by Brian Jacques).
That embodies the best quality of writers, doesn’t it? If something won’t let you continue, kill it. In this case, it just happened to be the poor kid’s folks.
The other options are slightly less dramatic. One similarly popular one is kidnapping the parents, as happens in The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan. This conveniently gives us a reason for the kid to be alone, plus a plot for the kid to follow. If they have to find and free their parents, they don’t have to be convinced that they should save the world— they just do it by accident, believing it’s the only way. (You also saw this in the movie Spy Kids, and Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke.)
One technique, made famous by Harry Potter but definitely existing before then, is the option of sending the kid to school. School is one of the only places in a normal kid’s life where their parents are not present. It also gives an extremely large pool of people the same age as the main character— instead of being constantly surrounded by adults that look down on them, they’re around people their age, who treat them as equals. Yes, they have input from teachers, but their friends and allies are almost exclusively people their age. That’s very important. Again, this is a wildly popular technique and you can probably think of examples for yourself. (In case you can’t, Harry Potter does this, as does The Lightning Thief, and The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson.)
The next technique lends itself best to the idea of a broken home. Perhaps, instead of having loving yet strict parents who have the child’s best interests in mind, the parents are lax and possibly even mean to their children, allowing the protagonist to have adventures without caring what they think. Unfortunately, this puts a bad view on parents, and some adults don’t like that. Nevertheless, it is a tool in this area. In fact, it’s often a tool used in conjunction with several other tools, to make it less apparent. Another fix to this potential problem is to make the parents actually extended family— instead of mothers and fathers, the evil people are aunts and uncles, or stepfathers or -mothers. Harry Potter uses this trick as well as the others, as does (yes) The Lightning Thief. Other examples are The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke, a couple Redwall books, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Here’s another plot-themed one: the child is stolen away from her parents. This is reminiscent of several fairy tales, including East of the Sun and West of the Moon (retold as East, by Edith Pattou). Brandon Mull also uses this in both A World Without Heroes and Sky Raiders. It’s pretty easy to explain, and pretty easy to use as long as you have the right world for it. It, again, provides a convenient plot for the book to follow as the protagonist seeks to get home to their loving, unsuspecting parents.
Yet another technique is for the main character to lie about their adventures— or to run away before their parents hear about it. It’s very similar to the last one, but not quite the same; it casts more shadow on the main character’s personality, which means it’s less used among young protagonists. However, if the parents cannot know about this because it would destroy them, it can keep the main character from seeming too despicable. This is used in the kids TV show Word Girl, and (with an older character) in Divided We Fall, by Trent Reedy. The running away side of this is used in several Redwall books, as well as Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull. Usually the running away doesn’t last long, but the lying tends to stick around until it resolves at the end. Extra conflict!
Lastly— and my favorite, because it’s so versatile and seems unique every time you see it— is setting-based. What happens if the very world requires that the children be separated from the parents? Something forces children to be the only kind of protagonist that could ever tell this story. In Partials, by Dan Wells, a worldwide disease has wiped out humanity except for a few survivors. While some adults have survived, there aren’t enough to uphold the social structure, and therefore teenagers are brought in to help fill the holes. In The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, ghosts can only be seen by young people. Adults can handle the paperwork, but hunting ghosts must be done by the children. When it’s a duty to civilization, not even parents can stand in the way. Other examples of this are The Lightning Thief (few demigods live very long, with all the attempts on their lives) and a few Redwall books (honestly, everything on this list happens in there at some point).
You may have noticed a pattern by now. Almost everything on this list can— and often is— used in conjunction with several others. Harry Potter, for instance, has dead parents, despicable relatives, and school. The Lightning Thief (and I’m only using the first book as an example) uses one missing parent, one kidnapped parent, despicable relatives, school, and a setting requirement. Among the Redwall books, many techniques are used in conjunction as well as alone, for a variety of effects.
Now that I’ve waxed eloquent this long, how do I expect you to use this post? As a challenge, to see how many techniques you can use at once? As a checklist, to make sure you’re on the right track with at least one of these? Absolutely not. It’s a challenge, yes, but a different kind of challenge. Can you think up a new way to get around this age-old problem? Once C.S. Lewis sent the Pevensies away from their parents to live with a couple careless people, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Brandon Mull did essentially the same thing in Fablehaven. Once J.K. Rowling sent Harry Potter to school, everyone seemed to have a book about going to a magical school. Can these techniques be copied successfully? Absolutely. But are we completely out of other options? By no means. You’re better than that. It doesn’t matter what you’ve written in the past, but for the future, you can think up a better way to get rid of those overprotective folks.
At least, I hope so. I want to figure out something for myself.
Every time I think I’m done with this list, I look over at my bookshelf and pick out another book that has a different take on this problem. I might be out of books, but how about some examples from your favorite books? What are some ideas for conquering this problem without these techniques?