I call it the “Wesley Crusher Syndrome.” It is the apparent inability of authors to write convincing, realistic, sympathetic, capable, and not-terribly-annoying youthful characters, of which the failure of Wesley Crusher (from Star Trek: The Next Generation) as a character – good in concept, but poor in execution – is emblematic. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about recently because I’ve experienced several poorly done youthful characters in recent media I’ve consumed, and because I’ve been thinking about a character in Fo’Fonas (Wraith/Revia, for those few of you who have read the rough draft). I was even thinking about it enough to read a book on parenting, but more on that in this week’s review.
There are a few reasons I’ve identified that youth characters often fail. First, competency: the character is either unrealistically competent for their age, or insultingly incompetent. Looking at our syndrome’s namesake, Wesley is on the one hand set up as an astonishingly competent character, and on the other hand seems to always be getting himself into trouble. Either extreme, or a juxtaposition of them, will fall flat with most readers. An overly competent youth character, without very good background and reasoning to explain why they should be so competent, will seem unrealistic – they only have had so long to become capable at something. On the other hand, a youth character who is too incompetent will seem condescending. I see the latter more often than the former; I think many people are inclined to underestimate children’s resilience, capability, and capacity.
Second, maturity: the character is either comically immature, or more mature than most adults I know (though that’s not really saying much). In this case, I see the former far more than the latter, and it honestly seems kind of insulting. Children vary immensely in maturity, just as adults do, which is no surprise, considering how poorly defined “maturity” is as a concept. Maturity will also look different in different cultures and contexts, since what would be considered a mature reaction to something in 21st century America will be very different from what would be considered a mature reaction to the same thing in thirteenth century Norway.
Third, agency: I often see youth characters written in almost as placeholders, with little personality or agency of their own. They’re just there to fill the slot of “youth character,” and otherwise have very little role to play, or control of their own destinies within the story. It is worth bearing in mind that just because a character happens to be young does not mean that they cannot think for themselves, and have their own desires, ambitions, dreams, hopes, and fears, nor that they are incapable of taking steps and actions to achieve their own ends.
One of the few youthful characters I have seen done well is Sanderson’s Lift, from Stormlight Archives (she is specifically featured in the Edgedancer novella, which you can find a review for in our review of Arcanum Unbounded). In Lift, we have competency in certain areas, which is explained well by her background, and it is balanced by complete inexperience and ignorance in other areas to which she has never been exposed. She also has a high level of maturity which she likes to hide from even herself, which helps address that thorny balancing act, and her actions are commensurately a mixture of well-conceived plans and impulsive decisions. Perhaps most importantly, she has a high degree of agency. Yes, things happen to her and around her, and she doesn’t always have the full picture, but she also goes out and makes things happen for herself, affects the larger story, and makes a difference. Sometimes by accident, granted, but even her accidents often prove more thought out than she wants us to believe.
For as well-crafted as Lift is, she still does not always strike the perfect balance on all of these areas. Her unwillingness to be more mature, for all that it is a character trait that Sanderson is exploring, is nonetheless off-putting at a times, and there are also times when I think she seems either unreasonably competent or unreasonably lucky. This is not so much a critique of what Sanderson has accomplished with the character, as it is a demonstration that even when youth characters are done well they will sometimes fail to resonate well with readers.
It is worth remembering, especially when writing fantasy, that different ages will be perceived differently in different contexts. Take Kiluron, for example. In some ways, Blood Magic is a coming-of-age story for Kiluron and Doil, but you will note that their ages are not specified, and that they are not treated as young by those around them. By our standards, they would be considered youthful – they’re probably in their late teens, though I won’t officially confirm anything – but in the context of their world, most people will either be working on the farm until they inherit it, or they will be out on their own in their mid-teens. Yet there is also a respect in which neurologically, independent of cultural norms, someone at that age would still be “youthful.”
There are probably two main takeaways from this post. First, writing youthful characters well is highly challenging, and if you’re going to attempt it, you should possibly consider some of the axes we discussed in this post. Second, that above all, as with any character, you should treat youthful characters as people. Whether young, old, alien or human, all of our characters are people, and the only way they will be believable and sympathetic to our readers is if we treat them commensurately with that status.