Stay tuned for the further adventures of Carson Camaratz, ordinary teen, as he continues to do his homework, play video games, hang out with other ordinary teens, and gets reminded to do his laundry!
Writing a novel with a teenager as the protagonist presents an obvious difficulty. How do you get a teenager involved in a high-stakes plot if they don’t even have a driver’s license?
The YA characters we love to read about are political icons, war heroes, social influencers, alien ambassadors, mythical romantics.
Katniss Everdeen. Tris Prior. Citra Terranova. Tom Natsworthy. Huck Finn. Luke Skywalker (okay, from a movie but close enough).
As we all know, it looks easy—until you try it yourself. When you think about it, getting a teenager into a high-stakes plot without seeming forced is quite a trick.
It’s too easy to resort to clichés: the main character gets called by a prophecy, discovers they have supernatural powers, gets sought out by a mentor, or—perhaps the worst device ever used—joins the fight because they’re just the heroic type.
These are all conventional plot devices to achieve the impressive trick of getting an otherwise average teenager involved in an extraordinary plot. They’ve been overused, abused, and honestly aren’t interesting anymore. They were cool maybe the first couple of times. But now, when I read another book where the hero finds out—gasp—they’re actually the chosen one with special powers, I stop reading.
Luckily, there’s more than one way to get your hero into the plot without using a trope. I’ve come up with ten different ways you can propel your teenager into the plot.
(Note: I’ll be using the abbreviation “MC” to refer to the main character for brevity’s sake.)
1. The Villain targets your MC (directly or indirectly)
If the Villain seeks out your MC and provokes a fight, whether it’s direct or indirect, your character will have no choice but to respond. For example, in Hunger Games, Katniss’s younger sister was selected as a tribute for the Games, spelling certain death for her. Katniss volunteered as tribute to save her sister, putting her into the games. She wouldn’t have volunteered otherwise, but her only other choice was watching her sister get brutally murdered on live TV. In short, the corrupt system created by the Villain, President Snow, targeted Katniss and forced her to take action.
2. The MC does something noble
This could be an act as simple as giving a cup of water to a thirsty beggar. It doesn’t have to be grandiose. And be careful not to make your hero some kind of perfect saint. Just have your MC do something decently good and make the consequences dire—so extremely bad that the MC is unwillingly pushed headlong into a much deeper plot.
This happens in Mortal Engines (minor SPOILER alert) when Tom Natsworthy tries to catch an assassin who tries to murder his hero, Thaddeus Valentine. He wouldn’t be involved if the attempt didn’t happen in front of his own eyes—and the fact that Valentine was the target. He runs after the assassin out of basic decency—also hoping that he’ll impress the man he idolizes and his attractive daughter. Of course, Tom instead ends up in much worse trouble as a direct result of this action ... but I’ll leave the rest for you to read ;)
3. The MC stands out in a crowd (visibly or theoretically)
If your MC is particularly unique, the plot will naturally draw them in—just because they’re odd. For example, in Stargirl, the title character causes a considerable stir in her new school because of her wildly weird wardrobe (alliteration not intended) and odd behavior. You could almost say that the whole plot happens simply because she exists. If your MC is so different that plot points just happen wherever they go, you won’t have to force them into anything—you’ll be fighting off plot ideas with a stick.
4. The MC is the dominant or sole source of hope (whether they like it or not)
Do this carefully, and you’ll avoid all “Chosen One” clichés. Your MC doesn’t have to be Anakin Skywalker to be a source of hope.
In other words, if the story starts in a drought, give your MC the last jug of water. If someone drowns, your MC is the only person around with CPR training.
And to make it even better, make your MC reasonably reluctant. Most people don’t exactly jump at the chance to take risks, so we can relate to a reluctant MC.
Look for ways to make your MC a source of hope without giving them a choice. Give them a physical object, a skill, or a characteristic that makes everyone else look to them for help, even if your MC doesn’t really want to help. Then give them enough moral fortitude that they’ll use their assets for good.
For example, in Little Women, the March family would be destitute if it weren’t for Jo’s ability to earn money for the family. She’s not their sole breadwinner, but she is the only girl in the family with enough energy and focus to make a decent wage. Even though she desperately wants to be a playwright, she loves her family and won’t watch them starve for the sake of chasing her own dreams.
5. When evil threatens/attacks MC’s general well-being, the hero resists in self-defense
With this scenario, the MC has a good life and plans for the future, with no ambitions to solve mysteries, fight evil, save lives. Instead, evil finds them and threatens their livelihood in such a way that forces them to take action.
A perfect example of this would be Unwind by Neal Shusterman. The basic premise of the story is a futuristic world in which parents are allowed to have their children “unwound”—euthanized and harvested for organs and body parts—between the ages of 13 and 18, a sort of retroactive abortion. The main character, Connor, has a pretty decent future ahead of him until he finds out his parents have signed the order for Connor to be unwound. This forces Connor to take action he wouldn’t have done in other circumstances, putting him in fight-or-flight mode.
This is an excellent way to kick your teenaged hero into the action by threatening their way of life—or their life itself—early in your novel. With this particular method, the threat to your MC shouldn’t be personal. It should be a more general threat to their life and the lives of many others, rather than a singled-out attack on them.
6. A parental/mentor figure trains the MC to be something special
This is different than the “Chosen One” trope because the MC isn’t unique or gifted or prophesied of—not in an obvious way, at least.
For example, in The Mask of Zorro, the protagonist, Alejandro, is a common thief, vagabond, and drunk—no special powers or abilities. But when the aging Zorro encounters Alejandro, he notices a spark of determination in Alejandro and decides to train him as his successor. Alejandro agrees to do it so he can take revenge on his personal enemy, but he never would have gotten involved if Zorro hadn’t singled him out.
Don’t worry about giving your MC a special gift or power. Like in Zorro, all they may need is energy or determination.
7. The MC inherits a conflict from his parents/family
With this technique, your MC should have a good life and be close to their family. That way, when their parents or family is threatened by the overarching evil of the plot, your MC will be highly motivated to take up the fight.
For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo has an enviable life in the Shire, but when he inherits the One Ring from Bilbo, he is forced to take the ring on a long, dangerous journey to save the Shire from destruction. Frodo didn’t ask for the ring—especially not the evil threat it posed—but his uncle was already wrapped up in the ring’s power, and the responsibility was passed on to Frodo, his only heir.
This is an effective way to push your hero into the conflict by starting your story with your MC’s parents or guardians already in trouble. Then, early in the story, pass off the pre-existing conflict to your MC by inheritance. This way, they must make tough choices right off the bat, and you can quickly move them into the plot from there.
8. The MC is recruited to a position they didn’t ask for
When your otherwise ordinary MC is recruited to a position they didn’t ask for, they’ll get wrapped up in the plot pretty quick. It could be a high school assignment, a military draft, an election, a dystopian recruitment. Just make sure it’s either something they can’t or wouldn’t want to turn down—and your MC gets entwined with the main plot as a direct result.
Case in point: in The Giver (SPOILERS ahead), Jonas is selected to be the next Receiver of Memory. He learns through his training that his new role is a heavy responsibility—he alone is entrusted with knowledge so weighty that it could either save or destroy his Community. This knowledge forces him to make several choices and instantly plunges him into the main plot.
9. The MC’s own personal plans directly cross the Villain’s
This plot device has to fit your MC well. Otherwise, it won’t work. Your MC needs to be a particular personality type—they need to be headstrong, willful, stubborn, or dedicated. They should be knee-deep in a plan well before the story starts, and their pursuits should directly contradict the Villain’s plans. They should also be involved in some kind of community role—in their school, church, even local government. Anything with influence, something that could believably interfere with a villain’s plans.
A case in point would be This Present Darkness. One of the main characters, a newspaper editor, starts investigating a story he digs up in the natural pursuit of his job as a newsman. His work as a reporter crosses a massive, local conspiracy and thrusts him into a high-stakes plot. Instead of forcing the character into a life-threatening situation, the plot develops naturally as a result of his occupation.
10. The MC inadvertently gets a job working for the Villain
Be careful with this one. It’s a great way to introduce your MC to the plot, but it can feel forced if you aren’t careful. When your MC gets a job working for the Villain, you need to do one of two things. Option one: the Villain who hires your MC is a decent-looking or even likable person with only one or two odd characteristics that foreshadow their wickedness. Option two, perhaps the better and more-used option: the Villain who hires the MC is openly evil, even threatening, but the MC believes they can handle the job anyway. Or they’re so desperate for a job that they’d work for anybody, like Bob Cratchett working for Ebenezer Scrooge.
When using this plot device, your MC will immediately be faced with many moral choices: when the Villain asks them to do something immoral, will they comply? And if they rebel, what consequences and danger will they face?
An excellent example of this would be The Blood Ship by Norman Springer. The main character, nineteen-year-old Jack Shreve, gets hired as a crew member by an incredibly evil captain. Even though Jack knows full well that the captain is notoriously cruel and corrupt, he thinks he can handle it, taking the job to earn respect and prestige as a man’s man. And, of course, working for this captain turns out to be a horrible mistake, and the plot unfolds quickly and easily.
Of course, there are more than 10 ways to involve a teenage hero in the plot, but this should be a good head start and hopefully inspires more ideas. As long as your character drives the plot, instead of the other way around, your story will keep a natural, believable feel. That’s the real trick.
Please tell me I'm not the only one who feels so strongly about this 😂 Do you relate to the struggle?