(House cleaning tip from Adam over at Write Thoughts on the Fantasy Prologue post: Prologues aren’t always necessary for a hero’s tale, but if included, should come out of necessity, less it slows down the story.)
If the hero is introduced at a young age, or even at birth, we are generally given a bildungsroman story which always risks the book being shelved under the young adult demographic. The aim in this category is to show a blank slate or innocent that a hostile world/experiences can carve the hero out from. To portray this Tabula Rasa we are given the imagery of fresh, nurturing or growing environments in the beginning. This is why the farm boy archetype was so common in older fantasy, as it can also portray positive down-to-earth traits that can work as the soil from which a hero can grow.
There are many examples of this, David Edding’s The Belgariad, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, but the one I think is the most generic is Christopher Paolini’s character ‘Eragon’ from Eragon.
During the late 90s, this cliche was caught onto by many, and so began a long line of writers that started out with their protagonists in some of the worst situations possible. It seemed that a race was created to make the most underdog of the underdogs, locking them into a series of misfortunes and tortures that would make the revelation of their heroic qualities or heritage all the more gratifying in the later parts of the story. From this change in tropes, the idea of making your hero suffer was a defining notion that became the reluctant hero, a law from which many young adult writers follow.
Several examples of this can be seen in the works of Brent Weeks, J.V. Jones and Brandon Sanderson, but Robin Hobb gained a reputation for this in her character Fitz Chivalry Farseer in Assassin’s Apprentice.
If the hero is introduced as an adult, a troubled backstory of his younger self may be delivered during flashbacks throughout the tale, essentially making the beginning of the tale an in medias res with a non-linear narrative. This more easily falls under the adult fantasy demographic but, along with the prologue, the depiction of the younger characters can work better to introduce new concepts to the reader without the need of forced exposition, which attests to why this flashback trope is so common. Often this adult narration might only act as a framework for a bildungsroman stories or a singled out experience that shaped the character into who they are, be it something they need to redeem themselves for or a loss that they need to get over.
A clear example of this young adult story disguising itself as adult fiction using an adult fame can be seen in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and also in Wizard in Glass, the fourth of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.
To avoid the risk of falling into the young adult trap entirely is to simply start the tale with the protagonist as an adult and have any flashbacks be of recent or only very brief events in their past. This allows justifications for these flashbacks to contain elements of mature nature for character introspection to keep their focus primarily on present events. This kind of story demands reader engagement and relevance, giving the protagonist the opportunity to show why they are the protagonist, whether it be their skill or unique take on events. In either case, the first chapter should hopefully portray this relevance.
The first chapter of Storm Front by Jim Butcher, The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie and Heroes Die by Matthew Stover are all adequate examples of beginning chapters that portray the character’s relevance.
In many cases the relevance to the tale can be shown from how they relate to what happened in the prologue (if there is one). Are these people the receivers of what the old hero passed down? Are they going to run into the people who have a message for what trouble the hero failed to put a cork in? Do they possess the tools or skill required to do what is needed to be done to prevent and/or reverse this trouble? The tools of, if not the first chapter, the first arc, is to introduce the conflict the main character must face in a way that the reader will care about its consequences as much as the hero would.
An example of relating the conflict introduced in the prologue in the first chapter is the mentioning of the White Walkers in the first chapter of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of the Throne, roughly the trouble which the “old heroes” died failing to overcome.
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