As we have already seen, it’s a scarily common element of many books (especially of the Young Adult persuasion) to have parental figures be absent, sometimes all adult authority altogether. There’s a connected and perhaps even more common trope, often known as the ‘Adults Are Useless‘ trope, wherein the parents and other adults of our youthful protagonists are around, but range from utterly clueless to downright obstructive to the resolution of the plot.
In its most benign and reasonable form, this trope plays on the tendency of adults to take the assertions of the young less seriously than the same thing said by another adult. There is some truth to this and it could be used to craft reasonable conflict in a plot, especially if the young protagonists are making some patently fantastic claims in an otherwise grounded setting. Taken to an extreme (a sadly realistic extreme), you can include negligent and abusive parents in this trope, creating true antagonists out of parents and the difficulties that negligence or abuse can cause to the resolution of the plot (assuming the abuse is part of a subplot).
Even in these realistic forms, care has to be taken not to make the adults too obfuscatingly stupid. Don’t take an adult’s mistrust of your young protagonists make him/her ignorant of obvious facts. If the teens are yelling about an invasion of monsters and the adult sees one of these monsters stomping down the street, it’s highly unlikely (outside of comedic exaggeration, which has its place!) that the adult is going to write it off as a mirage or a prank.
You see, the problem with the ‘Adults Are Useless’ trope comes in when it is taken to a blatantly unrealistic level in a story that is otherwise supposed to have some dramatic weight. Outside of comedy or parody, such excessive ignorance comes off as patently unrealistic. When, to take an extreme example, the sheriff watches a werewolf rip a man in half and still doesn’t believe the plucky teenage monster hunters at face value, deciding it was ‘just a big dog’, it just comes off as stupid. It completely shatters the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
This gets even more pronounced the more adults you include in this bubble of idiocy. Yes, governments can sometimes be maddening in their bureaucratic mess, but there’s limits to how bumbling or idiotic you can paint large groups of adults, ESPECIALLY if you have every teen or child come on-board with minimal persuasion. It just doesn’t make sense, and that disconnection from your book’s reality will sever your reader’s immersion.
There are ways to make this work, however, but it has to be woven into the core of the world you are building. For example, I have seen several fantasy works where magic and the supernatural worlds are tied to an inherent innocence of youth, so it can only be used or perceived by those who are either young or ‘young at heart’. Those old enough (physically or spiritually, depending on the mythology) simply cannot see or manipulate these arcane elements. That kind of world creation can make this trope work in its most extreme forms, but even this should be handled with care. Remember that adults maybe don’t experience the supernatural, but if these magical adventures or events have mundane effects, adults will still notice and react to them.
For example, if all werewolves are seen as giant wolves by adults in such a world, the sheriff might not believe the kid monster hunters above, but he is still going to act in defense of them if a werewolf threatens them, just act as if he believes it’s a dangerous animal, not a supernatural beast. Keeping this in mind lets you keep that magical theme you are going for, while still giving your world a touch of grounding realism that keeps that suspension of disbelief strong.
So remember, if you want some youthful protagonists to take center stage and want to keep the adults to the sidelines, consider carefully the approach you take to it. If you don’t approach this problem in a thoughtful way, you could very well alienate or confuse your readers, distracting them from the story you’re trying to get across.
As always, if you have comments, criticisms, or insights, let me know. Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!