On character motivation and the coming of age story – the burdens we choose


I was starting to update this site for the upcoming release of my third novel, Kindred Spirits, but in the course of doing so I found this guest post I did for my blog tour following the release of Brothers In Arms. My main character for this series, Alex Winters, is very young, but burdened with heavy responsibilities. If a character grows to adulthood over the course of a whole series, is that still a coming of age series? What does becoming an adult even mean? See my answers here.

(EDIT October 23rd 2014: It has come to my attention that the blog hosting this guest post has been taken down, so here is the original post.)

The burdens we choose

The thing about having a protagonist in his teens is that no matter how much experience they have packed in their short life, no matter how mature, you’re almost always dealing with some sort of coming of age story, and the case of Brothers In Arms is not different; in fact, the entire Family By Choice series is geared toward the “coming of age” of its main character, Alex Winters, and each volume is another step on the road to adulthood.

A lot of coming of age stories focus on the process of loss of innocence, but with Alex, innocence was never really there to begin with; after fleeing an abusive home at the age of 14, he spent a good deal of time living on the streets, and was then taken in by a brothel ran by organized crime, all of this long before the beginning of Brothers In Arms. But loss of innocence is only a fraction of what it means to transition from childhood to adulthood; to me, the sense of responsibility is the biggest part of it. I believe that you earn maturity through understanding that your choices and actions have consequences, and that when you take on responsibilities, the decisions you make no longer affect only you, but impact the lives of others.

Alex is a man whose heavy past has not left craving vengeance, but justice; he can’t abide innocents being hurt or abused, and when he sees it happen, he steps in, because with his status and special abilities, he is able to intercede in their favor and often save them from a bad situation they may have been stuck in for a very long time, so long, sometimes, that it becomes their way of life. He did it when he saved the kids from the brothel, and in Brothers In Arms, he does it again with another group of people he meets who believe they have no options.

In Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, the fox says “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” This is true because when you take it upon yourself to change someone’s life forever, even if it is for the better, you owe it to them to make sure they will get by afterward; in Alex’s case, when rescuing someone from a bad situation, he also becomes responsible for making sure that they stay all right long enough to stand on their own. After all, if you do not take responsibility for those whose lives you changed because of your principles, you only cared about your principles, not the welfare of the people whose life they affect. As Alex himself put it in Brothers In Arms: “What’s the point of rescuing anyone if I’m just going to abandon them afterwards?”

The cornerstone of the coming of age story is that the character goes through a deep, often multi-level personal change, which brings him to “adulthood”. For Alex, that change takes many forms, and a very long time, but one important aspect of it is that he cannot just be a one-time hero; that really saving someone is a long-term effort rather than a one-time heroic deed, that it takes a long time and a lot of effort, and that it is seldom successful when done anonymously, without developing some kind of relationship to the people you are trying to help.

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