The problem with royalty and YA

(Nedenstående er skrevet på engelsk … fordi jeg havde lyst xD)

Within YA literature a popular setting is that of a kingdom with a royal family that the main character is somehow connected to or must fight against – or both.

This can create an issue for the world and character building in the story.


Because there’s a conflict between royalty and the most popular themes of YA. In YA we love to deal with themes of belonging and growing up. We – as authors – often write stories about a character that is trying to find her place in the world. To find a purpose. This probably has a lot to do with our target audience. We want to appeal to teenagers who are often dealing with these same issues.

So, what does this mean when the story deals with royalty?

It means that if the main character is a royal or noble they will want change. They don’t like being who they are, so they don’t want to be a part of the aristocracy.

If the main character is someone outside of the aristocracy this means that they’ll want to change the system. They want to remove the King and have a democracy instead.

Over all, no matter the position of the main character the aristocracy is made out to be problematic, dumb or evil.

This happens because authors make characters that dislike their current circumstances. Since they’re in a kingdom or part of some royal court it then becomes very easy to put the blame on the aristocracy.

From a narrative standpoint this becomes a problem. The aristocracy is made out to look bad – nobles are out of touch, they’re too traditional and behind the times, they go off to their fancy parties and gossip. They become these vain, self absorbed stereotypes that are really unlikeable.

This tactic ruins the world building.

It makes the ruling class in the society seem dumb and it creates the question of: Why are these people even in power?

  1. Where’s the politics?

A kingdom is not just made up of a royal family and then a bunch of random noble people who spend all their time gossiping at court. A kingdom is made up of several areas and regions that all belong under different noble families. There’s a hierarchy to it: Mayors answers to barons that answers to counts that answers to dukes that answers to the king. This affects the way that the nobles behave – who advices the king, who people listen to, who people value more, how people are trying to climb the social ladder and marry into more powerful families.

So yes, there’s a lot of gossiping, but you have to remember that these noble families that you’re creating all have responsibilities as well. They’re trying to strengthen their family’s position. They’re trying to take care of the people that live under their rule – or trying to get away with mistreating them. They have agendas outside of just being snobby brats.

2. Nobles aren’t dumb

Yes, you could argue that some nobles are probably out of touch with the common folk and that they turn a blind eye to the suffering of the people. We’ve seen very real examples of this throughout history. However, nobles are not stupid. They’re well educated, especially in their own social norms and structures. A Queen is not out of touch with what’s going on at her court, in her palace or within the most recent fashion.

There’s a point to people. The Queen is there to give birth to an heir, yes, but she’s also there to represent an alliance that the King has made with her family – maybe another noble family in the country, or maybe a royal family from another nation. She’s there to aid the King in diplomatic relations and bolster his image by throwing extravagant parties. She is not just a dumb decorative piece.

3. Nobility is usually a proud people

In many YA stories you see the age old tale of the prince or princess who just wants to be out among the ‘common’ folk. They don’t want to be royals, but to live like everyone else.

But that doesn’t really fit with a realistic portrayal of a royal person. They’re proud of being royal. They WANT to be royal. They were brought up to understand what a massive responsibility they’ll have one day. They know what’s expected of them and they don’t try to run from it. Princesses don’t flee from the castle when they’re told that they’re going to be sent off to marry a complete stranger. No, they do what they’re told because it’s their job. They marry whoever they need to marry to make new alliances and strengthen their nation.

Have you ever thought about the possible consequences in those stories where the princess refuses to marry and runs out on her family? What do you think happened afterwards? How did her family explain this to the man she was supposed to marry? Did she just ruin an alliance that were vital to maintain the safety of her nation? How does her family come off to the other royal families throughout the neighbouring countries and in their own court that might be filled with nobles who are just looking for weaknesses? Have they been shamed? Are they being ridiculed? Are they considered weak? Did this girl just ruin her family by running away?

4. Don’t undermine your own characters

I think it all boils down to this in the end: If you want to have royalty and nobility in your story then you shouldn’t go out of your way to undermine these characters. This will just break your own world building. If these people are all dumb and useless why are they still in power? Clearly, they must be doing something right since they haven’t been overthrown yet.

I already mentioned this in the last section so I won’t repeat myself. Instead I’ll offer up an idea. What if you wrote a story about a princess who’s perfectly fine with being a princess? Her trouble with fitting in wouldn’t be about her being a royal, but would instead surface when she’s sent off to marry the crown prince of another country. There it would actually make sense for her to feel like she doesn’t belong.

She’s trying to fit in among all these strangers whose customs and language are totally different from hers. She misses her home country and family. You could still have this identity crisis and the extra theme of dealing with change. Something that teens also relate to because they themselves experience a lot of change.

Not every story that centres around nobles has to be about undermining the idea of royalty or about demolishing or changing the aristocracy. You can still tell a great story without forcing in some great revolution. 

This, of course, doesn’t mean that aristocracy is the best thing ever and that democracy is dumb. I’m simply coming at this from the point of view that you should write a story – and a world – that makes sense within its own setting. If you want to write a story about overthrowing some evil King that’s totally fine, just remember that neither the King nor his supporters are stupid. Give them actual personalities and motivations.

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