I've always struggled to make my main characters interesting and goal-oriented from page 1. Recently I've begun working on a new YA/middle-grade novel and have run into this same problem again. Originally I envisioned the MC as an average kid from the suburbs with a good family life, who makes a seemingly innocent decision that sets him on a path to crazy adventures. Part of this comes from my own desire to avoid the "Chosen One" trope, but now I realize that it's hard to motivate an MC who had no real problems before the story began. I'm trying to raise the stakes of the story to create tension, but I'm finding that difficult to do when the MC could always choose to leave his quest and return to his easy life with his happy family.
It's so common for YA/MG novels to give the MC a tragic backstory in order to motivate them (especially by taking away a parent). Harry Potter is an orphan and abused by his aunt and uncle. Percy Jackson is a screw-up who's hated by his stepfather. Artemis Fowl has lost his father and his mother is mentally ill. It seems like giving the kid a messed-up home life is the easiest way to develop them and set them on the path to their story. And since this is an MG novel, it's especially important to hook readers from the very beginning since kids don't have the patience to read through pages of introduction. Is there no way for a normal kid from the suburbs to be interesting? I do already have a prominent character in the story who comes from a dysfunctional family, so it seems like overkill to give them both sad childhoods. I was thinking I could give the MC some other minor conflict in his home life, like being overshadowed by a sibling? Or should I forget that and just take away his happy childhood? Any advice?
Source: reddit post