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Posts tagged ‘Nnedi Okorafor’

Characters’ Age: Musings on How it Affects Writing


In the western world, we live in a culture that idolizes youth, and I suppose that’s understandable. We naturally gravitate towards characters who are young, healthy, vibrant, powerful, and exciting. And yet, some of my favorite characters in fiction (e.g. M. John Harrison’s teugis-Cromis, Ian McDonald’s Georgios Ferentinou, or John Scalzi’s John Perry) are the exact opposite: they’re old, often sickly, damaged, and (superficially) weak. And yet despite their age and infirmity, they become memorable and compelling characters. (since a book I’m currently shopping to agents has an eighty-five year old protagonist, it’s a subject that’s been on my mind a lot recently)

The protagonist’s age is central to every dimension of their story. There is nothing — literally, nothing — that their age does not affect. Whether we’re writing realistic fiction, space opera, or secondary world fantasy, our protagonist’s age will affect the story’s broad plot, the techniques through which we build our world, the style of dialog, and even the specific word choices we make in our narrative.

Age and Plausibility

Let’s first look at age’s interaction with our protagonist’s background. Would you trust your brain to a fourteen year old neurosurgeon? Or would you get into a starship captained by a ten year old? Probably not. At least, not without some hefty assurances that you’re not about to commit suicide. When we consider the role our character plays in their society, we need to run a basic plausibility check. If the character’s age and role stretches that plausibility, then we need to ensure that we provide adequate justification for that divergence.

One of the better examples of this I’ve seen takes place in Philip Reeve’s madcap middle-grade space adventure, Larklight. There, we meet a fifteen year old space pirate captain named Jack Havock. Of course, Larklight is aimed at children…which is good, ’cause there are few readers who call out plausibility BS faster than a ten year old. And the idea that a fifteen year old might find himself a space pirate — and a space pirate captain, no less — obviously stretches credulity. But Reeve makes it plausible both through how he depicts Jack Havock’s actions (while still a child, in a crunch he behaves very responsibly) and through the back story he shows the reader.

A counter-example, where I felt a character’s age worked less well, was Ian McDonald’s recent YA debut Planesrunner where McDonald’s teenage protagonist is shown to be preternaturally skilled at just about everything he puts his mind to. McDonald is too experienced a writer to ask us to make the leap in plausibility unaided: he does provide explanations that justify Everett Singh’s abilities. I might have easily believed Everett to be a savant quantum physicist. Or a naturally gifted soccer player. Or a superb chef. But all three? That suggests plot-oriented convenience, and strains plausibility. Because each of those skills takes time to master…time that a teenager simply hasn’t had yet.

The same plausibility gap works in the opposite direction. In my aforementioned WIP, my protagonist is an eighty-five year old named Johann von Kempelen (yeah, the guy who invented the Mechanical Turk…’cause who else would you want as a clockwork emperor’s physician?). In this case, making him a young man would have stretched credulity on two fronts: first, his job is to be the personal engineer to the emperor. He is responsible for keeping the emperor ticking. That’s not a job you get at a young age, regardless of how fantastical the world is or how talented the engineer. Second, the real-life von Kempelen actually lived in the 18th century. But my alternate history is set in the 19th century. So to make that alternate history less-credibility-stretching, I decided to keep him an old man (even though, in reality, by 1885 he was long dead). Keeping von Kempelen old prevented a plausibility gap, and simultaneously better allowed me to explore the philosophical themes of the book.

In Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon (which I discussed here), his protagonist is also an old man, in this case an aging ghul-hunter. On a superficial, sword-and-sorcery action-oriented level, Ahmed did not need Doctor Adoulla Makhslood to be an old man. He could have made him an inexperienced young ghul-hunter, eager to prove himself. Or he could have had him a ghul-hunter in his prime. Any of these choices would have been equally plausible given the overall shape of his story. But they would have completely changed the themes explored, the story’s emotional trajectory, and the technical way in which the story was told.

Age, Actions, and Reactions

Have you ever seen old people fight? I mean, physically? They move differently from the ways teenagers do. There are many reasons for that, some physiological, some psychological, but the bottom line is that a badass move we might pull off at twenty is not something we’re likely to succeed at when we’re sixty. As a result, the character’s age completely changes the way action sequences are depicted. Movement slows and becomes more deliberate, reaction times increase. The characters’ movements in an action sequence, the choices they make, the way they react to danger, all of those will be different based upon their age and whatever infirmities might come with it.

The same holds true for a character’s emotional reactions to events. I react to events completely differently today than I did at the age of sixteen (thank god). That’s one of the realities of aging. And it is one that we need to bear in mind when constructing our characters.

Nnedi Okorafor handles this brilliantly in Who Fears Death? (which I wrote about here). Her heroine, Onyesonwu, is relatively young. And she acts her age, with all of the high-strung emotion that entails. Reading the book, her choices made me gnash my teeth in frustration…but that didn’t mean they were “wrong” for the character: they were exactly the choices Onyesonwu would make. If she were fifteen years older, she would likely have taken a completely different path. But the character worked because her choices – however frustrating they might have been – were realistic given her emotional makeup and maturity.

Equally well-done in this regards is Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, by Mo Willems. If you haven’t seen it, check it out: whether you have kids or not (I don’t), you will find it absolutely charming. The picture book centers around a child who loses her favorite stuffed animal (the titular Knuffle Bunny). What makes this book stand out is that it focuses just as much on the father’s reaction as on the child’s, and Willems manages to grasp both the child’s frustration and fear, and her father’s panic and guilt (so well that we feel the story must be autobiographical). Both reactions are determined by the characters’ ages…and both are rendered in text and illustration perfectly.

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: Age and Its Relationship to Prose and Themes

There’s a school of thought that says a well-rendered character needs to grow and change over the course of a book. And this is true. But the trajectory of that growth differs based on the character’s age. All characters, regardless of their age, have some sort of back story that informs everything about the character, their perceptions, their values, their opinions, and their voice. However, when writing older characters there needs to be more of that back story, with all of the ups and downs that a full life demands.

The reader doesn’t need to see it, unless it somehow directly affects the events of the story. But we as writers need to know it, because the choices our characters made yesterday affect the choices they’ll make today. For example, if we’re writing first person or close third person, characters are going to notice and react to different smells, colors, textures, tastes based upon their previous experiences. Does the character notice a particular scent? Smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, followed closely by taste. How a character reacts to it (and what else a character notices) should be informed by their earlier experiences.

So should the choices they make. A more mature character is going to grow and change differently from how a teenager would. That’s not because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, it’s just that a more mature character will already have grown and learned many of life’s lessons. This dimension of character growth is, I think, more difficult for more mature characters. For the character’s emotional arc, I think the trick is to identify what lessons they failed to learn before the events of the story.

Saladin Ahmed does an excellent job of this in Throne of the Crescent Moon. Adoulla’s emotional journey centers around his failed relationship with a mature, strong-willed woman. He “failed” to learn a lesson about priorities in his younger days (or made choices that he has since come to regret), and the emotional arc of the story focuses on his realization of this fact and his rectification of that mistake. This puts into conflict two “goods” against each other: his duty as a ghul-hunter, and his love for Miri. This makes for a poignant emotional conflict. And a believable one for a character of his age.

Age Handled Well

I’ve mentioned a couple of books where I think characters’ ages are handled particularly well. But there are others which I also wanted to give shout outs to. I’ve mentioned Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: if Scrooge wasn’t an old man, the book would have no meaning. Hugo’s Les Miserables also works precisely because of its interplay between the emotional arcs of youth (Marius, Cosette, Eponine, Enjolras) and age (Valjean, Javert, the Thenardiers). And last but not least, John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big also only works because of the characters’ ages: the growth and evolution of Smoky Barnable and the Drinkwater clan only works because of their (sometimes purposefully indeterminate) ages.

What are some other examples that you think handle characters of different (or unusual) ages well?

An Argument for Writing Characters You Don’t Like


I’ve written before about some of the differences between novels and short stories, but for the past several days one of those differences has been sitting in the forefront of my mind: character. With only several thousand words to work with in a short story, there just isn’t space to really develop more than one character. But a novel needs at least a handful of well-defined characters, and the more complex the story’s plot, the more complex and varied the characters need to be.

My current WIP is more complex than any of the other (even novel-length) stories I’ve written before. With a Byzantine plot swirling with clockwork diplomacy, revolutionary intrigue, assassination, and Great Powers espionage, I’m juggling a more varied cast of characters than I’ve managed before. It’s hard work keeping their motivations straight, their voices distinct, and their reactions true. And while I would love to have coffee or play a game of chess with some of these people, others I’d want to throttle. And that brings me to the crux of the issue that I’ve been thinking about for the past week or two: how to tell a story from the perspective of a character that I don’t like?

Unsympathetic perspective characters are nothing new. They span a spectrum from the truly vile who we come to like despite our best instincts, like Vladimir Nabokov’s amazing Humbert Humbert (Lolita). Then there’s Charles Dickens’ amoral but ultimately redeemable Sidney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities). More true to life, the real Emma Goldman’s autobiography Living My Life comes across as unsettling today. And Gregory Maguire spends pretty much all of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West humanizing an erstwhile villain. And finally, Nnedi Okorafor’s powerful Onyesonwu (Who Fears Death), whose heart is in the right place, but whose personality often made me gnash my teeth in frustration.

Each of these authors uses a different technique. Nabokov fills the book with Humbert Humbert: the monster in a very real sense transcends the role of narrator or memoirist. Every single word, every punctuation point, and every pause between sentences is filtered through the all-too-human mind of Humbert Humbert. By drawing us in through such a unique and compelling voice, Nabokov slides in Humbert’s vile nature almost surreptitiously. It is subtle, and oily, and all too awe-inspiringly impressive. Thankfully my current WIP lacks an unrepentant, irredeemable Humbert-esque villain, and so I won’t have to try pulling this off (Yet! I’ve got another book I want to write someday where I’ll hopefully give it a shot…just because it’ll be a lot of fun to try!).

But the unsympathetic Sidney Carton, the zealous Emma Goldman, the tragic Elphaba, and the quick-to-anger Onyesonwu all have at least one central trait fundamentally tied up in their very nature that shines pure and noble. The traits might vary across the characters, and the authors may choose to present them using different techniques, but for all of their pettiness, their villainy, their zealotry, and their fury there remains something inherently noble about them.

Dickens paints Carton as a professionally-stunted, self-indulgent alcoholic. We can see his nobility in his reaction to Lucie Manette, and in his self-deprecating gallows humor. He is drawn in stark opposition to his double: Charles Darnay, whose inner nobility is readily apparent and who fails to evidence the slightest doubt in himself. By showing us Carton’s struggle, by showing us his doubts, Dickens makes us identify with Carton and look past the superficially unsympathetic traits: his biting humor, his self-pity, his self-indulgence. He is the underdog, and we want to give him a firm kick because we know that Carton is worth more, even if he does not realize it himself until the very end.

Emma Goldman – an actual historical personage – was as complicated as any real individual could be, and I believe her positive and negative traits stem from the very same root. Her autobiography paints a picture of an unsettling and strangely compelling zealot. Throughout her amazing life, she was an unrepentant revolutionary: mere facts and science would not get in the way of her convictions! She practiced what she preached, both politically and in her personal life. She forced herself to live true to her mission, even when it caused her much heartache. This unwavering belief in her revolution – however misguided, misattributed, or wasted – offers her a nobility that her (more hypocritical) contemporaries lacked. Goldman remains an unsettling person, and while I cannot agree with her views, I can respect the lifelong commitment that speaks so clearly through her words.

Maguire shows us the Wicked Witch’s perspective in Wicked. He takes pains to show the development of a conflicted character, with noble intentions that just work out unfortunately. Elphaba’s primary flaw is that she has human failings, of which her quickness to anger and her father-issues are just two examples. In many ways, I always found the book to be almost a revisionist apologia for the Wicked Witch, but Maguire makes Elphaba’s tragic rise and fall compelling precisely by showing us her internal rationalizations and the noble intentions that went so wrong.

And Okorafor introduces us to Onyesonwu, whose intentions are noble, whose heart is pure, but whose failing is simply that of being too quick to anger. Alone of the characters I’ve mentioned in this post, I do not believe we are ever for a moment meant to believe her unsympathetic. Okorafor makes us feel deeply for Onyesonwu. We meet her as a young girl, and we are shown painfully the development of her defensiveness character. We understand how she came to have that defensiveness. We understand that her anger is a part of her, and that in fact it helps her with her magic. I consider her “unsympathetic” simply because of how infuriating I found her. I wanted to tell her to get a grip: that her anger would hurt more than it helped. But the root of my frustration with the character was my understanding of what had made her: through an understanding how she developed into the strong, angry young woman she became, Okorafor grounded Onyesonwu’s “unsympathetic” traits in sympathy: she made the character so sympathetic that I recognize her flaws and want to help her learn to deal with her flaws.

This is a technique frequently used in YA (I suspect it may come naturally to Okorafor, considering her earlier experiences in YA). Maybe it means I’m getting old, that the little foibles of human emotion that are so frustrating to me come so naturally to teenagers. Harumph. Those kids should get off my lawn. Nonetheless, I can appreciate it when an author pulls it off the way Okorafor has, and I can also see how introducing that flaw was natural to the character, given her history. The net result makes me more invested in the character, thus raising my engagement with the whole story.

And that – I think – is what unsympathetic perspective characters ultimately do. They make us invest more in the story, either because we root for the underdog (Carton), respect misguided nobility (Goldman), lament tragic failure (Elphaba), or sympathize with the source of the characters’ flaws (Onyesonwu).

What are some of your favorite unsympathetic characters? And how did their authors make them appeal to you?

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