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?