Forever Young: How Age Influences Character Development

I turned thirty this past October, and realized, with some degree of pride, how differently I view the world now than I did ten years ago. It’s a fact of life: as we age, our view of the world shifts, broadens, and at times, flat out changes—hopefully for the better.

In life—and in writing—age does matter. Not in terms of intelligence, metabolism, or crow’s feet, but in our perceptions and natural cycles of the human lifespan.

Old woman sitting on bench
Merelize → in People

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure how this notion applies to fiction and characterization; in fact, all it actually takes is a conscientious writer. A fifteen year-old protagonist will have different priorities than forty year-old protagonist, and vice-versa.

And it goes beyond levels of maturity. It’s about experience and life stages. What would be a realistic goal for a twenty-five year old woman? A sixty year old man? I believe the human experience is more collective than we realize, but age does play a major factor.

A character’s mindset, desires, concerns, and agendas should be “age-appropriate.”

Maybe this will help…

I came across a psychology book entitled Introduction to the Lifespan by Spencer A. Rathus. It is a Cengage Learning textbook that is used in the school where I teach.

In one section of the text, it lists the results of a survey taken that asked participants to match certain attributes or personality traits to particular age groups. The results were as follows (I have left out the percentages):

Ages 0+ innocent, unruly, adorable, naïve, endearing, cute

Ages 10+ impolite, manner less, disruptive, insolent, complex, young, aggressive

Ages 20+ in love, ambitious, sexy, young, romantic, daring, attractive

Ages 30+ competitive, hard-working, enterprising, impressive, capable, efficient, strong

Ages 40+ hard-working, slogger, organized, capable, efficient, punctual, tempered

Ages 50+ respectful, cultured, hard-working, organized, provident, methodical, rational

Ages 60+ respectful, cultured, beneficent, humane, benevolent, conciliatory, honorable

Ages 70+ nostalgic, tired, cultured, humane, peace-loving, nice, honorable

Ages 80+ isolated, nostalgic, tired, mourning, sick, unwell, solitary

Ages 90+ dying, isolated, old, alone, sick, solitary

*Source: Gruhn, D., Gilet, A-L., Studer, J., & Labouvie-Vief, G. (2010, December 13). Age-Relevance of Person Characteristics: Persons’ Beliefs About Developmental Change Across the Lifespan. Developmental Psychology, doi: 10.1037/a00213151-12

Obviously there is room for argument here, but much of it makes sense. I’ve found that my characters do fit the characteristics of their age groups. It doesn’t have to be an exact science, but it may help to structure your characters’ conflicts around the stages of their lifespans.

Another interesting note: I’ve found that most major characters in literature tend to fall between the ages of ten and sixty. It’s rare to come across protagonists who are mere children (middle grade excluded) or elderly persons.

Two exceptions:

Room by Emma Donoghue. The story is told from the perspective of a five-year old boy.

The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller. This is a two-protagonist story, where one of which is a woman in her seventies.

Both stories are magnificently portrayed.

How about you? How old are your characters? Do they fit the descriptions from up above?

How important is age in fiction? Does it aid the characterization process?

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26 Comments

Filed under Characters, Inspiration, The Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Tips

26 responses to “Forever Young: How Age Influences Character Development

  1. Natylie Baldwin

    My novel-in-progress is from the alternating perspectives of five different characters — one of which is a twelve-year old boy. However, his circumstances and particular personality are such that he is very intelligent and precocious (he is an only child and had to grow up fast in a sense due to a family tragedy). Two of the other characters are in their late fifties. These three characters, because they are in a far different age group than me, take a bit more care to write compared to the other two characters who are both females between the ages of 25 and 37 (I’m a 38 year old woman).

    Another book that has an elderly protagonist is The History of Love by Nicole Kraus. Leo Gursky is in his 80’s. Such a bittersweet tale.

    • Your novel sounds interesting, Natylie. I’ve never attempted the multiple perspective (POV) before, but I actually think my second novel (which I’m yet to begin) will take on that style. My current novel is told from the point of a view of a male character (ages 12-26 throughout the course of the story). It’s been difficult adjusting his voice as he gets older, etc. It really is an important point to consider.

      I’ve never heard of “History of Love.” But I love the idea of an elderly protagonist.

  2. Great post, Katherine, and definitely a poignant one. I wrote my first book over a couple decades (not something I recommend, or something I plan to do ever again). This made it extremely difficult every time I examined my protagonist, since she started with me when I was a teen and ended with me when I hit my thirties. Suffice it to say, current protagonist had a far different focus and set of character traits than the original protagonist did. 🙂 I agree that age influences how we write our characters, since we not only mature, but have more life experience from which to draw our tales. Nice, thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Eva. Wow–you’ve been writing your novel for ten years? That’s amazing! Some of the best books ever written took a decade or longer to complete. So you never know.

      You make a good point though. I was mostly referring to the age of the characters, but I didn’t consider the age of the WRITERS when telling a story. I think it’s the same notion, actually. We see the world differently as we age. There’s definite truth in that

  3. Great post. This is probably why, at 40-something, I struggle to write young MCs. I’m doing better with my historical romance. Young people were more mature in 1850. LOL

  4. I love your blog because you always manage to come up with something I hadn’t really thought about–not directly, anyway, although certainly aspects have entered my writing psyche. I have worried about my current WIP since one of my protagonists is a teenage boy. I worried about getting his ‘voice’ right. Now I will also pay attention to getting his ‘age’ right. Great piece!

    • Thanks Carrie, I’m glad you think so! That’s what I aim to do! I love broadening people’s minds (it’s also why I’m a teacher). My current WIP has a teenage boy as a narrator as well (actually it’s a coming of age story, so he different ages throughout), but yes, I know what you mean about the ‘voice.’

  5. jolly2012

    “Room” was an excellent book that more than anything else gave me a sense of the boy’s incomplete understanding of the world outside the room. I also just read Carson McCuller’s “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” She writes a 12 year old girl’s quick temper, roaming thoughts, and day-dreaming so effectively you feel like your sneaking a peak at something very private. The girls actions are so up-front and honest it reminds me of a time when, as kids, we were too young to be ashamed of ourselves. The struggle with incomplete knowledge of life is what I find most interesting about young characters.

    • Yes, wasn’t “Room” excellent? I read nearly the entire thing on a plane ride home from London a few summers ago. I may have read “Lonely Hunter” as a girl…thanks for the reminder. Great example. You make a great point about a young character’s “incomplete knowledge.” Fabulous way to put it. My current protagonist is a young kid in the beginning of the story and its hard to get that perspective just so.

  6. Fantastic post 🙂 I never really thought of this much. Although you normally write things that I have never thought much of. I loved the list of results! Until I got to the last one 😦

    • Thanks Lottie! I’m glad I can help make you think new things! I love doing that. I know, wasn’t the 90+ category sad? I kept thinking of my grandpa. He’s turning 90 in January. Luckily our family makes sure he isn’t alone! My nana too (not married to my grandfather, different sides) is 87. We make sure she’s taken care of each night. Makes me not want to get old!

  7. My women are always in their late twenties but fit the thirties model a little more than the twenties model noted above. My characters are usually some part of me and apparently I have just always acted older then what is socially expected. Huh. Who knew?

    I think age is a huge part of a book. I personally have a very hard time reading books where the main characters are out of their 30’s. I read to escape not because I want to realize that people age.

    • I tend to read stories about female protagonists in the same age group you mentioned…I guess I can just relate to it more. I don’t write from that perspective though–maybe the age group, but I tend to use male narrators a lot…hmmm interesting.

      Age wise though…I tend to write in 20s and 30s category. Now I’m analyzing myself!

  8. Ruth May, one of the narrators in The Poisonwood Bible, is five. She changes through the novel in a fascinating way. She dies and becomes omniscient — “The eyes in the trees.”
    In my current WIP, I’m dealing with characters who are in their 40s — but the narrative “crisis” occurred when they were in high school. There are four “main” characters, each with very different character traits. I wouldn’t say, by and large, that they fit the above definition. One is a recovering alcoholic. One, a driven business executive. One, an artist. And one, a blue-collar guy who has just attempted suicide. (Sounds like an upper, I know, but it actually ends on a positive note.)
    In another short story, my main character narrates as a presence within its mother’s womb.,

    • Natylie Baldwin

      Terri,

      Wow! A character that narrates from in the womb. Sounds like you also have a very good cross-section of people you are covering in your current WIP as well. You must be pretty adventurous with your characters. I hope to read it when it is published!

    • Everyone’s been telling me to read The Poisonwood Bible.” Maybe I should. Your WIP sounds fascinating. I like the stories that travel through the ages. I think that’s why I love both reading and writing coming of age stories.
      I’ve NEVER read anything like “a presence within its mother’s womb…” wow. Sounds very difficult to write, but utterly compelling to read.

  9. Loved your this particular line – “In life—and in writing—age does matter”. Truly believing on this, I too experienced the same when I now compare my just 2 years old write-ups with recent narratives. Yeah, characters do develop with the complete or incomplete knowledge of the author when it comes to present the aspirations and objectives in the narration. The character could only see the sky till his/her writer reached. Beyond that the writers have to learn more from either the preserved written materials, or in the company of his/her age+ companions.

    • Excellent points. I never realized just how crucial age was until I hit my mid-twenties. It was the first time in my life I felt like an adult. That makes a huge difference in life and writing. You’re right though. In this piece I was mostly focusing on the age of the characters, but going even further than that, the age of the author is perhaps just as a critical.

  10. As always, you’re making me think again!
    What if … a twenty-something were to peek inside the mind of a sixty-year-old? How would it color his view of the world?
    I play a lot with different ages interacting–what an older version of oneself would teach the younger version, and what mistakes they would advise to them to avoid. It’s my version of the road not taken.
    That said, I think my characters do fit into the categories you give, but now the rebel in me wants to try writing a young person with the qualities of an older person, or vice versa. A sort of Benjamin Button. 🙂

    • Interesting question…! I’ve always kind of wondered that myself. People seem to say that they are always happiest at the age they are, and I think it’s because having wisdom and knowing things are better than being naive. I loved Benjamin Button. Made me cry!

  11. I turned 30 in March, and I was clinically depressed for a week because Alexander the Great had taken over most of the known world by then and Stephen King was already a bestselling novelist. Then I embraced mediocrity… -.-

    Joking aside, you should visit my blog for an award nomination that makes you spread the love…

  12. Great insights, Katie. Even writing memoir I struggle to get a handle of my own values at this age and how they’ve changed over the years!

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