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.
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.
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?