Tag Archives: Sue Miller

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

In Defense of Flashbacks

Rachel Towne in Wood Textures http://www.stockvault.net/c/wood-textures

I’m not sure when I first realized it, but I’m obsessed with “the past.” I’m not talking about my own past per se, although in some ways I am. I have the occasional—OK, frequent—bouts of nostalgia.

It’s not just my life though. It’s my characters’ lives. Their pasts. Their struggles. Their transformations. That’s why I’m such a fan of the coming-of-age novel; by the time the story reaches the end, the protagonist already has a past.

I once had a writing professor who railroaded one of my short stories because it had too many “flashbacks.” Great professor, great class, learned a lot…but the man DESPISED flashbacks! In fact, he discouraged it, saying something along the lines of, “There’s nothing worse than the middle aged-man-on-the-front-porch-reflection story.” Gasp! How about the woman-in-the-bathtub-with-glass-of-red-reflection story? No? Oh…

In hindsight, I see what he was doing. He was encouraging us to write forward-moving stories. Page turners. Narrative arcs that built up conflict, climbed to their pinnacles without interruption. And in some ways, it’s true—particularly in short stories—that a story’s action must constantly be accelerating, driving towards something. And certainly meaningless, random, and miscellaneous flashbacks that do nothing to advance the plot have no place in literature.

But the well-crafted breed? To me, there’s nothing better in fiction. Alice LaPlante’s book Method and Madness: The Making of a Story says this of flashbacks:

“…one very rich source of characterization-driven plotting can found in flashbacks, giving the reader information about what is traditionally called “backstory,” or the past of the story. Flashbacks are very important to plot—which, you may remember, is those events arranged in the proper order the writer thinks best, not necessarily chronological order” (334).

Not only are flashbacks important to plot, but they’re critical to characterization. Take the show Lost for instance. A plane crashes on an island, and its new inhabitants are forced to forge a new lifestyle. What I love about that show…drum roll, please…are the character flashbacks. In every episode, we see glimpses of the characters’ life pre-freaky island adventure. Each ‘back story’ gives the audience insight into why the character took the dreaded flight from Australia to LA, and what he or she went through before taking the voyage. It helps put each character’s motivations, actions, and personalities into perspective. Without the flashbacks, it would just be the singular setting of the island, and thus, the characters would be strangers—to both the audience and each other.

Some of the best books I’ve ever read contain flashbacks. In Kristin Hannah’s novel Winter Garden, the prologue itself is a flashback that sets the tone—an incident that causes a lifelong riff between a mother and her two daughters—for the remainder of the story. In Sue Miller’s While I Was Gone, a chance encounter with an old roommate delves the protagonist into memories of the late 1960s that lasts nearly one-third of the book, and of course, serves the foundation for the overall plot. In Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True, the narrator, who is dealing with a schizophrenic twin brother, goes back and forth from present day (the early 1990s in the story) to the late ‘60s when his brother was first showing signs of the disease, as well as deeply developed family histories of the characters.

Luckily, there is no one recipe for flashbacks. They come in all shapes and sizes. They can be a substantial portion of the book, they can come and go like musical riffs, they can be stretched out over the length of novel, building on each other as they go along. They can be scenes, blurbs or simply a quick, character reflection (such as on the front porch or in the bathtub).

In any event, flashbacks, when done correctly, breathe more life onto the page. They should be used as an opportunity to develop characters, expand the plot, heighten readers’ awareness, and most importantly, make the story unforgettable.

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Filed under Characters, Plot & Structure