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Act Your Age

I’m perfectly happy to believe all the crazy worldbuilding you can throw at me. I will overlook a few tropes if the plot is halfway interesting. But if your characters do not “act their age,” then you need to explain why that is so.
| May 1, 2015 | 20 comments |

childs-room-cube-storage“In my teens, I was trying to figure out who I was. In my twenties I was trying to prove who I was. In my thirties I knew who I was but cared what people thought about me. In my forties I stopped caring about anyone’s opinion except my own, my husband’s, and the Lord’s.”

This is how a friend translated my especially long babble about why I felt so happy and free lately. Someday I hope to be more like this friend, whose joy is tempered with hard-earned, valuable wisdom. She went into my brain, gathered all the clutter and organized it into one of those gorgeous but affordable storage units from IKEA. I wanted to print her summation on a bookmark and give it out to people to explain my life. I wouldn’t give it to random people, just the ones who see me all the time, like the checkout ladies at the grocery store and the stop-go sign guys working construction down the street. Then I would write thank you notes to the folks who’ve loved me through all those stages and still talk to me at church on purpose. I am filled with gratitude when I see God’s faithfulness in my life, and I don’t have a single regret. (That is a lie. I totally regret the body glitter phase of 1998.)

I want to see considerations of age and experience played out in the fiction I read. Age is only one facet of character-building, but it can often be overlooked as a fantastic way to set characters apart. Age is important in speculative fiction. A wizened old man can have the mind of a child, a sentient ship can embody the playfulness of a kindergartener. However, when you shuck traditional developmental stages, you better sell it like a kid hawking lemonade with the bicycle page from the Walmart flyer in his pocket.

For example, if you are writing a first kiss between your characters in a Young Adult novel, remember that their instinct will not be to groan and sink their fingers into each other’s hair. At least one of them should be anxious that they’re doing it wrong. If your middle-aged ship captain keeps losing sailors because he forgets to sign the paychecks, you need to explain how he got this far without learning how to be an adult. Unless there is a good reason to the contrary, readers will not believe children who are perfectly behaved and erudite (unless they’re robots, or Charles Wallace), or a twenty-something who rules planets with the cool detachment of an octogenarian.

I’m perfectly happy to believe all the crazy worldbuilding you can throw at me. I will overlook a few tropes if the plot is halfway interesting. But if your characters do not “act their age,” then you need to explain why that is so. If the young ruler has been trained since birth to rule the galaxy, okay—but when does she let her hair down, and with whom? Certainly not all those stuffy advisors who are loyal to her father. Some aspect of this girl will have to act twenty. Maybe when she gets that illegal tattoo she will love every second of the itching when it heals…and is the tattoo artist involved with the rumors of rebellion that have been churning around her empire?

Mmmm, intergalactic rebellion.

Dark_Knight_RisesAnother example of age-appropriate plot/character issues is the male protagonist who cannot maintain close relationships. Cool! I love me some slightly damaged alpha males who lead the troops to victory. However, if in the course of the novel nothing affects his hard heart, his character comes off as immature. Rampant, unrepentant immaturity is not a desirable trait for a hero. At least, not the kind of hero I want to root for over the long term. In Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls, the male protagonist is a sketchy, reckless lone wolf, but by the end of the novel he has cobbled together a team he really cares about. He grows up. And in return, I read the next book in the series.

Our age informs how we write, but it does not stifle our creativity. Similarly, the age of our characters does not limit their behavior, but should not be a red flag of confusion for the reader. So, let’s infuse our characters with the same kind of honest, personal journeys we get to enjoy as we walk with the Lord. Body glitter optional.

QUESTIONS:
Can you think of a good example of “traditional age issues” driving fictional characters? Examples of those traditional things being flipped on their ears to thrilling effect? Here’s another application question: Apart from YA stories, are there ages/life experiences you would like to see represented in speculative fiction? Tropes in YA fiction you wish would moulder and die? Let’s talk about agey things!

– – – – –

MegEbbaMegan Ebba was a staffworker with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship before becoming a librarian and eventually, a writer.

In 2014, she won the ACFW’s Genesis Award in the speculative fiction category for her novel, TANGLED IN GOLD. Megan lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children. To learn more about her and to read more of her articles, visit her web site or friend her on Facebook.

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Bethany A. Jennings
Member

I hope this generates some good discussion because it’s a great topic!

One of my friends has a major pet peeve about the typical YA dystopian trope where the main lead is a teenage girl, but somehow tough as nails and able to lead entire armies/societies.  It would never happen in real life!  That’s definitely a tired trope.

Maybe it’s because I read predominately YA, but I find I get tired of every protagonist being young and vibrant.  It would be fun and unexpected to read a book with an older protagonist who saves the universe.  Why are these savior types always teens or young adults, I’d like to know?  What if such a figure was called to that role in their old age?  That would be neat.

I’d also like to see new parenthood more in speculative stories, too…that’s a major life shift not often represented.  Maybe caring for babies and young children seems antithetical to broad plots about saving the universe or defeating the evil dystopia, but I’d like to see some books that prove that wrong. 😀

Leanna
Guest
Leanna

Joan of Arc?

Kathleen Marineau
Guest

It’s not YA, but in Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast, the protagonists need a babysitter while they battle the enemy across parallel universes and enlist Snow White and the Good Witch.

His shorter and earlier work: The Rolling Stones features teen boys and an adventuresome grandmother. Again, caring for a younger brother while living on the moon, then a space ship play into the plot, as does typical teen procrastination.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Forget age-appropriateness (though that’s hugely important); how about age diversity? It seems that, just like most action heroes are ex-special-forces (the perfect combo of discipline and liberty), most speculative heroes are twentysomething singles. Maybe it’s because that reflects the target audience, or maybe it’s just because youth comes pre-loaded with athleticism, but the constant virility gets old. Why not mix it up and tap into the other six or seven decades in a normal human lifespan? I mean, other than advanced age, which is always good for a bit-part supporting role in the crazy old coot or omnicient mentor.

Young people can’t identify with other age demographics, you say? Yeah, tell that to the makers of “The Incredibles” and “Up,” who regularly defy all ageist expectations.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

Sharon Hinck defied this trend, perhaps before it was a trend. The protagonist in her Sword of Llyric series is Susan Mitchell, an average housewife with a teenage son. Yes, the second book, Son of the Restorer (or The Restorer’s Son, maybe; I forget precisely what the title is) had a more typical protagonist, but still, it was an interesting premise.

I might add that neither Bilbo nor Frodo would qualify as protagonists in today’s modern stories. And neither would Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter.

And if virility is old, check out R. J. Anderson’s Knife.

Becky

Kessie Carroll
Member

I was hunting for a mermaid book yesterday. You know, if mermaids were real, and the story follows their underwater ecosystem and so forth. What does Goodreads give me?

Girl meets hawt guy who is really a MER. There’s some issue about murder, or revenge, or kingship. Characters get it on at least once. THE END.

How about, I don’t know, a STORY? I’m with Bethany–I’d love to see some young mother adventures, where the kids are small but awesome.

Kat Vinson
Member

I get tired of the non-existent or barely-there parents in modern YA. Especially when the youth have all the answers and are smarter than the adults around them – it’s ridiculous and unrealistic. Either that or the youth are lying to all authority figures so they can sneak around and save the world.

Katie Clark
Guest

I have nothing more to add than, “I concur.” 🙂

Victoria Shaw
Guest
Victoria Shaw

I would like to point out one of the best examples of characters not acting like their ages are all of the teenagers in any John Green novel. This has always bothered me, but it’s entertaining enough for me to keep reading. Same with Perks of Being a Wallflower!

Autumn
Guest
Autumn

I agree that we need more realism and variety when it comes to ages. One thing that I notice is sort of this idea that people of certain age groups act a certain way, and authors often do not come out of stereotypes like the angst ridden teen.

An interesting aspect of how a person may act at a certain age is their past and how much responsibility they have been burdened with. Someone is more likely to be mature if they’ve had to take responsibility to lead or take care of others, for instance. And whether or not others will see them as a leader and respect them depends on who they are surrounded by. Adults may not want to look to a twelve year old as a leader, but under certain circumstances a group of children twelve and under may grant some authority to another twelve year old.

R. J. Anderson
Member

I’m late to this party, but re-reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series has reminded me just how fantastically well she handles age and maturity issues, not only by aging Miles himself from seventeen to thirty and beyond, and all the psychological and physiological changes he undergoes in the process, but also with a wide cast of compelling secondary characters who span the entire age spectrum. And every single one of them rings true, which is one of the reasons Bujold is such a great writer.

J. S. Bailey
Guest

This post reminded me of how I had a rather hard time believing that a 14-year-old (Queen Amidala) could be elected ruler over an entire planet. It would have been different if one became queen on Naboo by being born into a royal family. Another reason I can comfortably erase the entire prequel trilogy from my memory. 😉

Connie
Guest

Getting the right behavior for children is my biggest problem. I tend to write them smarter than average.

As for adults, I think anything goes. I’ve know adults who were child-like, some who refused to age, some who always wanted to party, those that had no sense of humor and a few brilliant minds.