“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.
Another 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.
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!
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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.