When creating characters for a story, we usually start with a typical laundry list of traits: eye color, hair color, height, weight, gender, ethnicity, occupation. We may even go so far as to detail their habits, likes, and dislikes. But when we assign the character an age, we need to think about more than just the number.
In my experience as an editor, it is sometimes possible for me to guess if the author is older or younger than their main protagonist by the way they portray their characters. There are mistakes that belie the character’s age.
For example, I edited a manuscript where the protagonist is roughly the same age as me, but the character had certain likes and used words that are not common for someone of my generation. What really gave it away? The character had musical tastes that were far older than her years.
There is nothing wrong about a character liking music that is older than they are. People today enjoy classical music that is many centuries old. I love classic Mowtown and ’50s and ’60s pop my parents listened to. But in this case, along with everything else, it was a valid clue that something did not quite jibe. As the story progressed, this and other details made the character come across as older than she was meant to be. This doubt made it hard for me to believe the character and take her seriously. I pointed this out to the author and made suggestions on how to correct this in order to make the character more believable. If your character is meant to be mature for their years, it better be established early and carried out consistently.
Don’t think that “chronological anachronisms” are only important for historical writing. You do not want to have your twenty-year-old character in a story set in 1982 describe something as having a “Wow factor” when “totally bitchin’” would be more appropriate.
Personally, I think it is harder to write contemporary fiction because the changes are so subtle, whereas it is easier to show historical changes from a time decades or centuries earlier. It doesn’t take a huge gap in age to create a different outlook on life. Think about when you were a senior in high school and the incoming freshmen. By the time those freshmen graduated four years later, their tastes in music, movies, fashion, and language will have changed too.
When creating your character and trying to determine the character’s age, if you are not drawing from memory and personal experience, ask someone who was there, or do research at the library and the Internet. The next time you create a character’s profile, take as much care when picking your character’s age as you would their name, or at the very least, put it at the top of the “laundry list” of traits.
Zetta Brown is editor-in-chief for LL-Publications (http://www.ll-publications.com). She holds a B.A. in English/Creative Writing from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. She is the author of several short stories and the erotic romance novel Messalina – Devourer of Men.
© 2010 Zetta Brown. No part of this article can be used without written permission from the author.
I just ran into this big-time in my work-in-process. I am reviving a story I originally wrote in my teens, and keeping the time period of the setting because certain things have changed since the 1970s that would force changing too much of the situation. As well, I'm keeping the original character's age as 17.
But now I'm 55 years old and can barely remember the period, much less what it was like to be that age! Worse, I was a square and very out of step with what was going on at the time, socially or politically, so even if I write true to heart and memory, I will likely misrepresent the time. Most of the online research I've done to verify my facts is written by people who focused on popular details or political issues that are irrelevant to my book, and peers I've talked with walked in a different circle so their memories don't serve my needs.
In other words, I'm stuck in the middle of the very issue Zetta raises!
You know what I would suggest? I suggest you go to the library and see what newspapers and magazines they may have. They may not have hard copies so you'll probably have to use microfiche or something, but periodicals will have not just the "news of the day" but other mundane stuff that may jog your memory and help make things more authentic.
Even some used bookstores sell old (or even vintage) magazines. You might see if you can get a few?
Great suggestion, Zetta-- Thanks!
Funny how things change. I'm so used to finding everything I need on the Internet that I've completely lost the train of thought that once would have sent me directly to the library!
This point was driven home over a decade ago (and yet I still forget!) when writing my other novel. I needed to know about conditions on the non-public Hawaiian island, Niihau. Man oh man, did I have to do deep research in multiple libraries to get that info! Plus send away for maps and obscure books. I think I found one photograph of the place, blurry and not very helpful beyond confirming it existed.
A few years later, I found dozens of beautiful color photos online just by typing in one word. I also found the same information it had taken me months to compile, and a lot more. By the then the book was written so the updates didn't help much, other than the gratification of learning that my research had been spot-on.
Nothing beats going to a place you want to write about; however, when that option isn't available, we now have Google Earth and myriad other resources -- so much so that the greater challenge is verifying that your facts are good rather than finding them in the first place!
It doesn't happen often but I HATE when that happens. To me it just shows that the author was more concerned with getting their story published (and making money) rather than spend time on doing the basics like creating believable characters. If an author writes a character that is older or younger--or even a different gender--than they are it better sound convincing or it's unlikely that I'll ever read their work again.
Authors--when in doubt, do the research. Ask questions.
I can't stand when a person hasn't done their research... it is distracting, sometimes to the point that I stop reading and do the research just to make sure I am right.
In my WIP I have twin teenagers, I use reference to classic rock, and explain it by it being the music their mother has been turning up to drown out their fight since they were six. Now I only do it twice, once as her ringtone on his phone and as a t-shirt they fought over. But I might change that if I can find some songs that are newer yet describe the feeling just as well.
I don't know if I've ever stopped reading a book to do my own research that the author has failed to do--now THAT'S dedication! LOL But a good book may make me find out more about something I didn't know before.
I refer to music a lot in my stories because music and songs can really sum up a mood or time or place rather succinctly.
The old adage of write what you know, if you don't know it, than research, research and watch people in the age group you're writing about. I've volunteered at daycares, elementary to high schools to have access to watch babies to young adults. Besides, it also helped out the daycare and schools. Writers need to be people watcher...my friends and family call it stalking. I call it fun. You might catch a snatch of conversation that will led to a new story of idea.