Characters Acting Their Age

[— Karen Myers —]

I had an amusing experience the other day. I happen to sing in a mens’ barbershop chorus (been a tenor all my life) and, as all social groups do from time to time, they had a kerfuffle with someone being offended, and a squabble, and a threat to quit, and so forth (reminded me of girls in middle-school). I was one of the folks who helped calm the situation down and soothe the injured feelings. Afterwards it struck me that I had been exercising classic grandmotherly sorts of skills — keeping the tribe together, as it were.

Now, I have no children, but I’m certainly old enough to qualify — if I and my theoretical descendants had been in a hurry, well, I suppose there might be great-grands started by now. This got me thinking… I wouldn’t have had these tools, twenty or thirty years ago. Now that I seem to have the experience, I can create characters with this particular skill set.

And that’s a problem, if I’m not careful.

You see, it’s always good to use what you know (and a vivid imagination) to create your characters, but you have to be careful to keep the age and experience of the character in mind when you do so. A 20-year old female protagonist won’t have the grandmotherly skill set, and I must resist the temptation to give it to her, as though it were a superpower,

You might be an architect, and experienced in the building of factories and the leading of teams of men, but if you’re portraying a young boy as in the above illustration, it would be absurd for you to give him the same gifts at that age, even if he is a prodigy of some sort. He has to earn them, age into them with experience, and you have to resist giving him the shortcut.

This applies to both technical skills as well as the ordinary progressions of psychological maturation. Even in a story context where the character has extraordinary powers, the wisdom to use them may well be beyond the character’s capability, for the moment anyway.

You don’t want to produce a world of characters who are full of what you already know, just variants on Mini-Me, whatever their nominal ages or backgrounds.

What are the sorts of insights or skills that you have acquired from experience that you’ve debated sharing with your characters? Why?

12 thoughts on “Characters Acting Their Age

  1. One must also remember that different ages put more or less experience on people. I would believe a grandmotherly twenty year old from a large family

    1. I was in a discussion of Andre Norton once after a recommendation of her works for someone sick of YA and had to point out that most of her protagonists were in fact young though adults. The difference was they had had to act like adults and it showed

    2. Totally agree!

      A 20 year old woman, who is the eldest child and who had to help her mother take care of, let’s say 4 younger children, two of whom often acted like little devils, will have much better interpersonal skill than a 50 year old woman who was a spoiled only child, and always worked for herself (say as a music teacher).

      Not that I know anyone that fits either description, of course 🙂

  2. Mostly a “having hacked why people do that” things, like– because that’s where my brain is! I’m suggestable! Sorry!– that people very seldom are interacting with you a certain you for the reasons they give. (I know I got burnt by folks who were very sure they wanted this or that skill set, when they wanted their vision of what that would mean– either in appearance or in the answers they gave!)

    Although I SHOULD probably have them be told that people may not know why they interact in a certain way, rather than it being malice….

    Advice, rather than well earned skills, unless there’s a very good reason for them to have it.

  3. So far, I tend to use selfcontrol and the ability to remain calm be an age/maturity dependent function.

    Had a couple of characters who were having a major rift, but because they were both very mature characters, they were expressing it through a persistent very cryptic debate through most of the story.

    About the only time one of them gets visibly emotional is when the other one implies they think their only option is to do something they’re pretty sure will get them killed. “Which would you choose?” “Don’t even ask me to have an answer to that.”

    And both of them can understand the others’ perspective. They think they are wrong, but aren’t sure either.

    Having both of them be adults about it, and stay so calmly focused on trying to resolve the train wreck they both saw coming, made when it finally happened so much more poignant a tragedy.

    Romeo and Juliet, I so want to bang their heads together. Or the adults because they are not acting like adults. Or all of the major actors involved. Having good vs good where the characters are acting like adults, and still have to come into conflict anyways hits so much different.

    I’ve also had to adjust ages down as well, because the story needed a character to be freaked out by a situation, that an old character would not have been panicked by. So I had to wind the character’s age back to a point where it was more reasonable for them to not have any idea how to handle this.

    1. Chris Nuttall commented that the “Friar” is the Villian of “Romeo and Juliet”. 😦

      1. Explicitly so in Arthur Brooks’s version: Brooks says that one of the couple’s mistakes was listening to the advice of “superstitious friars.” Whether you want to go that far or not, he did make a lot of mistakes, including:

        – Marrying the couple twelve hours after they met, especially knowing just how inconsistent Romeo could be.

        – Coming up with the whole “Juliet fakes her death” plot rather than simply offering Juliet sanctuary in a convent or something while Capulet cools down.

        – Leaving Juliet alone after she wakes up to find Romeo dead. That’s the least excusable in my mind, because he’s pretty explicit that his primary concern here is to avoid getting into trouble, with Juliet’s life and soul being a distant second.

  4. I tend to write teenagers as more mature than they are (with one notable exception thus far). Part of it is writing societies where there is no such thing as “teenager.” In the pre-modern world, and really until the 1920s, you were an adult, or a child. Period. So a fourteen-year-old medieval girl will seem overly mature in some ways compared to her modern American counterpart. But the hormones were still there, which tosses in its own complications.

    Skills I tend to add too soon? Over-wariness about people, broad general knowledge, non-impulsive behavior. Modern young people (ages 6-18 roughly) don’t plan everything in advance, have back-up plans, and resist sudden impulses to change things. I do.

    1. I think I’m in the same boat as you. One of the things I did when I went back through and rewrote large parts of my series was to try to cull the adult-like thinking and foresight of the high school senior aged cast. I didn’t totally succeed, but it is more dramatic now than the first iteration.

  5. One thing I do need to work out how to figure out is what sort of knowledge and mis-knowledge characters raised in different environments and different eras are likely to have.

    1. That’s me. I can easily (and unfortunately sometimes) remember what I was like in my younger days. Maybe in the upper quartile of the maturity distribution, if there is such a thing. Not much help from my family, either – I married someone who, if anything, was a bit more mature in some ways, and we’ve raised our kids the same way.

      A Valley Girl character would completely defeat me…

  6. I…just give my main characters a floor of twenty-five, and try not to write anyone younger than that. I was very out of synch with other youngsters growing up, and not in a good way.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: