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The Age of Perception

Monday, January 14, 2008

Or maybe that should be The Perception of Age. I heard several things on the radio this morning that really got me to thinking about how we perceive age:

–Today is LL Cool Jay’s birthday. He’s forty. Yes, FORTY.

–The new governor of Lousiana is thirty-six. I am thirty-six.

–Presidential candidate Barak Obama is forty-six—he would be the fifth-youngest president ever inaugurated if elected (behind Teddy Roosevelt, JFK, U.S. Grant, and Bill Clinton—by 15 days). John McCain is seventy-one. If John McCain is elected, he will be the oldest first-term president we’ve ever elected/inaugurated (Reagan was 70).

–A woman living in a retirement community in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, was interviewed about their lawsuit to keep a funeral home from being built directly across the street. She is sixty-five years old. My parents, who both work full time, drive back and forth between their home in Dallas and vacation home in Arkansas at least once a month, and live very active, independent lives, will turn sixty-five this year.

–My grandmother, who is eighty-six, lives by herself, spends weeks cooking when we’re all going to be there, teaches Sunday School, travels regularly (went to Vermont, Savannah, Florida, Texas, and several other places last year), and is very independent (now you know where I get it from!). I’m constantly seeing people ten or fifteen years younger than her who need canes, who can barely see, who don’t drive any more, and who look like “little old ladies” (or men).

–My niece, who was born a few months before I moved to Nashville, is twelve years old. She’s about to get braces. She’s in junior high school. She’s starting to be interested in clothes and hair and makeup and stuff like that (though with five brothers, not as much as some girls at that age). I was twenty-four when she was born, and I sure don’t feel like I’ve aged twelve years since then (most days). It doesn’t seem possible that she’s at an age that I can very clearly remember myself at.

Where am I going with this?

This train of thought got me to thinking about characters and how we choose the ages of our characters when we start writing. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I was writing about “adults” (late teens or early 20s)—of course, I was fourteen or fifteen going on twenty-six, and I was reading mostly adult-level fiction. The piece I wrote on for most of my 20s was based on me and my friends from college . . . but it started out as imagining where we’d all be five years in the future. When it changed from just having fun imagining into fiction, all of the characters were at least three years older than their original templates. In my late 20s, when I started seriously pursuing writing, I wrote two manuscripts with heroines who were around the same age as me, but surrounded by other POV or supporting characters who were a little bit older. When I started writing Anne and George’s story, Anne was three years older than me. (However, when the book comes out, she’ll be two years younger than I will be!) In Peace in the Valley, almost all of my characters are over forty.

So how did I choose these ages?


Whether consciously (Peace in the Valley) or subconsciously (everything else), I’m writing characters of a certain age based on my perception of who the audience for my books is. In the proposals for my romance novels, I indicate that my targeted audience is women ages 25+. That’s not to say that college-aged girls aren’t going to enjoy reading my books (I hope they will!). But it’s common knowledge in the industry that older characters tend to draw older readers. Younger readers (college-aged and under), tend to read books with characters less than five years older than them . . . mostly because those are the people they tend to look up to—the freshman looks up to the senior; the twelve-year-old wants to be like the fifteen-year-old.

Age has a lot to do with content/conflict in our books. A twenty-year-old heroine is going to react in a completely different manner to a conflict than a thirty-five-year-old will. Why? Life experiences. The thirty-five-year-old has a lot more experince, knowledge, and wisdom to draw upon when it comes to making decisions or getting herself out of conflicts. Sure, she may not be able to run as fast as the twenty-year-old, but it’s like the scene in Fried Green Tomatoes when the two young girls steal the parking space, then laugh at Kathy Bates’s character saying, “Face it, lady. We’re younger and faster.” She rear-ends their car six times. When they ask her if she’s crazy, she smiles and says, “Face it, girls. I’m older, and I have more insurance.”

I guess what I’m saying is that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to enjoy writing characters who are older and have more “insurance,” because it allows me to draw upon my own personal experiences. Even though my mother is one of my best friends, it would still be really hard for me to write exclusively in the POV of someone in her sixties (as the main character . . . I have a couple of sixty-something POV characters in Peace in the Valley, along with fifty-something, forty-something, and thirty-something), because I do not have the kind of life experiences someone of that age has attained. Nor am I all that interested in writing characters in their teens or early twenties—unless it’s necessary to the story for them to be that age—because they’re so young and haven’t really experienced much in life yet, which to me, gives the character a much narrower scope.

I have a very strong feeling that as I age, my characters will continue to age with me. And that’s okay. If I’m going to be spending so much time with them, I want them to be my contemporaries, my friends.

  1. Monday, January 14, 2008 10:24 pm

    I think my characters have to age with me too. I usually write people who are within 5 years of my own age. There’s a lot to be said for life experience, so writing a character who’s much older than me in deep POV might not work–different life experiences, and most likely a different vernacular.


  2. Tuesday, January 15, 2008 9:47 am

    Age—ahhh, yes, well my genre, defines my age group. Middle Grade. Though I’ve tackled YA and will do so again in the future. I started off trying to write and adult story and before I realized it, I’d twisted the story and it was being told from a seven year olds perspective. The more I tried to write ‘adult’ the more my characters became younger. I finally realized that I shouldn’t fight it and just write the ideas in my head with my 12-year-old protag.

    I have to say children’s lit. chose me, not the other way around, which seems weird to me, but I fought it for awhile and finally gave in to write for kids. Which was a smart move because I LOVE Middle Grade.

    That said, I think I tend to read books with Protags my age (when I’m not reading kids books).


  3. Wednesday, January 16, 2008 2:22 pm

    Audience but also my experience dictates the age of my characters.

    I find that I’m more likely to write about 30-somethings or maybe 40’s (like myself). For anything else, I find myself looking around at family for models/inspiration because I’m mentally not in that place (under 30 or over 50).


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