To age or not to age?
That is the question...
Should your characters age as a series progresses?
For those of us writing a character over a number of years, this is a question that we eventually have to grapple with. Do you let your main character become older (and perhaps wiser!) as the years go by, or do you keep them in a state of perpetual agelessness, as the world changes around them?
It may seem like a bit of an ambitious question early in your career, but it's one that plenty of authors have been forced to consider. Some of my favourite authors have now been writing their protagonists for over twenty years. Since their books are typically set roughly in the time-period that they are published, the forty-something detective they introduced in the series debut will now be in their sixties, potentially stretching the bounds of credibility.
Aging characters realistically can have its advantages though - for example, we see them evolve, hopefully pulling readers along with them as they buy the next book, in part to see how life is treating their literary friends. It can also open up story possibilities. How do they feel about milestone birthdays or retirement? Are they the same person they were ten years ago?
And don't forget your secondary characters - it would seem a bit strange if your main protagonist ages, but their partner or co-workers don't. That can also generate plot-points. Impending retirement of a colleague is a potential way to refresh your series' line-up without bumping people off. If they have kids at the start of the series, have those children flown the nest by book eight? How do they feel about that?
So how have others dealt with this conundrum?
1) Don't age them!Lee Child's behemoth, Jack Reacher, was born in on the 29th October 1960; the latest novel, The Sentinel, was published in 2020 and is clearly set roughly in that time-period. Child recently handed over writing duties to his younger brother, Andrew, with the aim that the character would be updated somewhat for more modern times and continue for a good few more years.
Reacher is a remarkable physical specimen, but clearly even he will struggle to take on multiple opponents simultaneously as he enters his seventh or even eighth decade. So in recent years, his ageing appears to have all but stopped. He is more grizzled and experienced than the 36-year-old that left the US Army shortly prior to The Killing Floor, but he now appears to be an indeterminate forty-fifty years old in my mind.
Patricia Cornwell has followed a similar route with her Kay Scarpetta series. Comparing her apparent age with other characters in the series who appear to get older in real-time, it's clear that Scarpetta found the fountain of youth sometime around her mid-forties.
2) Let 'em get older!Michael Connelly started writing his Hieronymus 'Harry' Bosch novels in the nineties. Before joining the LAPD, Bosch served in Vietnam and we know from the books that he was born in about 1950. The recent TV series (worth the subscription to Amazon Prime on its own!), did a soft-reboot so that he fought in the Gulf War, making him late-forties. But in the books, he is now clearly well into his sixties. Typically, he would have aged-out by now, but Connelly decided to have him retire and later books see him working variously as a private investigator or a reserve officer working cases free-lance for the police.
Doubtless this never crossed Connelly's mind when he first started writing Bosch thirty years ago, but it really works well.
3) Fudge it!Ian Rankin's DI John Rebus first appeared in 1987. His date of birth is given in the novels as 1947. At first, Rankin had Rebus ageing in real-time but by 2007's Exit Music, it became apparent that he had reached retirement age. Rankin originally intended Rebus' long-term colleague Siobhan Clarke to take over, perhaps with Rebus helping out. But it was suggested to him that there was no law that said he had to continue ageing him realistically, so he brought him back in 2012.
On paper, Rebus is 73 now, but in Rankin's mind he is mid-sixties. The world around him, including his beloved Edinburgh, have continued to evolve, but Rebus has largely stopped ageing. Unlike Jack Reacher however, Rebus' years of neglecting his health has caught up with him. He is clearly much older than in the first books and his health has deteriorated recently, but Rankin has no plans to stop writing him, so this hybrid ageing/agelessness will likely continue.
4) Do the Time Warp
Another possibility is to go back in time and revisit their early career. Lynda La Plante's Prime Suspect TV series was ground-breaking. Her character Jane Tennison retired at the end of the series run. Assuming that the character was roughly the same age as the actor that played her, Helen Mirren, she would be in her seventies now. La Plante recently went back in time to look at Tennison's early years in the 1970s.
Mark Billingham, creator of the popular Tom Thorne, decided to go back to the early nineties in Cry Baby. Although this wasn't written as a way of addressing Thorne's advancing years, if readers enjoy the book it gives Mark a potential direction in years to come.
DCI Warren Jones.
Loathe as I am to compare myself to any of the writers listed above, I have had to make decisions regarding Warren Jones and other regulars in my books. Next spring will be the tenth anniversary of when I first set fingers to keyboard on the Warren Jones series.
That first novel, The Last Straw, was set in the summer of 2011. Next summer's book is in late 2016, book 8 is likely to be spring 2018. I decided from the start to age Warren in real-time. He is about three years older than me, born on January 3rd 1974 (which you can calculate from the information given in book 2, No Smoke Without Fire) and so he has passed forty since the books started. His wife, Susan, is about 4 1/2 years younger than him, so is looking forward with some trepidation to that milestone.
The advantage to me was always clear. Warren in many ways is a thinly disguised version of his creator (wish fulfilment, some might suggest!), so by writing him a similar age, I can draw on my own experience.
The disadvantage is that I have potentially built in an end-date for the series. Depending on what happens to public-sector pensions in the wake of the corona virus pandemic, Warren will hit sixty and be eligible to retire in 2034. Since I hope to have closed the gap between when the book is set and when it is published to two to three years, that's looking like a big party for Warren in Summer 2037's book!
So what will I do? Let him retire and bring him back as a cold-case investigator? Have him retire and end the series? Kill him off after a massive overdose of caffeine and custard creams? Stop ageing him in real-time, so that he remains ever-youthful, just like his creator? Go back in time and write stories about his early career? Write a spin-off series with other characters, perhaps featuring Warren as a cameo?
I don't know. But if I am still writing Warren in the 2030s, and people are still reading about him, then it's a nice problem to have!
As always, feel free to comment either here or on social media.
All the best,
Don't put your back out - knowing your characters' histories.
"The writer should know their characters better than the reader does."
I don't know who came up with that suggestion, but I couldn't agree more.
As a series writer in particular, I find it essential to have the backstories for each of my characters written out and easily accessible.
Doing so helps you remain consistent to the character and means that you don't have to keep on leafing through old manuscripts to find facts that you mentioned in passing once and half-remember (but your Amazon reviewers will know in exacting detail and castigate you for if you get them wrong). Sometimes, it even provides story inspiration.
I would suggest that a basic biography is essential for your primary protagonists and antagonists, advisable for more minor characters and at least a one or two line sketch useful for those characters that just wander in for a scene or two.
If you write a series, then you should definitely jot down at least a couple of lines for recurring characters.
How you choose to record those biographies is up to you. It could be as simple as a Word document or paper notepad, with a page of notes for each character or something a little more technical like a spreadsheet with a template, or a character chart. Some specialist writing packages have tools that help you keep track of characters.
The document should be a dynamic affair that you add to as you write. It's easy to get carried away writing, mention that somebody has a cat called Gertrude, and then, six-months later write a scene where they come home and are greeted at the door by a hungry ... Dog? Cat? Maybe called Colin ...?
It sounds like a bit of a faff, but it can pay dividends.
First of all, spending a little time planning a character - even if you are by nature a panster, not a plotter - can help you picture them in your mind's eye, making it easier to write them and find their voice.
Second, it can provide story inspiration.
Let's imagine that your character is a large, well-built male with plenty of testosterone. The door to an apartment is locked, and there were reports of what sounded like a struggle... There's a good chance that he's going to put his shoulder to the door. Inside there's a dead body etc etc.
Now let's imagine the same scenario, but your character is a petite female. She's never going to smash that door down, so she starts knocking on neighbouring apartments to see if anyone has a key. The older lady two doors down says somebody left the apartment moments before the police officer arrived.
Your female protagonist has just found out a key bit of information sooner than her male counterpart would have, since he might not have started door-knocking until after the body had been dealt with. Whereas the female officer has just alerted colleagues in the area to be on the look out for a suspect.
From a story-teller's perspective, either scenario gives you options to play with and could influence later choices that you make.
Third, as mentioned before, it helps keep you consistent throughout a book or series. There are some eagle-eyed readers out there, and whilst most are lovely and forgiving, human nature is such that others delight in loudly proclaiming on social media that the change in a character's eye colour between book one and book seven 'ruined the whole series for them' and they advise others to steer clear of such a sloppily written set of books (at which point they skulk back to Amazon and change their original gushing 5 star review to 1 star).
So what should you include?
Date of birth / age of character:
You do not have to state this in your book! But knowing roughly will help you write a character. How do they speak? Are they young or old? Are their references to pop culture broadly appropriate? If they aren't, have you discreetly justified the apparent discrepancy?
"Your knowledge of fifties swing music is pretty good for someone born in the twenty-first century".
"Yeah, my Nan was a huge fan, we used to listen to it when she babysat me."
Knowing their age may also inspire sub-plots. A younger officer not getting the significance of a clue that an older officer would take for granted, and vice versa.
In a series, characters may reach certain milestones over time - how do you reference this?
I'll write more about this in a later blog post.
As much as you need or want, really.
Height, weight, build, fitness, disability (even something as minor as wearing glasses)
All of these can influence your story choices, as demonstrated above.
Eye, hair, and skin colour, piercings, tattoos, clothing etc.
Are they age or character appropriate? Could they be commented upon? Do they affect the way that others see them? Is there overt racism or implicit bias? Is an older woman with grey hair and a fondness for cardigans perceived as less dynamic than a thirty-something man in a sharp suit, with an even sharper haircut?
This is a tricky one that should be used with care, but can be important to a story. Try not to embarrass yourself or your readers by being overly descriptive (I'm thinking especially of male authors who think that female characters spend hours in the bathroom mentally assessing their boobs by way of a detailed inner monologue). Our society is such that perceived attractiveness can impact on the way that people are treated, women in particular. Are 'attractive' characters assumed to be less intelligent? Are less-attractive characters over-looked by colleagues? Remember, unless the story is told from first person perspective, the perception of attractiveness should be from the character doing the judging. Leave your own peccadillos out of it!
How we are brought up can profoundly influence our choices and attitudes over the rest of our lives, but so can more recent life events. Take poverty for example. What affect would childhood poverty have on someone in later life? Would they be overly cautious with money once they earn a decent salary, or would they be a spendthrift, making up for everything they missed previously? What effect would poverty in later life have on a person who had a comfortable up-bringing? Knowing this can help you shape your character.
What about bereavement? Childhood or adult? Everyone reacts differently, so there is no 'correct' way to write this. But by considering it beforehand, you can remain consistent and your character will feel more real.
Religion, culture, sexuality and beliefs:
I've grouped an awful lot into this deliberately, as they tend to overlap. They can have a profound impact on the way that your character treats, or is treated by, others. How much you decide to work-out in advance will be determined by the needs of your story, and how much you feel it is relevant. But as always, knowing a bit more than you actually write down can help. And again, it can inspire plot points and avoid errors.
Take a practising Muslim character for example. It's easy enough to avoid basic errors such as them consuming pork or alcohol. But if you explicitly mention the date that your book is set, will that character be observing Ramadan during that period? If so, they are unlikely to join in with the breaktime donuts. Or perhaps they are itching to leave work on time so they get home and break the fast with their family?
Does your character have a favourite colour (that could influence their wardrobe), what about music, film and books? DCI Warren Jones loves cheesy 80s music - DI Tony Sutton teases him about it most books. Food? Warren is basically me, so he is a fussy eater. Again, I try to get something into most books. He and I also share a taste in biscuits.
Knowing your characters is so important to your writing. Not everything here will be relevant to every character or every book, and there are loads more things I could have suggested.
What are your thoughts? Is there anything else you think I should have included? Feel free to comment here, or on social media.
All the best,
Paul Gitsham is the writer of the DCI Warren Jones series.