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,
Paul Gitsham is the writer of the DCI Warren Jones series.