Act Your Age! : Why the age of your character is important.

When we create a character for our 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 a number.

In my experience as an editor, it is sometimes possible for me to guess if an 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 my age. What really gave it away? The character had musical tastes that were older than her years.

There is nothing wrong about a character liking music that is older than they are. How many people today enjoy classical music that is many centuries old? But in this case, 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. I pointed this out to the author and made suggestions on how they can correct this in order to make the character more believable.

Do not think that these “chronological anachronisms” is only important for historical writing. You do not want to have your twenty-five-year-old character in 1985 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 does not 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.

So the next time you are creating 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.

© 2010 Zetta Brown. No part of this article can be used without written permission from the author. Originally posted at SheWrites.com.

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7 thoughts on “Act Your Age! : Why the age of your character is important.

  1. Really interesting and very true. Especially when trying to write about teenagers. Very hard to get the vocabulary right.
    But I did wonder about ‘totally bitchin’ – in 1985? Really? Perhaps that is a British/American thing, and maybe inner city, but I would have thought it was much too early for us, certainly in the backwaters of East Anglia.
    How about in Scotland?

    1. Hi Pat!
      Teens are hard to write and trying to keep up with the slang could be a full-time job!

      As far as “totally bitchin’,” I’m an American and grew up in the States. However, I’ve been in the UK for several years and am now a dual-citizen with British citizenship. 🙂

  2. Very good article Zetta and very true. (Ehhh I was a baby in the 80’s, but what I do know is that I would like to leave that decade there, but history repeats itself and I see them coming like a freight train.) I think vocabulary is all depending on location. There was Valley-girl speak made popular by the Nicholas Cage movie, but in Chicago where I grew up, there was a language all to its own.. yet the timing remains critical as Zetta pointed out. Thanks again for an excellent article.

    1. Thanks Nevea!
      I grew up in Colorado during the 80s and Valley speak was popular there…unfortunately.
      Living in Scotland has been quite fun and I’ve enjoyed learning the lingo and using it.

      1. Ahh you grew up in Colorado… I was wondering why ‘Messalina..’ was so good at describing the state, that book made me want to visit Colorado.

      2. If you get a chance, you should. I haven’t been for years. My sis and her family still live there. We’re making a trip next spring. It’s amazing because you don’t feel like you’re in a place that’s overpopulated. And thanks for reading “Messalina!” 😀

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