October 6 – 12: “Do readers prefer an ageless protagonist?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Do readers prefer an ageless protagonist? Join ITW Members Bernard Maestas, Alex Shaw, Terry Shames, Karen Traviss, Eric Red, Mauro Azzano, Lisa Black, Colin Campbell, Alan Jacobson, Andy McDermott and Margo Kelly as they discuss when writers should provide details on age, and when those details are too much?

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Adobe Flats by Colin CampbellEx-policeman. Ex-soldier. International tennis player. And full-time crime novelist. Colin Campbell is a retired police officer in West Yorkshire, having tackled crime in one of the UK’s busiest cities for 30 years. He is the author of UK crime novels, BLUE KNIGHT WHITE CROSS and NORTHERN EX, and US thrillers JAMAICA PLAIN and MONTECITO HEIGHTS featuring rogue Yorkshire cop Jim Grant. He counts Lee Child and Matt Hilton among his fans.

 

IT WAITS BELOW book coverEric Red is a Los Angeles based motion picture screenwriter, director and author. His films include The Hitcher, Near Dark, Blue Steel, Cohen And Tate, Body Parts, Bad Moon and 100 Fee. His first novel, Don’t Stand So Close, is available from SST Publications. His second and third novels, The Guns Of Santa Sangre and It Waits Below, are available from Samhain Publishing. His fourth novel, White Knuckle, will be published by Samhain in 2015.

 

Close to the Bone by Lisa BlackLisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department in Florida.

 

Death Works at Night by Mauro AzzanoMauro Azzano was born in Italy, north of Venice. He grew up in Italy, Australia and finally Canada, settling with his family on the west coast outside Vancouver, Canada. He has a broad experience to call on as a writer, having worked as a college instructor, commercial pilot, IT specialist and a number of other unusual occupations. Currently, he is writing the Ian McBriar Murder Mystery series and training as a distance runner.

 

Spectrum_v2_72dpi_smNational bestselling author Alan Jacobson’s twenty years of research and training with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, DEA, US Marshals Service, SWAT, NYPD, Scotland Yard, and the US military bring unparalleled realism to his stories and characters. Jacobson’s thrillers have made numerous “Best Books of the Year” lists, they’ve been published in a dozen countries, five have been optioned by Hollywood…and James Patterson, Nelson DeMille, and Michael Connelly have called series protagonist FBI profiler Karen Vail one of the most compelling heroes in suspense fiction. Visit him on Facebook and Twitter: @JacobsonAlan

Cold Black ENDEAVOURlowresAlex Shaw spent the second half of the 1990s in Kyiv, Ukraine, teaching and running his own business consultancy before being head-hunted for a division of Siemens. The next few years saw him doing business across the former USSR, the Middle East, and Africa. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers organisation, the Crime Writers Association and the author of the Aidan Snow SAS thrillers. Alex, his wife and their two sons divide their time between homes in Kyiv, Ukraine and Worthing, England.

 

Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek by Terry ShamesTerry Shames is the author of the best selling Samuel Craddock series, set in the fictitious town of Jarrett Creek, Texas. Terry grew up in Texas and has great affection for the town where her grandparents lived, the model for Jarrett Creek. She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two rowdy terriers. Find out more about A KILLING AT COTTON HILL (nominated for the Strand Critics award), THE LAST DEATH OF JACK HARBIN, and DEAD BROKE IN JARRETT CREEK on Terry’s website.

 

grey#1 New York Times best-selling novelist, scriptwriter and comics author Karen Traviss has received critical acclaim for her award-nominated Wess’har series, and her work on Halo, Gears of War, Batman, and other major franchises has earned her a broad range of fans. She’s best known for military science fiction, but GOING GREY, the first of her new techno-thriller series, is set in the real world of today. A former defence correspondent and TV and newspaper journalist, she lives in Wiltshire, England.

The Valhalla Prophecy by Andy McDermottAndy McDermott is the New York Times bestselling author of the Nina Wilde & Eddie Chase series of adventure thrillers: THE HUNT FOR ATLANTIS, THE TOMB OF HERCULES, THE SECRET OF EXCALIBUR, THE COVENANT OF GENESIS, THE CULT OF OSIRIS (aka THE PYRAMID OF DOOM), THE SACRED VAULT, EMPIRE OF GOLD, TEMPLE OF THE GODS (aka RETURN TO ATLANTIS) and now THE VALHALLA PROPHECY. He has also written the high-tech spy thriller THE PERSONA PROTOCOL (aka THE SHADOW PROTOCOL).

godwin_coverBernard Maestas lives in paradise. A police officer patrolling the mean streets of Hawaii, he has a background in contract security and military and civilian law enforcement. When not saving the world, one speeding ticket at a time, and not distracted by video games or the internet, he is usually hard at work on his next novel. His first novel, SAY THAT TO MY FACE was released in December and its sequel, GODWIN’S LAW is due out November 15th.

Who R U Really by Margo KellyMargo Kelly is a veteran public speaker and is now actively pursuing her love of writing. WHO R U REALLY? is her debut novel, inspired when her own daughter was nearly abducted. According to the School Library Journal, “Kelly has painted a realistic picture of how a smart girl can get caught up in something dangerous online. Guaranteed to give readers goosebumps.”

 

 

45 Comments
  1. I age my protagonist, Theresa MacLean, for several reasons: I think it adds realism, it allowed her child to get old enough to be packed away to college, and I could use her 40th birthday as a plot point in one of the books. Of course I started her off younger than me so at the moment she’s still only about 41 or 42. (I recently turned 51.) I try to keep her aging consistent with the timeline of the books—sometimes a year has elapsed since the prior story, and sometimes only a few months. My books are set in Cleveland so the time of year is important and distinct, since the weather there can be intense and is often a plot point in itself. But I like having her age. There are so many things about getting older that I want to say.
    Therein lay the danger—that I’ll say too much, use the story as a soapbox to rant about how much weight creep and loss of skin elasticity really sucks, and how women in America become invisible once they pass 40 or 45…which might be fine for a Good Morning America spot but isn’t what readers buy my books to hear.
    There are definite advantages to keeping the protagonist the same age. For every reader who becomes so entranced with a character that they love to hear every detail of what car they drive or what they feed their spouse/child/mother/dog, there’s a reader like me who regards all that as filler and skims it until she gets back to solving the mystery! and/or stopping the terrorist plot! I’m really tired of looping conversations with the sullen teenage daughter—and it’s almost always a daughter. I theorize that this is because girls, unlike boys, talk about their feelings, which gives the protagonist a chance to talk about their feelings, which otherwise they couldn’t do because they’re supposed to be obsessively searching for a solution to the crime. But they have to stop and talk to their kid, because whatever else they may be, they’re determined to be a good parent.
    Full disclosure: to give Theresa’s character some depth I bestowed her with, of course, a sullen teenage daughter.
    In conclusion, I think a writer needs to let the character age or not, depending on which serves the story and doesn’t distract from it.

  2. When I used to write games, the prevailing wisdom was that the playable characters needed to be bland avatars so that players could identify with them no matter what. I suspect that was never true in games – one of the most popular characters I created was as far from the demographic of the game’s average player as you could get – and I don’t think an ageless protag works in prose, either, at least not for me. Age is part of who we are, and we change over the years. Remove that, and you’ve removed a cornerstone of characterisation.

    I write point-of-view characters whose ages range from six years old to their nineties, and in the case of aliens, a lot older than that. I can’t imagine writing any character without knowing where they are in their life cycle and showing their inner thoughts to the reader. Age is a big part of that. It’s a major element in GOING GREY; two of the main characters are facing fortieth birthdays and feeling a sense of urgency about the loss of the youthful fitness they took for granted. The actions of one of them are spurred by his exact age, because it’s the difference between being laid off from the armed forces with a nest egg and leaving with nothing.

    (A small caveat: by age, I don’t mean giving a date of birth unless it’s absolutely relevant and necessary. It’s a hostage to fortune in continuity terms, as anyone who’s had to make changes and then adjust the entire calendar for a book knows too well. I skated as close as I could with the Rob Rennie character in GOING GREY, but all the reader knows is that his birthday is in the first six months of the year, and he’s 37 when they first meet him.)

    I write very tight third person POV, which means I have to get into the head of every character and see the world entirely through their eyes. If I don’t know how old that character is, or if I tried to hide their age from the reader, which is even worse because almost every character surely knows how old they are, I’ve already hit the rocks in terms of meaningful characterisation. Our age is very much tied to our life experience, and while you can’t stereotype people neatly by age group, you can’t deny that the number of miles on the clock makes a difference to how you see certain situations, and how others see you.

    When you’re young, you think you’ve got all the time in the world, things don’t happen fast enough for your liking, and death and injury happen to other people. It’s a hard-wired biological response. As we go through life, the countdown the Big Exit shapes us, from the biological clock ticking in the background to pragmatic, conscious concerns like how long we’ve got to run on the mortgage. And if you’re the same person at 90 as you were at 15, you haven’t learned much from life. If we’re going to build believable, sympathetic characters that readers can believe are real people for the duration of the story, then we need to build in all their dimensions.

    Readers aren’t a single homogenous mass, either. I’m sure there are sub-genres where readers do want the protag to be exactly like them. But the readership I’ve built up seems not to care about age (or gender, or anything else) as long as those characters are vividly drawn and come to life for them, which means that every aspect of them, including their age, is part of who they are and influences how they behave. Two of my most popular characters have been ones we’d possibly call old, or at least of pension age; one a male and one a female, both in their sixties. The main reader demographic for both those stories was predominantly young men from late teens to late twenties. They didn’t need a bland avatar to see those characters as believable people that they cared about.

    1. Karen–well said. I agree with what you wrote. We are a sum of our life experiences and our characters should reflect that. Karen Vail, my series character, was late thirties when I started writing her. In the sixth installment, which comes out tomorrow, I went back in time to her beginning, with her first day on the job as an NYPD patrol officer–almost 20 years ago. I had to re-envision Vail so that I wrote her the same, but different. She had to be different because professionally and personally she hadn’t had the experiences that made her the person (and FBI profiler) that she is today.

      It was great fun, and none of it could’ve been possible if she never aged, changed, or evolved.

      1. Yes, jobs change people, especially ones where you see the best and worst of humanity. Rolling it back the way you have with Karen Vail is a great technique. Some people tell you readers aren’t interested in a story whose outcome they already know, but I’ve found the opposite; we all like to know how someone came to be the way they are, and peeling back layers and years can be even more fascinating than a linear timeline story. Things from the “present day” fall into place or take on a different significance.

        1. This is a point I was going to bring up and I wholeheartedly agree. The fields most of our characters are in (law enforcement, military, intelligence, etc.) have an enormous impact on personality. In my personal experience, I haven’t seen anyone that didn’t have a significant change in personality after a few years on the job and after several, most are completely different people.

          So, on topic, the age of your character and their years of experience would obviously play an important role in their personality, as Alan says. When I was 19-25, just for example, I was borderline reckless, always the first through the proverbial door. Now, I’m still the first through the door, but I stop for a second, take a breath and think before I kick it open.

          What I think makes for an interesting dilemma, at least in my writing, is how much can your characters change before you disappoint the fans that have fallen in love with them? Alex and Ted, my INTERNET TOUGH GUYS protags, are in their early-20s and constantly in combat and only a few years under their belts. They’re witty and jovial but I’ve already started planting the seeds of battle stress with Alex’s substance abuse. Have I started to write myself in a corner, however, when, a few books down the line, he either needs to clean up and see a shrink or go off the proverbial deep end? Either event will have a significant impact on his character and will that be at the expense of the personality traits that readers like at the beginning of the series?

          Everyone has mentioned Bond in this discussion because he is one of the few “ageless” heroes that pull that off. However, and this may just be me, it seems that audiences are requiring more realism than historically. What we’re seeing in the latest Bond movies (the Daniel Craig ones) is a more realistic portrayal with a more abusive use of alcohol and missions that take a more obvious and visible toll on him.

          As I frequently state, I grew up in the golden age of action movies and I try to bring a lot of that into my writing. Similar to Bond, I’ve noticed a change in the DIE HARD franchise (one of my favorites), over the years. In the first two movies, John McClane was the archetypical action hero but by the third, he’s divorced, an alcoholic, and currently on suspension, all too real consequences of a career in law enforcement.

          Basically, what I’m getting at is, as thriller writers, we’re going to subject our characters to the sorts of experiences that would profoundly change them. There was a time, I think, when these effects weren’t as well known and understood, so it was more believable to readers to have characters who didn’t change as much. I don’t think our audiences will buy that anymore. So, unless you’re ignoring the events of previous books, they have to change (for the better or worse) from book to book. That also means that they have to age.

          1. Amen to all that. For me, the priority has always been to “tell the truth” in fiction, and I mean the truth about people. I write almost exclusively military stuff, the audience is overwhelmingly civilian and has little or no contact with service personnel, and it matters to me that I convey the reality of service to those readers, regardless of era and location. It’s not the technical side; it’s the human aspect, the sort of thing you’ve mentioned here. The kind of fiction that skips over that or depicts an unaffected gritty killing machine (possibly because the writer isn’t aware of the reality) shapes real-world opinion in the absence of real-life evidence. Fiction gets under the radar in a dip-drip way that news doesn’t – I’ve seen it both as a reporter and a spin doc. So showing what a high-risk job does to guys (and gals) over the years is central to my books.

      2. I bet that was great fun to go back in time and build the character. I think the aging, changing, and evolving is essential in allowing the reader to relate to the character.

  3. Hey, everyone, happy to be back! Before I get started, I just wanted to say “hi” to Colin, good to see you on here again and to Karen Traviss, I’m a huge fan.

    Now, on topic, when I started working on my INTERNET TOUGH GUYS series, I wasn’t really considering an audience but did put a lot of thought into the ages of my two protagonists, Alex and Ted. This was especially important in the first book, SAY THAT TO MY FACE. A major part of the story was their growth and changes and, I guess you could say, was a coming-of-age tale. They begin the book as teenagers and it ends with them in their early twenties.

    I also made the characters so young, in part, because of the heavy prevalance of internet humor and memes in the series. That and I wanted to give myself room to progress their ages throughout the series, because I always envisioned this as a longer saga, not just a one-off.

    In GODWIN’S LAW (shameless plug: release date November 15th!), age plays less of a factor for Alex and Ted and is mentioned mostly so readers can place the story in relation to where the last book left off and that only mattered because the mission in GODWIN’S LAW is their first under the banner of their own company. For the story’s female lead, however, age mattered a bit more, particularly in her backstory. After I wrote the first draft, I went back and included another chapter that led up the start of the book and established her as a high school senior.

    Again, I wrote both of these books without an audience or even publication in mind, when writing was nothing more than a hobby. People do seem to like Alex and Ted, though, and my base of readers spans a pretty wide band. If I had it to do over again, I don’t think I would have done much differently with this series. It has turned out pretty much as I wanted it to.

    1. Hmm. That’s interesting to me that you wrote it without an audience in mind. My current book, WHO R U REALLY?, is also Internet based. I wrote it with a young adult audience in mind, and I aged the characters for that audience. But so far adult women (moms) have been the primary readers. I think as long as we develop the characters and plot well, the story will find its audience.

  4. This is a great topic, but the question is quite broad. We can’t put all readers into one category – and likewise we can’t put all protagonists into one category. Writers should provide general age information when first introducing a main character. Exacting details regarding age become too much when secondary characters are being described, unless it’s relevant to the plot. Main characters of a series have the potential to become “ageless” … meaning they remain in their thirties or forties for the life of the series. The place where this does not work is in a novel aimed at the young adult audience. When young adults read about characters their own age, there is an expectation that the character will mature and grow into their adulthood. It would become stagnant quickly if a seventeen-year-old never aged … oh wait … actually, that’s been done already. 😉

  5. Can’t think of too many genuinely ageless characters outside of fantasy fiction where people don’t have a good idea of how old the people are. Readers usually want a handle on the age of the characters, but I think the decade—20’s, 30’s 40’s, etc.—is more important than the exact age. As a general rule, I think the more detail an author provides about a character, the greater the reader involvement, in everything from physical appearance to psychological profile and personal habits. Age is important in a character because each decade marks significant life changes and outlook for most people. Obviously, a single man or woman in their twenties has a different psychological and emotional profile from a single man or woman in their thirties or forties. A single man or woman in their thirties has made specific life choices, has or doesn’t have children, may be divorced, all of which imprints who they are as characters. That’s just a specific example. While I don’t think the exact year of age is important unless it’s a plot point, the decade of a character’s age should be apparent to the reader.

  6. (And hi Bernard – thank you!)

    We’ve got at least two elements of age and time to consider; the actual age of the character, and the passage of time as they see it.

    As Margo says, one size doesn’t fit all. A lot of it depends on the expectation of the reader. (Or the audience – it’s an issue for any medium to some extent.) We expect James Bond to remain the same age, even though his workload looks like it’s a mission a day and he must have his bus pass by now. “Bond drew his pension and reached silently for the ibuprofen…” isn’t what readers or movie audiences pay their money for. There’s a willing suspension of the normal rules of time on both sides.

    If you’re touching on time at all, though, be it age or a stated timeline, the question is what level of detail makes it more vivid and immersive for readers.

  7. I agree with Eric Red; a character’s age is such a key part of defining them for the reader that it’s hard to imagine anyone but the most trivial bit-part player *not* having their age mentioned, even if only in general terms, when they’re first introduced. Describing someone as, say, “a short, skinny man with a bushy beard and crumpled clothing” will give people a very different impression of him when you add that he’s fifty or twenty – that way, he goes from hobo to hipster!

    Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase, the lead characters of my books, have aged roughly in real-time over the course of the series (the first being published in 2007) as they’re now eight years older than when when they first appeared. Dealing with that has actually kept things interesting for me as a writer, each new novel presenting new storytelling opportunities as they and their relationship develop and change. If they’d remained ageless and static, I would probably have long since lost interest in writing about them. But things like having former SAS man Eddie, now in his forties, team up with a much younger guy who regards this “old man” with amused contempt opens up all sorts of fun ways to see new sides to his personality…

    Having characters who *never* age, *never* change through a series ultimately becomes comic-booky, as it means the status quo is always maintained and nothing they go through in this story really matters to them. And if nothing affects the characters, how can it affect the readers?

    1. I love this comment: “Describing someone as, say, “a short, skinny man with a bushy beard and crumpled clothing” will give people a very different impression of him when you add that he’s fifty or twenty – that way, he goes from hobo to hipster!”

      And I totally agree that if the character never ages, why should anything matter to them? And as a result … matter to the reader?

      Age and aging are both necessary.

  8. Whether or not you age your character depends on a number of factors: the story you’re writing, whether or not she participates in real-world events, whether or not technology plays a role in the story, and whether or not you’re writing a series (which occurs over time). The age of a character can be defined by many external factors: as a real person she’ll have memories of music, world events, she’ll use certain slang, have children (or not); understand certain generations and the way they think (or not). Point is, if you’ve created a real person—with richness and depth—these details will leak into the story, and that paints a picture as to your character’s age even if you never tag her with a specific number. That’s good writing and it prevents you from falling into the “cardboard character” trap.

    This is a question I pondered when I first created my series character, FBI Profiler Karen Vail. I spent several years working with the real profilers, learning their craft and learning the killers’ “craft.” One of the promises I made to the profilers is that I’d be as accurate as possible when I started writing. While I’d intended to make Karen Vail an early thirties character, that conflicted with the reality: a profiler takes a defined path to the Behavioral Analysis Unit, which includes a specific number of years of education and field agent work before she’s eligible.

    Thus, Vail had to be 38 for The 7th Victim, the first in the series. Spectrum, which comes out this Tuesday (10/7), is the sixth novel, one that goes back in time to explore her career starting with her first day on the job as an NYPD patrol officer. I had the timelines of the first five books to contend with as well as Vail’s personal and career timelines. It all had to sync in terms of the story I wanted to tell in Spectrum. In Vail’s first five novels I’d never stated her age because it wasn’t important—but I implied that she was in her mid to late thirties, and we knew she had a 14 year-old son. However, when I began writing Spectrum, we see Vail age and mature as a person and as a law enforcement officer. She had to age because she deals with real-life events that happen in the world around her—so for these reasons, she could never be an ageless character.

  9. Thanks Bernard. Wow. I really came to the party late didn’t I? I blame the time difference here in the UK. As for the question, I don’t think it’s a definite either/or situation. There are compelling arguments for either, both as a writer and a reader.
    Let’s start with the benefits to the reader, because that’s what I am first and foremost.
    I love the relative agelessness of James Bond in the books and Jack Reacher. The fact that they are constants in an ever changing world. You can rely on them to do the right thing. As they said in one of the trailers, “You know the number.” It’s always 007, not 8, 9 and 10 as he gets older. On the other hand I have enjoyed following Harry Bosch as he’s aged and moved on, adapting to the real time progress of a police career. Either/or. Both work for me as a reader.
    Now then, as an author.
    Same benefits. It’s nice to create a flesh and blood character and age him through the life of the story or stories. Experiences from previous books can be fed in to give a realistic sense of growth and a passage of time. Downside is that your character has a limited time on this earth and if you age him in real time, say one year with each book, you’re going to hit a wall when the cop is too old to be a cop or the hero too old to tackle the bad guys. And I won’t even get into the sex scenes. Geriatric sex anyone? So, ageing your protagonist has its limitations and for that reason I have chosen not to age Jim Grant. Previous adventures will colour future books but I never mention his age or when those experiences happened. Readers can fill in the blanks. And Jim Grant can go on as long as I continue writing him. Now if I could just do the same for myself.

    1. Interesting, Colin. What do you do about real-life events? I guess they can be sidestepped or ignored. It depends on the type of novel you’re writing. It also depends on the author. I tend toward incorporating some kind of “what’s going on in the world” sensibility to my storylines–and in some cases, to my characters. They’re touched by world events, be it a terrorist attack or some political impasse that has caused hardship, etc. I think it gives the novel that extra coat of realism. But again, it depends on who you are as an author and the type of stories you write. As in everything with writing, one size does not fit all.

      1. This is going a little off topic, but the “real life events” do throw an interesting hurdle your way. I started writing SAY THAT TO MY FACE in 2007 or 2008, at the height of the Iraqi occupation. One of the segments takes place in Iraq. However, by the time the book was published, the troop withdrawal had been completed and there were questions as to whether the book would still be relevant at all.

        How it works (and how this relates to the topic) is more of a generation thing. My characters are products of the “War on Terror” generation, as opposed to the “War on Drugs” heroes who preceded them and the “Cold War” generation before that. In that regard, their ages play a crucial role in who they are so dating them has always been important. Now that they’re established, however, I think their ages become a little less important except for the fact that I have to account for the passage of time in each book and in between.

        Just like my kids, my characters have to grow up someday. (And, spoiler alert, that’s actually a line from an upcoming novel. “You have to grow up someday, Alex.”)

  10. It is much easier to identify or emphasize with characters in a book than those on screen. The reason for this being that the reader is allowed to construct the characters based upon hints given by the author and the reader’s own world view. Obviously one of the major constructs is age. As a writer, and a reader, I am very able to visualize a character with the briefest clue to their age, if a character is in their late teens I can understand this, if our protagonist is a recent graduate I can see this too and if our hero is nearing retirement this I know roughly how old they will be.
    What makes no sense to me, as a reader, is when an author specifies a particular age for a character when it has no relevance to the story. For example making ‘Daphne’ twenty-eight may only be a vital clue if she is fretting about turning thirty or if her age places her in a specific location at a specific date. Better in my opinion just to say late twenties.
    Another aspect of defining age in books, for me at least and I may be alone in this, is that if I have read a book published or set five years ago I expect the next book (if it is set five years later) to show that the character has aged. But as a writer I do not want my characters to age! Look at James Bond – does he age in his books? Is he geriatric in the new ones? No. My character Aidan Snow is in his mid-thirties and will remain so until I decided to age him! Likewise Director Dudka of the SBU is in his early 70s.
    So in answer to the question: ‘Do readers prefer a protagonist who is ageless?’
    As a reader I say ‘yes’.
    And to answer: ‘When should writers provide details on age and when are the details too much?’
    I say only provide a specific age when it is necessary to the plot.
    But I may be wrong, I am quite a bit.

    1. Alex–I agree with a lot of what you wrote. One exception is using James Bond as an example. No one mistakes him for a real person. As a character, he’s more caricature than a person we might see on the street. That’s fine for escapism, and I really enjoy Bond. But it’s not to be taken seriously (the latter two Bonds are more in line with the point I’m making).

      I strive to make my characters feel as real as possible because to me, those are the characters readers can engage with emotionally. (They can still do extraordinary things–but there are some limits.) Obviously, there’s no right or wrong here… I guess whatever works for you as the author–as long as it works, too, for the reader–is what matters.

  11. It seems that, just like everything else about writing, you have to do what’s right for you and right for your character. Sue Grafton doesn’t age Kinsey Milhone, and that works just fine for both of them. But other times those milestone birthdays and changing circumstances give our characters something to deal with, and that’s good too. As Alex says, bring up age when it adds something to the story, and only then.

    1. Yes, Lisa–very good points. My character, Karen Vail, has a 14 year old son in The 7th Victim (first book in the series). Should he stay static, always 14? No, that would not be believable. (He’s now in college–which presents some peripheral challenges to Vail as she deals with being an empty nester.)

      As you said, I’ve enjoyed introducing milestone events for Karen Vail and from the feedback I’ve had, my readers have, too.

  12. When I started writing the Samuel Craddock series, I had no doubt that Craddock was going to be “older.” I was tired of seeing people over 40 depicted in crime fiction as practically doddering. I have been around a number of men and women who were vital well into their seventies. I understand that some people do become old at 50 or even 40, but you rarely see an older person in crime fiction unless it’s a comedy or unless the effort to remain youthful is being sneered at. Samuel Craddock has no illusions that he’s young man, but he still retains physical and mental acuity. But nowhere in the books will you find that I have actually said how old he is. It gives the reader a chance to imagine him however old they think is “old enough.”

    Since my protagonist is a man “of a certain” age, I began noticing the age of protagonists in the books I read. I have to agree with Alan that it depends on the book whether the age of the protagonist matters. I read a thriller just last week and was startled well into the book when the age of the protagonist was noted to be 23. Impossible! I said. He had too much world experience. But then I remembered that most of the men and women we send into combat are still in their teens, or just beyond it. The kind of experiences they have in the Middle East age them quickly. Guilty of ageism!

    The other aspect of aging that has to be considered is whether the protagonist is going to age throughout the series. Arguably the most famous detectives in history–Hercules Poirot and Miss Jane Marple–never aged at all. And if Jack Reacher has aged, I haven’t noticed. Starting with an older protagonist in Craddock, I had to consider that eventually he was going to lose ground. So far, I’ve set the books months, not years apart–which runs into the problem of “how many murders can there be in a small town? Turns out, quite a few!

    1. Dot Meyerhoff, my protagonist in Burying Ben, is hitting 50. Her concern about aging adds texture to her character and, I hope, makes her a real person. She is years older than most of the cops she counsels which creates some interesting predicaments. Sure, she carries a lot of emotional baggage around. Don’t we all? The books I enjoy feature older protagonists with something to say about life or real young ones – like Frank in William Kreuger’s fine novel “Ordinary Grace” – who are struggling to understand what lays ahead and how they’ll fit in.

  13. In my first book, “The Dead Don’t Dream”, I set the date very specifically at March, 1973.
    That was for technical reasons, because you couldn’t do things now that you could then. In that book, Ian McBriar was 27.
    When I wrote the sequel, “Death Woerks at Night”, I had to set the date to October 1974, also due to technical reasons in the story.
    As a result, the character aged and matured in the books.
    The third book,”Death By Deceit” happens in early 1977, and so he’s now over 30.
    It lets readers know that the character changes and evolves, but it also sets a wall, in that ten or fifteen books from now, if I continue at ths pace, he will not be in the 1970’s, he’ll be in the future.

    The conundrum is, do I change my style and NOT give the passage of time, or do I keep doing what feels right and accept that I’ll run out of time eventually?

    1. Do you pick these years for a particular reason? You could always slow down and have the stories occur six months or a year apart instead of three years. But going a little into the future could be fine, too. It will be here before we know it.

  14. When I was in my 30s, I chose mysteries with protagonists in their 20s and 30s. Now that I’m “of a certain age” like Samuel, I don’t want to read stories about 30-year-olds. To me, a compelling mystery weaves in the protagonist’s daily life. More goes on in a mystery than solving the crime, and I enjoy the everyday problems the hero has to contend with as well as how his/her age contributes to the ways he/she goes about solving the crime. I like reading about Samuel’s relationships and how his life experience helps him analyze suspects and clues.

    1. Hey, Mary:
      I agree with not reading about characters younger than oneself, but it’s a given that it’s easier to WRITE about younger characters, if one has already walked that road.
      That said, should one, in your opinion, be ageless, like James Bond, or should the characters age, like in ‘The Forsyte Saga’?

      I think it depends on the genre. Nobody wants to read a story about a geriatric action hero, but people expect the passage of time in “Downton Abbey”.

      What do you think?

      – Mauro.

      1. Interesting. I was just thinking about this…whether in thrillers we expect a lot of action, and if “action” and “geezer” are incompatible concepts. Forgive me saying so, but even though I love some of the old singing groups that try to make comebacks, I cringe when I see many of them trying to make the same moves they did back in the day (exception Tina Turner–I expect she can do sexy dancing at 80). So when does the line get reached for someone to pull out their ninja moves? Can we believe a fifty-year-old character who can whip a 30-year-old if both have approximately the same training? How about a sixty year old? Where is the line? I can believe that the aged protagonist can be wilier and have more experience–after all there’s the old line about old age and trickery. But that only goes so far. What the line for everyone else?

        1. Terry, you make an excellent point that I don’t think is addressed often enough. I’m certainly not as athletic as I was when I was a rookie.

          I have seen one absolutely excellent portrayal of this issue in a movie, though I can’t recall the title. The protagonist was an old man, well into his 60s, long retired from the British Royal Marines. He overcame his adversaries because he was smarter (in one scene ambushing two drug dealers by hiding in the shadows while they were blinded by a streetlight) and more disciplined. The simple fact was that he didn’t have the physical ability to fight with men thirty or forty years younger, so he didn’t try. In one scene, he had to beat a quick escape and the exertion of the short run caused him to collapse from chest pains.

          These sorts of details change the entire dynamic of a story.

          I thought Mauro and Mary’s points on characters younger than the reader were interesting. As a reader, I don’t necessarily find that to be true, as I read young adult novels as well as novels about adults and even “veterans”. In my own reader base, despite the fact that my characters are so very young, I haven’t seen a heavy bias, one way or the other, on the ages of my readers.

          1. I think the film is HARRY BROWN, with Michael Caine as the former Bootneck. I never did finish watching it, but from what I saw, yes, it deals with the loss of fitness very well indeed. (And given what a big deal “phys” is for RMs, there’s the extra psychological aspect of loss too.) You’ve reminded me to get the DVD.

    2. Thanks, Mary Lee. That’s what I like about Samuel, too. But I have to say that I like reading all ages. Maybe because my son is 27. I do run across books in which the protagonist is so young that I find it hard to believe that he or she displays the maturity to do what needs to be done. But then I remember when my son moved and I thought I’d have to do a lot of work to help him. I arrived to find that he had rented a truck and almost everything was boxed up.

      Maybe that’s why I like stronger characterization in the thrillers I read. I get irritated by cardboard characters–you know the ones I’m talking about, the ones who kick butt every other scene and never seem to be ruffled by it. I like to know what the characters are thinking about what they have to do to survive or to help someone else survive. I don’t mean I have to have “feelings” at every moment, but a little introspection wins my respect for a writer.

  15. I need to tell my characters’ age group if not specific ages. It gives me a perspective where they are in life experience. Both my protagonists in Gemini and my new novel, Aries are forensic psychiatrists and not new to the profession. They’re in their early forties. The women in their lives are late thirties, in Aries a NYC detective in homicide. The character’s careers determine their ages. In Gemini the antagonist was forty. I felt more comfortable writing older characters. Maybe I remember my forties. Who knows? In Aries I went with younger antagonists in their mid twenties. That fit the plot. But I think readers like to have a frame of reference. They’ll age as well.

    One example similar to this is the issue of having a pregnant heroine. My heroine, the love interest in Gemini and the wife of the psychiatrist was one month pregnant. He made a guest appearance in Aries and I’m having her give birth in this novel. To have her give birth in the third novel where they might appear (don’t know yet) wouldn’t make sense and take away realism.

  16. I prefer to let their age show through their actions, how they speak, their thoughts and reactions. Let their personality tell the story of who they are and their life experiences or lack of. I don’t want my characters to be “super heroes who never make a mistake. No one can relate to a perfect anything in life.

    1. Agreed! That’s something I’ve done with Karen Vail. In fact, the real FBI profilers I’ve worked with commented to me that they appreciated that I did not make Vail a “super profiler” who never gets it wrong. That’s not real. The only time I’ve specified an age is where it was important to the story, or to the character.

      1. I’m new at writing for the public but I know what I like when I read and base it on that. I do use age where it is necessary such as the history of a characters descendants. I did this is in “Remember me”. It became a bit confusing at times so close attention and notes had to be kept. But in the end, the dates weren’t important as much as the characters personalities.

        1. HI, Toni, how about this?
          Your stories seem mostly inspired by your family, according to your web page. If you were writing about a copletely unfamiliar subject- mountain climbers in Tibet, or coal miners in the 1880’s, would that change how you write your characters?
          Would you describe them differently if you had to create them from thin air?

          I’m curious as to how other writers handle this.

          I have to admit- I don’t think I’ve ever created a character without a frame of reference based on someone I’ve seen or actually know.
          We all create characters, as writers, but we’re also therefore reporters, storytellers in our own ways.
          When someone once asked me how I was able to come up with the material for an entire book, let alone a series, I told them that it’s like telling a very, very long story.
          It has to be informative enough to keep people interested, and it has to move along- proceed toward a conclusion. That is, it takes a passage through time. I use my characters’ ages, in part, to mark that time.

          1. Hi Mauro, yes I would still do the characters the same way. I have a book called”Remember Me” that is a murder mystery that the characters are out of thin air. I am working on a sequel now called “Name Dropper”. The main characters are in this one with another murder mystery at hand. If you would like to read it, it’s available in ebook and softback at Amazon. I have been writing something since 3rd grade but not until recently have I made anything available.

            My son has inspired a lot of the children’s books. I also have a collection of adopted kids that call me that crazy grandma. They help inspire me,but I look at the way adults act and that often leads to children’s stories. I hope children learn how not to act through them.

  17. Crikey. I turn my back for five minutes and you guys run away with it. Lots of good points. Alan, regarding real life events, I avoid them to avoid dating the books or ageing the character. Unless it’s referring to something in the past in which case that’s less important. Mainly I don’t want to tie the character to any single conflict or event. Hopefully the books feel authentic enough if I’ve written them properly. Is that good English? Where’s my editor when I need her?

    1. Hey Colin:
      Your English is undeniably better than mine.
      I agree with you about referring to ‘conflicts and events’.
      I read ‘A Little Yellow Dog’ by Walter Mosley. Partway through the book, he mentions that the characters are driving around in a Mustang convertible, then later he talks about watching TV and the news talked about JFK being shot.
      Except that the Mustang came out a year AFTER JFK was shot.
      I spent the rest of the book searching for other mistakes.

      If you pin your characters to a specific date or time, be certain to get the details right.

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