Age ain’t nothin’ but a…problem

In a recent Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Alter talked about the dangers of having your literary characters, especially detectives, age in real time. She cites several examples of authors allowing their characters to develop the infirmities and declines that come with advancing years, as well as those who freeze their heroes in time so that while the world changes, they don’t.

The original detective heroes like the Continental Op and Philip Marlowe didn’t face this worry. Their series were relatively short compared to what we now consider a successful run: seven novels and some short stories for Marlowe, compared to 21 for John Sandford’s “Prey” series; Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple racked up 12 novels, against 40 for Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. Sam Spade, the quintessential tough-guy detective, exists in only a single novel, The Maltese Falcon.

The appetite for series now requires at least a book a year, and authors with contemporary settings have to face the fact that the world changes around their heroes. Do the heroes change with it? Some do. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, once young enough to be played in a movie by Alec Baldwin, is now 73. Michael Connelly’s 60-year-old Harry Bosch has to deal with the vagaries of contemporary retirement. But some, like Spenser or Kay Scarpetta, don’t. In fact, the biggest surprise in the article was how many authors began with their heroes aging, and then arbitrarily froze them in time when the series became successful.

It made me think about Eddie LaCrosse’s age, and how that affects his ongoing adventures. I created his prototype character when I was 18, but I wanted him to be worldly and sophisticated, so I made him roughly 35, which is his age in The Sword-Edged Blonde. At the time I thought that was mature enough to give him the perspective I wanted. However, by the time the book actually came out I was over 40, which meant I was now writing about a character a decade younger than me. Further, and strange as it seems, I’m continuing to age. So I’m faced with the dilemma of what age Eddie should be in each book.

Luckily I’m freed from the worries of the modern world, since Eddie’s world is fantasy and only changes when I change it. But I still want him to be believable, and part of that is aging. I don’t have a set time frame, like Stephanie Plum (Kinsey Millhone ages one year for every 2 1/2 books, so she’ll be about 40 when the series concludes). But he does progress. In the framing story of Dark Jenny I think he’s about thirty-eight, settled into his relationship with Liz and established in Neceda. In the next book, Wake of the Bloody Angel, he’s about the same age. Which works out to real-time again, one year per book, by default. But it’s not deliberate, therefore I can’t be held to it. Ultimately, Eddie’s as old as I say he is.

4 Comments on “Age ain’t nothin’ but a…problem”

  1. Weirdly, i never think of a character's age or infirmities. The subconscious and the muse takes care of all that. Whenever people start talking about creating a character I am always dumbfunded. My characters simply come to me. All I have to do is see clearly. I really don't "make" them in anyway. And if they appear to you in a dream, leaning on a wall or chatting away, what can one do but describe them as they appear?

    If a character starts aging in the story, that's the choice of the Black Gang. I had nothing to do with it.

    A warrior who gets beaten up and hacked at in youth…would be very scarred and in pain by old age (the human body and medicine being what it is.) Or a fat detective would have developed gout. If a writer enters into the fray and "decides" not to give her character infirmities of old age, the writer is not being true to the lived life of the character…and is probably getting in way of the BG and the subconscious.

    But I think the writer must deal with her/his own age and the age of his/her fans as well. Or else we have entered into super-hero mode. I remember watching Barnaby Jones back in the day and laughing fondly at the way he could overpower three young attackers and save the day. Heroes must rise and fall. They must feel the waning of their powers. A writer doesn't have to create this waning. I suspect the BG wants to deal with all that weakening of the mind, spirit, body. But if it isn't in a story, messing up the character's goals in some way, I think the author is getting in the way.

    But hey, I'm not a famous author with a series character folks depend on… so who knows?

  2. It is interesting to read your side of the question about character age as I just wrote a blog post from a reader perspective about what age I think characters are as I'm reading. I think that the aging progression isn't a big deal as long as it happens, even very slowly. And not even so much that the characters age, but that they are learning, growing, changing, and adapting to their experiences and the world around them. I also don't think that the actual age of a character is a big deal because I think readers will make the character whatever age makes sense to them and the situations the character is in.

  3. I'm a reader and I must say the older I get the more I'm interested in the age of characters.

    On the one hand I wish my favorite characters would live forever in never ending series.

    On the other hand I love to see how a character ages because that has an real impact on the story.
    Recently read the Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. From point of view the story would not have worked without an aging hero.

    I like Eddie LaCrosse a lot and for me you chose the right age for the novels you presented us (your readers) so far. But with a hero like Eddie LaCrosse you are in a lucky position. Even when Eddie is getting older you always have the possibility to tell us a story from Eddie's past.

    One book per year would be great. That means we can expect Wake of the Bloody Angel in 2012.

    Long Live Eddie LaCrosse !!

    And of course long live Alex Bledsoe the intellectual father of Eddie.

  4. Great post on a timely subject. Hey! Look at what I just did there, lol.

    In my current WIP, I've been working out the issue of aging for my main character and you've given me some options to consider.

    Sometimes it's nice to grow up with a character. FitzChivarly Farseer from Robin Hobb's Farseer/Tawny Man Trilogies springs to mind. The character is introduced as a six year old and then finishes the series when he's probably in his mid to late thirties. His physical and mental growth and maturity are all very well done. Hobbs blends Fitz's infirmities, some due to injuries suffered or the result of the passage of time, into the storyline. 

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