Writing Older Characters

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by Lisa J Lickel

It’s my birthday today! I’m fifty-one. Made it-yippee. I know, thank you, I don’t look it. But of course I can’t help thinking about age, my family, my friends, and my characters.

Commercial and pop fiction isn’t only about sweet early twenty-somethings. The later thirties are not very interesting because we’re too busy with normal life. But when we get to our forties and later, intriguing challenges pop. Careers change; spousal issues arise, empty nest syndrome; change of life is no longer a joke. And then…after-retirement people are cool!

I’m not that old, so should I try to include older characters in my books? How?

Should I? I write for the commercial market, where there is basically an audience divide: those who want to read fun stuff about people around their age, and those who don’t. What’s selling these days? Older sleuths with a funny side—there are at least three series that I’m thinking of; check fiction finder. Poignant stories of finding love after the end of a fairly long marriage; the tragedy, joy, and lessons of caring for aging family members, reliving the past, and stories that feature characters trying to adjust to a slower pace as they age. So-yes, write about the other generation. I featured multi-generation people in my Buried Treasure mystery series and had great fun matching up the seventy-something Ardyth and Bryce, and the sixty-something Ellen and Barry, both secondary couple-characters. I used a May-December romance in Meander Scar.

How? Here’s the place where that backstory-the biography of the character that you build but don’t put into the book-is vital. Where this person lived, grew up, what he or she has done, experienced, lived to enjoy or regret, are tantamount to the current story. What is your character capable of, physically and mentally? Age-related health issues may be part of your story such as signs of dementia; entitlement, or need to express any opinion or deserve special treatment. They may act too cautious or too outrageous; their wisdom comes from a lifetime of earned experience and the results of choices made or unmade. Older people can be satisfied, peaceful, bitter, regretful, nosy, thankful, crotchety, fearful, picky, loud, and kind. People watch, volunteer, and interview them for more intimate information.

In general, the older we get, the harder it is to make muscles obey us, gravity takes its toll, elasticity of skin weakens, and it takes us longer to come up with a response as we have to sort through all those accumulated vocabulary words and experiences for the proper expression. Sometimes we adapt to technology with great enthusiasm; sometimes not, thank you. We use the manners ingrained in childhood.

Older characters make a wonderful sidekick for your stories, like my Ardyth. They are great guides, friends and keepers of secrets. And remember, just because your characters are of a particular generation, they can be plausible without strictly acting-or looking-their age.

Lisa Lickel is a Wisconsin writer who lives in a hundred and sixty-year-old house built by a Great Lakes ship captain. A multi-published novelist, she also writes short stories and radio theater, is an avid book reviewer, blogger, a freelance editor, and magazine editor.

Comments 0

  1. I loved this entire piece! I was smiling ear to ear. I just learned about this website through Faithwriters, of which I am a member. Thanks for the smiles…God Bless~

  2. In the novel I’m working on I have an older couple as a side – who end up falling in love too. . .So older characters can have sass and be fun to write but don’t have to look their age – kind of like you, Lisa? 🙂 I should talk though – I’m only four years behind! I just have really young kids which really throws people for a loop when they find out how old i REALLY am. Key thing is: Don’t act your age – I don’t – which also means, my older characters don’t always have to either! Oh, the fun! So glad we never really have to grow up! Happy birthday, Lisa!

  3. So true! In my WIP are a pair of *older* ladies, one in her mid 40s, one in her 60s. They are sidekicks, and were a joy to write. Especially the oldest one. She climbed out of the pages as this wonderful bohemian personality with a past full of giggles and wisdom for my younger heroine. Very rich. Great post!

  4. I appreciate that you dare to use older characters in your books, Lisa. You set a fine example for the rest of us. Your Ardyth is a favorite, and I enjoyed the daring-because-it’s-uncommon May-December romance in your Meander Scar.

    Great post, Lisa. Happy birthday to you!

  5. Great post, Lisa. Had a reader tell me the other day she’d really like to read of more heroines in their late 40s to 50s. A trend? Perhaps so, for a segment of our readers. Happy birthday. I never did turn 50 – still ringing in at $49.95.

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