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Is Age Just a Number?

January 25, 2013

I can’t be the only one who has heard that saying before. Often it is in response to some relationship in which one party is significantly older than another. What are we really saying when we suggest that age  is just a number? Aside from justifying older men who date younger women, or more recently the influx of older women dating younger men (a la cougar) is there any real merit to the idea? Considering how different a group of 22 years old’s might be from say a group of 33 year old’s. Do we actually mean that there is something to be considered with the number? Or rather do we often consider this difference to be in terms of life experience? Is this number at its essence, an outward symbol to give others a clue as to possible life experience? What expectancy do we hold for someone who is 21 years of age versus someone who is 34? Are they held to the same standards?

When writing fiction the age of your protagonist can definitely affect not only how they are able to process events but also how they are perceived in the world. I have been reading countless tips and tricks when it comes to developing a character and one that seems to be glossed over (in my experience) is the issue of age. I think it is an important aspect of developing not only a more complete character but it also shapes how they interact in the world. When it comes to age consider how different you have been treated at points in your life. What was your reception when you were ten? How did this change when compared to the way you interacted with the world at 17? 22? 30? 47? I know for me, the way I am expected to act now is significantly different from just  a few years ago. Before I graduated college there was a considerable leeway that was afford me. For instance not getting out of bed before noon on weekends or during holiday breaks, wasn’t considered abnormal. Now that I have graduated and am removed by at least a few years I have noticed there are certain expectations; I am supposed to pay my bills,  I am expected to be able to make sure I have food to eat (instead of relying on a cafeteria). I do know that the expectations for my age group are still afforded considerable leeway. I am a twenty something who can get away with making boneheaded mistakes (not that I would do that :whistles innocently:) If I were to quit my job without having one lined up this might be brushed off as stupid, but a source of learning for my age. On the other hand if I were 40 and had quit my job without having anything lined up people may call me irresponsible and question my maturity and decisions. What is the difference in those 15 years?

I will freely acknowledge that age is not the only thing that can affect a person. There is a lot that can differ depending on individual life choices and situations. Being married I know that I am responsible not just to myself but also to my spouse (just as he is responsible to himself and to me) I can’t pack up and take off to Ireland (no matter how appealing it might be some days) but if I was single, this might be an option for me (and being in my twenties our culture would consider it less odd than if I were to suggest this in my 40’s)  These things are situations that should factor into your writing as well.

Consider for example, if you have an amateur mystery sleuth who is an 59-year-old man and his role in discovering pieces of the case. Might people trust his instincts? Do you think some of the suspects may cave under his perceived authority? What has he learned in terms of life experience that might be able to help him? Does he know tell-tale signs of when a person is lying? How about in terms of physicality? Does his age affect his ability to chase suspects? Has he been married (or is he a perpetual bachelor, unlucky in love, vows of celibacy?) How might this effect his interaction with members of the opposite sex? Does his age affect how they interact with him? Does he come across as a grandfather figure and people seem to pay little mind to him when discussing issues of a crime? Do people take him more seriously because of his age? Or do people write him off as an old wackadoodle? Is he battling stigma of being older? Does he suffer any age related ailments that might affect his ability?

Answering these questions opens your character up a bit more. Instead of just having a smart older man, as your mystery sleuth consider how is age might affect him and how he interacts in the world.

When it comes to suspects, age can work just as well. Consider for example , if you were to have a suspect for murder be a 23-year-old woman who is still in college. What kind of jobs can she get? How is she treated by her elders? Does she have a dependent relationship with her parents? How is she paying for college, loans, working nights at a pizza joint or bar? Would this be motivation or alibi? How does her knowledge of modern technology enhance her ability to cover  her tracks? Does her limited life experience mean she is cocky? Does she still have the idea of being invincible or above the law? How does the way she was raised affect her interaction with the world, does she feel entitled?  Does her age affect how likely you are to consider her guilt? Consider the fact that most people consider college students to be pretty uncoordinated in things beyond studying and partying, could she really orchestrate a murder? How about her lifestyle, does she live in a house with a big group of friends, on her own? What kind of responsibilities does she have?How does she handle her social life and her personal life? Is she settled into a relationship with someone, or still dating? Does she get talked down to because she is younger? Would the police believe her if she came to them about a case?

Age may just be a number, but it is definitely one to consider when you are writing a story. This applies not just to mysteries, consider how different a person who is 25 versus someone who is 48 might react to a coworker coming on to them? How might they react differently when going up for a job promotion  Consider what each one might do when faced with a challenge that tests their physical and mental strength? Also keep in mind how your character may react emotionally to an event or situation. Someone who is older may be able to cope better with the death of a friend than someone who is just out of high school. We all know that teenagers can be a bit melodramatic, how far removed your character might be from their teenage years may affect their reaction to hearing good news from a friend or being dumped.

Writing is all about creating a credible world that the reader can get lost in. By having characters who not only act their age but also interact with others based on their age, it will help mold a world that seems more realistic. It may not seem likely that a 22-year-old is able to be a biochemist working for a top firm, but then again a 39-year-old may not be at a local at a college pub either. Obviously the life experiences shape who your character ultimately ends up being. When you are looking to create a character that is as relatable and realistic as possible it might not be a bad idea to consider that number and how it affects who they are.


Just some thoughts to consider…happy writing.

  1. Good points. I’ve yet to read any writing tips that acknowledge the impact of a character’s age on his/her psyche. Now that you’ve mentioned it I’m going to pay maturity more attention when crafting characters. I write a lot of kid parts (all of whom age to adults in my series) so I get to think about the evolution of each character but I’m not sure their maturity levels are as pronounced as they could be. I tend to depict immaturity as them making bad/illogical decisions but I think I could do more.

  2. I’m 63. Sometimes I feel like 53 or 73. I I do feel 63 most of the time. That’s because I am 63 and live with all the things that such an age carries with it.

  3. I think the whole saying just means that if you take two 25 year olds and compare them to each other, you won’t necessarily get the same levels of maturity, of taking responsibility for themselves and their lives, in their interests or hobbies, etc. I know that if I, as a single 20-something, were to up and leave my job/life to move to Ireland, the people who know me would very much think it was irresponsible and immature, not just a whim, an experience in learning the ins and outs of adulthood. But, I’ve always been mature “for my age.” That’s why I think the AGE you give characters is less important than the characteristics through which you show their maturity level and self-awareness.

  4. Interesting observations. While I don’t feel a whole lot different than I did 10 years ago, I think that the “if you don’t mind it doesn’t matter” is usually said by people approaching a mid-life or later crisis. 😉 And yes, your accumulated experiences and wisdom do account for something, some people don’t ever learn, but then that’s part of the character as well. Especially when writing I think you have to outline people a bit more than they perhaps are walking around K-Mart, like theater makeup really.

Care to share? Let me know what you think in the comments section.

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