Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why Your Main Character's Age is Important

I was talking with my friend Liz the other day about genres among other things like her cats, my baby, and our books. 

She mentioned the reasons why she enjoyed writing about YA. She included things like the main character having to deal with parents, and feeling like an adult and having responsibilities, but also being stuck as a kid in many situations.

Which got me thinking about why I like to write about main characters who are in their early twenties. I like writing about character who vividly remembers being in high school (or the fantasy equivalent thereof) but now they are considered adults. They are suddenly in charge of their own lives, but often feel really unprepared. In my experience, most teenagers don't spend a lot of time learning how to budget, how to balance their bank accounts, and don't actually realize how much stuff costs. 

They are in college or just starting their new job. As a senior in high school, you're at the top of the heap.

As a young twenty something, you're right back at the bottom.

Their love life can be tumultuous. Maybe they had some significant others in high school; maybe not. Maybe they are trying to reinvent themselves, as they realize no one no longer cares if you were the class geek or the captain of the football team. Maybe they still don't know what they want their career to be, and they're feeling a lot of pressure to figure it out soon. 

And their family. As a new adult, they are suddenly no longer bound by what their parents say (if they obeyed as teenagers), but there's a long history of obligation to do so. Some people still fall in lock step with what their parents want, while others go in the opposite route and rebel now (this seems even more likely if the new adult didn't rebel as a teenager, and is attending college). 

To me, writing about "new adults" has every bit as many interesting challenges and obstacles as writing about teenagers. It's just a different set of problems and expectations. 

And I don't think it stops there. Writing about a character who is thirty carries it's own host of expectations. It says as much about a thirty year old if he's still living in his parent's basement as it does if he is instead is married with 2.5 kids, one dog, and has a house with a white picket fence. 

Same goes for any character at any age. You can mine the age of the character for minor conflicts (or entire book ideas, a la Literary fiction) at any point. What's more, I feel like it makes the book a richer experience. I've read tons of urban fantasy where the main character is a woman in her late twenties, early thirties, but it feels forgettable. She has her own place, has a job, and might be dating, but there are no other markers of her age. It's forgettable.

Sometimes this is the desired result, but perhaps consider your character's age the next time you're writing. After all, why should the Young Adult authors have all the fun with the challenges that come with a certain age?


  1. I just gotta say that I'm 22 and...yeah. I've never felt so "back at the bottom" :) Such is life. So, Amen!!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  2. Hmmm... I think it is harder to write a character significantly older than you are than one that is younger.

    Also, teens and twenties, you usually think of them in transitional parts of life. My age - well, transitional, but a different kind of transition. (For those who don't know me, I JUST turned fifty. Ugh. And inside, don't feel anywhere near that old.) My son is going to (hopefully!) graduate college in the spring. My life is - well, just totally different than it was in my 20's. But I feel a bit still in transition, kwim?

    My folks are in their late 70's - and I know they don't feel as old as that.

    My brother will be 55 soon, but said he feels older. (I told him he gets our extra years,then.)

    But when I think back to when I was 22, like Sarah, I don't think I could have projected what 50 REALLY felt like. It sounds so -- old. Blah.

  3. Sarah: I know what you mean. I am 26 and I STILL feel like I am figuring out just what this adult-thing means. Just because I got married and I am having a kid doesn't grant me benevolent powers of adultness. It's weird.

    Linda: Yeah, I sort of wondered that. Because as a teen, I don't think I could accurately capture how I feel now. I thought 26 seems so old and mature, but you still have your life ahead of you. I don't know that I would be able to accurately portray being older without some serious research.