[process] Mature characters with backstory

Saturday evening I was texting with [info]bravado111 (urban fantasy author J.A. Pitts) about how much we both liked Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moonjlake.com | LiveJournal ]. John observed that the book read like the fourth volume of a series, and compared it to the original Star Wars movie, now known as A New Hope.

This got me on to thinking about mature protagonists, a topic which has already been on my mind somewhat of late. Mature characters come with their own backstories, their own histories. (For that matter, so do infants, but in dramatic narratives, people with fully formed life histories are usually more interesting.)

Among my books, Rocket Science, Mainspring, Escapement, Pinion, Green, Endurance and Kalimpura all center around young protagonists. Death of a Starship and the Flowers books deal with people in middle age. (The Before Michaela Cannon, core protagonist of Sunspin‘s ensemble cast, is 2,000 years old, so she’s a bit of an outlier.) With those younger protagonists, a major aspect of the story being told is their own journey to maturation and discovery of their life path. The older protagonists have a lot of backstory and implied action embedded in their preferences, desires, choices and reactions to the unfolding of the plot.

Certainly that latter effect is what Saladin achieved in Throne of the Crescent Moon. Hence [info]bravado111‘s reaction. Those characters had been around a long time, had experienced many prior adventures, had lived.

What I’m now chewing on is whether I think it’s a bigger challenge to write a youthful protagonist or to write an older protagonist. How does this affect the reading experience? Green and its subsequent volumes would be very different books if she were middle aged at the time of the action. Some of the key underlying themes of Sunspin would be null and void if Cannon weren’t literally the oldest human being who had ever lived. And Ahmed’s Doctor Adoulla Makhslood wouldn’t be anything like he is if he were still living in the bloom of youth.

Food for thought, indeed. What’s your take, as either a reader or a writer, on the age of protagonists?

6 thoughts on “[process] Mature characters with backstory

  1. Seamus says:

    Jay,

    I would say that one of the benefits of a younger protagonist is that you get to sculpt the limits of their experience. In a sense that is an expository crutch because you can now have this new person experience your world without it being a true info dump. I also think that there is a sense of sympathy/empathy for the loss of innocence that is often the backdrop event around which young protagonists struggle. So from a meta-writing stand point they are attractive.

    Where as with a mature character you have someone who is going to experience the world with more cynicism and be less likely to make mistakes which allow the writer to offer easy further glimpses. You’re also dealing with mature characters who could be harder to empathize with or to connect with for a broad audience.

    With the keener need for subtly in exposition and character development I think the bar is higher for mature characters.

    -Seamus

  2. ces says:

    Speaking as a Reader: I like all of book’s population to be “people” I can relate to in some way or another, be they good, bad, or indifferent. Age doesn’t matter to me. Neither does their sex, their sexual preference, or a lot of other attributes. A good story is a good story.

  3. Chris says:

    I agree with Seamus: the bar is higher for mature characters. And the corollary to that is that it is harder to sell them, at least as an unpubbed debut author (or so I’ve heard from agents). Whether that’s real or justified, I’m less certain.

    Regardless of the genre, the protagonist’s age has ramifications on all aspects of the story: there’s the obvious stuff (the way they speak, their physical action, plot elements), and then there’s all of the subtler dimensions (their reactions to events, the narrative voice/details they notice, etc.).

    And I think different authors are going to find different ages more natural to write: I know plenty of adult-market authors who cringe thinking about getting a YA protagonist right (and vice versa). Like everything else, it’s a considered choice and one that takes a ton of hard work to execute correctly.

  4. Bellatrix says:

    I enjoy reading a cast of characters, and therefore like to have protagonists of all ages represented. It is great to read different understandings of the same situation. I like how Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote “The Mists of Avalon”. We read Igraine’s story, some of Vivien’s, some of Morgouse’s and some of Gwenhwyfar’s, though mostly Morgaine’s. And she tells the tale from her Crone years, so some of the story is tempered with maturity and some is not.
    The shifting voices allow for complexity when something must be made clear to the reader or for the naïveté sometimes necessary for the protagonist to make the decisions to further the plot.

  5. In my forties, I started becoming interested in how different ages handled the problems they faced–how they defined the problems, searched for solutions, and then acted. So the first Serrano/Suiza books were conceived–in part–as three-generation stories–the old people, many of whom had had rejuv, the middle-aged people, and the young people. I already knew that in addition to individual differences in maturation, there were characteristic ways of viewing life’s challenges at different ages.

    It was enormous fun to see the world through those different lenses, and try to reproduce that in the books. I needed the help of the old people in town to check that my understanding of their approach to problems was accurate (I’d experienced being a teen and twenty-something…and was then being a forty-something…but had yet to be an eighty-something. And the old ladies at the library loved instructing me. “Would this character do so-and-so?” “Oh, honey! She’s seventy eight? She’d outwit that SOB in ten seconds…did I ever tell you about Old Miz X and that developer fellow from the city?”)

    When writing mature characters, it helps to be within ten years of their age–or have access to a variety of people who are their age, and who can check that your handling of situations for the older character makes sense. Otherwise, the much-younger writer will see them through only that lens–not through their own–and is likely to produce cliches (the rigid, conservative, backward-looking spoilsport or the impossibly wise/kind/generous fairy-godmother.) Those who have grown up in multi-generational situations–more than just their own family–are probably best suited to write mature characters when they themselves are still young. And–as always with any writing–it helps to know and interact regularly with people of various ages, observing, listening, and constantly expending your understanding of the full range of human attitudes and behaviors.

    I still write young characters…but also middle-aged and older characters…because it’s more fun for me and more realistic for readers.

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