Friday, March 26, 2010

Act Your Age: Why the age of your character is important

by Zetta Brown

When we create a character for our story, we usually start with a typical laundry list of traits: eye color, hair color, height, weight, gender, ethnicity, occupation. We may even go so far as to detail their habits, likes, and dislikes. But when we assign the character an age, we need to think about more than just a number.

In my experience as an editor, it is sometimes possible for me to guess if an author is older or younger than their main protagonist by the way they portray their characters. There are mistakes that belie the character’s age.

For example, I edited a manuscript where the protagonist is roughly the same age as me, but the character had certain likes and used words that are not common for someone my age. What really gave it away? The character had musical tastes that were older than her years.

There is nothing wrong about a character liking music that is older than they are. How many people today enjoy classical music that is many centuries old? But in this case, it was a valid clue that something did not quite jibe. As the story progressed, this and other details made the character come across as older than she was meant to be. I pointed this out to the author and made suggestions on how they can correct this in order to make the character more believable.

Do not think that these “chronological anachronisms” is only important for historical writing. You do not want to have your twenty-five-year-old character in 1985 describe something as having “Wow factor” when “totally bitchin’” would be more appropriate.

Personally, I think it is harder to write contemporary fiction because the changes are so subtle, whereas it is easier to show historical changes from a time decades or centuries earlier.

It does not take a huge gap in age to create a different outlook on life. Think about when you were a senior in high school and the incoming freshmen. By the time those freshmen graduated four years later, their tastes in music, movies, fashion, and language will have changed too.

When creating your character and trying to determine the character’s age, if you are not drawing from memory and personal experience, ask someone who was there, or do research at the library and the Internet.

So the next time you are creating a character’s profile, take as much care when picking your character’s age as you would their name, or at the very least, put it at the top of the “laundry list” of traits.

Zetta Brown is editor-in-chief for LL-Publications ( and was the editor of the 2009 EPPIE Winner for Best Horror Novel, Pit-Stop, by Ben Larken. She holds a B.A. in English/Creative Writing from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. She is the author of several short stories and the erotic romance novel Messalina – Devourer of Men.

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Author Guy said...

When I come up with a character, I have a name (maybe) and the sort of person I know him to be. I have never spent more than a few minutes on the question of what my characters look like, unless it's important to the story. In Unbinding the Stone, one woman had blue eyes, in a village of brown-eyed people, and it was an important thing. Usually I portray my characters from the inside, and they already know what they look like so they don't go around describing themselves. I right fantasy, so there's no real need to worry about pop culture references.

Marc Vun Kannon

Trailowner said...

I'm generally the same, Marc. Perhaps it's a guy thing. Physical description of a character is not important unless it offers a clue to personality or a distinctive feature that allows the reader to pick them out of a crowd.
I have to admit that when I do tell what they look like the descriptions tend to be somewhat extravagant -- the bullet head that seems to sit directly on the shoulders of the arch-antagonist of my Iskander series.
Protagonists often have very little description because, as you say, they don't often look at themselves.

Christopher Hoare