The Old Character

On February 22, 2010, Priyanka wrote, …as a young author, how do you convincingly write an older character?

I’m currently working on a story that revolves around three women- a 19 year old born in the US, her 45 year old mother, who immigrated to the US as a newlywed, and her 65 year old grandmother, who has lived in India her whole life but is deeply involved in the lives of her family overseas.

Now, as a nineteen-year-old myself, it’s very easy to get into the mind and thoughts of that character.

However, I immediately run into problems when trying to create a convincing inner voice for both the mother and the grandmother. I’ve attempted to observe my own family and their friends to get a grasp on how they interact with each other and how they see the world, but I always feel so…artificial, I suppose, is the best way of putting it-when I try and write a passage from the perspective of someone so much older than me. I feel almost presumptuous to be making the assumption that I could possibly understand their perspective.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, one of the sisters, Addie, is very shy.  Although I’m not off-the-charts outgoing, I’m comfortably sociable.  I didn’t know how to write Addie, so I went too far and made her shyness almost catatonic.  My friend Joan, who is genuinely shy, helped me and pulled me back from the brink of caricature.

So you may benefit from showing the parts of your writing that feel artificial to actual older people.  If you’re reluctant to share with your family, try a teacher, a librarian, a friend’s grandparent.  Also, you probably should approach your character’s age with a light touch, which I failed to do at first.

You certainly don’t want to lapse into stereotype.  Nothing (well, almost nothing) is likely to annoy an older person as much as seeing older characters playing Bingo every evening and taking out their false teeth at night and talking about those gosh-darned newfangled telly phones.  I don’t care for it, and my friend who will turn ninety in July wouldn’t care for it, either.

I’m sixty-two, and, frankly, I could go on beyond the tolerance of anyone under fifty about being this semi-advanced age.  Age is a big part of our lives, no matter how old we are and how old we feel.  Age suffuses work, family, romance, health, even if we’re healthy, as I am.  What we do for most of the day has an age aspect.  When we’re young, we’re in school; older, we’re working or taking care of children; older still, we may be working or retired.

A friend to whom I posed Priyanka’s question said, “Language,” and language is certainly worth thinking about.  I don’t mean the “gosh darned” I mentioned above, but something more subtle.  The “wow” and “out of sight” of my ‘60s adolescence has faded from my conversation, and when I use more current expressions I’m generally being playful and deliberate.  I may say “down with it” or “dude” or “awesome,” but not by accident, so my English is probably a little more standard than it used to be.  I have nothing against “dude” or “go” instead of “say.”  They just don’t bubble out of me.  You can apply this both to dialogue and thought.  I never think, “Dude.”

The next several paragraphs are more my ideas about age than direct writing advice.  I hope some of you reading the post will weigh in with your thoughts to help Priyanka and other young writers.

Viewed optimistically, the human race ages and acquires wisdom as time passes.  I have wisdom that I can’t attribute to age, that has come to me because of advances in knowledge.  For example, when I was younger things like relaxation techniques and meditation were unknown in my circle of friends and family.  I don’t remember any talk about stress, although certainly stress existed.  We’re in a more self-aware age now, and I’m wiser because of it.

An older person is more likely to have experienced loss of a loved one through death, is more likely to have had some health challenges, will certainly have suffered more from “ageism.”  But young people can also be very sick, can have lost someone, can have gone through some other kind of hurtful discrimination.  Each of us – old, middle-aged, young – react to these life events uniquely.  One person will talk about his troubles.  Someone else will hold it all in.  There are complainers and people who rise above circumstances at every age.  The saying, People die as they lived, is also true of aging.  People age as they’ve lived.

I don’t mean we fail to change and grow.  Some of us do, most, I hope.  But even when we do, we don’t disconnect completely from our former selves.  It’s like looking at a family photo album.  You can usually pick your mother out of her kindergarten class, even though she’s much taller now and hardly ever wears pigtails anymore.

This is true of our inner lives, too.  We start an interior monologue as soon as we learn words.  It’s continuous, absorbing new understanding so slowly that we don’t notice the difference.  It’s like seeing someone who’s on a diet every day.  The dieter may be disappointed that his family isn’t commenting much on the change.  It takes a family reunion for a distant cousin to tell him how great he looks.  When my father turned seventy, he commented at how surprised he felt about his age.  Inside, he said, he felt no different.

Naturally, some things are likely to dramatically change an inner life:  dementia; mental illness; a catastrophic event, like surviving being in the World Trade Center on 9/11.  But for most of us, change comes almost imperceptibly.

You can do research.  Read about geriatrics.  There are books about the stages of life.  Try reading a few issues of the magazine that AARP publishes.  Join in activities in which you will be the youngest participant, maybe your mother’s book club.  Visit a kindergarten class and feel yourself the oldest person in the room after the teacher.

Most important, respect your characters, and try not to worry about their age.  A joyous character is likely to stay joyous, and a whiner is likely to go on whining.  Write them as you see them – joyous, whining, brilliant, stupid, selfless, selfish – and as they feel to you on the inside.  Put it down, and you can go back later to fine tune.

This prompt is to write about an extended family’s a move to a new home.  You can write about moving day or packing up or the moment the decision to move is made.  Write the move separately in first person from each of the perspectives below.  Be sure to include the characters’ thoughts.  When you’re done, if you like, weave them together into a story.

•    The thirteen-year-old son.

•    The seventeen-year-old daughter.

•    The four-year-old daughter or son.  In my opinion, this is the hardest (maybe impossible) to get right, because there is so much a young child doesn’t understand and is likely to interpret unexpectedly.

•    The mother or father in her or his forties.

•    The grandmother in her sixties.

•    The great-grandfather in his eighties.

For extra credit, now go back and make one of the characters blind.  Put another one in a wheelchair.

Have fun!  Save what you write!

  1. This is a great topic and one I admit that I haven't thought enough about. I love the tip for the way a character talks as a characteristic of age.

    I thought I would weigh in to give other "young writers" my thoughts on age. At first, I almost didn't, because I'm a young writer, aren't I? But really, I'm 40. Oops! I guess I do qualify. In a way, that's a thought on age. 🙂

    I am lucky enough to still have a grandmother around – she turns 90 next week.:)

    One thing that has struck me as different is what we, as as different generations, fear.

    My grandmother has stayed up with the tech age – she even emails and has a cell phone! But I remember her saying that she doesn't envy my generation having to live with the fear of identity theft. (The thought absolutely terrifies her. But it is not something I stay up worrying about.) Whereas I think it would have been terrible to live in an age when you know it is a real possibility that your child will die of the measles, polio, or some other common childhood illness. (Really! I still have a hard time wrapping my head around how real a possibility that was when my mom was a child.)

    I also think my grandmother's generation views death an a generally more healthful way. But that's a whole 'nother topic. 🙂

  2. I'm only 25, but I've experienced ageism. Not so much in the US, but when I lived in Japan while I was growing up I definitely felt singled out or purposely ignored because I was young. This usually happened with Japanese strangers (though not always). It could partly be racial, since I'm very white and there's still a bit of stigma from WWII with the older Japanese generations, but I think most of it was ageism.

    The Japanese are interesting because though they come across as polite and reserved, they are fiercely patriotic and nationalistic. Anyone who is different is "not us." That even happens among themselves, which is where the ageism comes in. If the majority are middle-aged, the teenager is portrayed as rude and/or stupid. If the majority are teenagers, the middle-aged man is portrayed as a loser/has-been who missed out on his best years of life. Etc.

    Sometimes this interfered with my job when I worked as a barista. Some customers wouldn't take me (or my similar-aged coworkers) seriously, and I'd have to get my manager (a woman in her 50's) to say exactly what I said before it was accepted. I've had slightly older coworkers refused to share a shift with me or others my age because they assumed we'd just goof off and they'd be left with all the work, even though that wasn't true. Things like that.

    Your post reminds me of this article which was mentioned in another post of yours. This part in particular:

    "So what’s it really like to be old?" I often ask my patients, who are mostly in their late 80s and 90s, and the responses are unexpected.

    "I forgot I was so old," a 100-year-old patient recently told me, and then excused herself to make it to bingo on time.

  3. This was really helpful. Strangely, even though I'm a teenager, I have trouble "writing" as a teenager. I sort of have writing for the innocent minded downpat; the people with kid-like minds and dispositions, who start to realize they're growing up by the way others react to them. Mostly, though, I stick with younger kids, the eleven and twelve variety. It's a bad character mold.

    What I do to remedy it is to analyze myself and the teenagers around me. Such as, "Why did that girl make an extra big deal out of talking loudly on her cell about boys when I walked by her? Does she think I'm oppressed? Why?" Or, "Why did I just use 'awesome' instead of some other word?" It even comes down to why I eat, or why I get upset for nearly no reason at all.

    I apply this same concept to older adults. I carefully observe EVERYTHING they say, do, vocal and facial inflections, everything. I take mental notes and try to obsorb as much data as I can. Normally, I'm not really that great at being inconspicuous about it; people usually think I'm shy when I don't look them directly in the eye. What I'm actually doing, though, is looking at the way their eye twitches, or whether or not their smile is sincere or not, or what accents they put on different words. I've heard before that part of being a writer is being a spy. That applies. The best way to write in the voice of the person… well, you're trying to write in the voice of, is to spend time around them. When I try to write a kindergartener, I spend time with my littler friends. (Who come in great supply, coincidentally. 🙂 Or, if I'm aiming for teenager or older, to carefully listening to my friends, my sister's friends, or my mother's friends and even how she talks herself. You find a whole lot of different behavioral quirks that, even if you don't include them directly in your writing, are implied and smooth because you know them so well. I've read a great many authors who don't describe their characters in full detail, but who I can still get a FEEL for as a real person because of something in the text. Some sort of emotional contact, if you'll excuse me being cosmic.

    So, pretty much what I'm saying is, be really, really observant. And be more inconspicuous about it than I am. It's a great superpower, if you handle it the right way.

    All right. Wow. This was a lot longer than I intended it to be. I hope it helps someone, though.

  4. Great post, is all I have to say right now! Not much advice, since I still need more practice writing good characters who are believable.

  5. Oh, good. I was worried that my earlier post was too long. But I see that it wasn't. 🙂

    @April: (did I use that @ sign right? I keep seeing people use it here, and I think it's a twitter thing) Your observations with the Japanese, are spot on with what my m.i.l. has told me. (She grew up in Japan, my husband was born in an Air Force base in Japan.)

    My husband works with lots of international software groups, and he says there is a nationality to programming! For different types of jobs, they target groups in different countries. I bet even though we like to not think so, some of those generalizations that we hear about Americans are probably true too. 🙂

  6. I'm only in middle school, but I'm wondering whether older people ever have difficulty writing from a child's point of view?

    Like Horsey at Heart, sometimes I just sit back and watch other kids at lunch or in class, and it's odd to see that we're so… weird. When watching someone else, say, argue about whether z or y is a better letter, it seems completely irrational, but then we would turn around and do something equally as nonsensical, yet it would make (close to) perfect sense at the time. Is this only for teens or does it apply to older people too? As students, we generally view adults as more sensible and responsible, but sometimes I think that "sensible" to us is different than "sensible" for adults- but when we ask why, we simply get a "it's complicated." I think that this might be another major difference between young and old characters- the older ones (possibly) understand more about the world, whether as younger people have a smaller view of the world.

    Anyway, just a kid's thought on age! 🙂

  7. The four-year-old kid wouldnt be to hard if you have little siblings!
    Just watch them and see what they do. Or ask them to do what the kid is going to do in your story and put it in! I have done this before(I have 6 younger siblings 13, 11, 9, 7, 3, and one!!) Or just watch little kids when you go out!

  8. Wow – very interesting topic! I hadn't really given a lot of thought to the differences in ages, but your advice will definitely come in handy! Thanks!

    I have a similar problem…I'm a girl, but my whole novel is written from the point of view of a guy. Sometimes, I'm afraid of making his thoughts and diologue sound too girly and/or out of character. Do you have any suggestions pertaining to this?

  9. This is an amazing post, and it is so helpful! Thank you so much! I definitely have plenty of food for thought right now. And I'm really enjoying reading the comments as well; it's great to receive input from so many different perspectives.

  10. Pippin14:: I think the thing is that the more you age, the more knowledge you gain. I read somewhere that Kindergarteners smile more than 15,000 times a day, while adults are usually about 15 times a day. It also might be the fact that adults have had more negative experiences in their longer life than younger individuals… i.e, us. 🙂 That's also something to think about…

    Silver the Wanderer:: I have the same problem! Most of my characters are boys; it's a chronic problem I have. I have an idea, I just write it out from a boy's perspective. But the problem is, sometimes I don't know if I sound too "girly" to write a guy. So I'm waiting for Mrs. Levine's perspective on this as well.

  11. I love your take on age and aging. Some of my dear grand and great-grands became more cantankerous as they aged. I wonder how much of this had to do with circumstances: being left the lonely one of a pair, and how much was due to inner spit. But then I have known incredibly sweet friends who made it well into their nineties barely a complaint. I wonder which way I will lean when the time comes. Fingers crossed for sweetness..

  12. @Erin

    You used the @ right. 🙂 I don't Twitter, but I use the @ because I find it's easier to pick out a name that way when scanning the comments.

  13. Writing is so self-involved that it's easy to get lost in my own mind and how I feel. It helps me to spend time with people who are of the age I'm writing about.

    This was such a helpful post, as always!

  14. @ Silver the Wanderer,
    I'm hoping Mrs. Levine will have something interesting to say on this topic, since she wrote Dave at Night from Dave's point of view.

    Anyway, I was reading this post, thinking that it wasn't really relevant to what I'm doing, then it hit me. It's something I've been thinking since I started writing when I was 12-13.
    My whole writing life, I've been saying, "I'll make my main character a girl my age, so I can have her react to things the way I would." Is this a healthy attatude?
    (I guess this ties into my question on "New Dimensions" about making characters based on yourself.)

  15. This is a very helpful post! I think at my 15 years, I'm a lot less experienced about writing older characters than even Priyanka. I find it hard to write from a teenager's view too.

    Speaking of which, though not exactly related to this topic, I was thinking, how do you change viewpoints in a story without making it confusing? I know you did it in Ever, and I have story that goes the same way, but its not working out.

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