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!