Older characters - and reading in an old-fashioned way

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Supporter
Joined
Jan 22, 2008
Messages
6,646
One area of diversity we don't hear much about in SFF is older and more "settled" characters, by which I mean ones with established lives and families at the start of the story (bonus points if the family doesn't get killed off in the course of the novel).

When I was younger, I had the feeling that there was an "adventuring age" for characters who were definitely adults and not teenagers: probably between 20 and 40 for both genders, perhaps up to 50 for men. Maybe it was the style of characterisation, but I often had the feeling that many male heroes were in their thirties: Sherlock Holmes, Dan Dare, Philip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot and so on were all at least 35 and quite possibly older.

A while ago I asked on Twitter if anyone knew any older heroes in fantasy, not including creatures that appeared young but had much longer lifespans like elves or vampires. The two main names I heard were Terry Pratchett and David Gemmell. I suppose you could also count George R R Martin, with Eddard Stark, and whose characters all seem to be a fair bit younger than they seem (people grow up fast in "medieval" times), but the key characters seem to be pretty young. It seems strange that, with the modern emphasis on different points of view, life in a lot of SFF still seems to stop at 30, no matter who you are.

That takes me to my second point. I wonder if people who grew up before the internet existed used to read in a different way to those who are used to forums, tweeting, and other online activity. When I started reading SF (round about 1840), there was no concept of interaction with authors and other fans beyond conventions, which were for older and more intense fans than me. I imagined most of my favourite authors as a cross between a scientist and millionaire, labouring in private and occasionally handing volumes out to the masses.

I seem to read in a much colder way than a lot of readers on the internet. I don't massively identify with any characters, even my own: sometimes a writer captures a feeling I know, but I don't want to see myself portrayed in SFF terms. Nor do I experience the constant emotional rollercoaster that a lot of younger readers have - no "feels" for me, thanks.

Recently, I read an article by an SF fan which was basically a list of relationships that the writer had wished his favourite characters had had with one another. This is just alien to me. There was no sense that the characters were "mine" in that way. They did what they did in the book and there was no alternative, no "headcannon" or anything like that. For one thing, it didn't matter that much. It was the entire book that mattered, not my favourite characters.

Has anyone else felt this?
 

tinkerdan

∞<Q-Satis
Joined
Dec 10, 2012
Messages
5,264
Location
x² + y² = r²:when x~∞
When I read, I look for character's I can relate to. Not necessarily ones that I want to be or want to reflect my values, but ones that I can identify possibly with someone I know or in some cases some archetype I may have already read.

I remember when I first began to read that everyone seemed much older than me and perhaps by my earlier teens there were some that were closer to my age, but all the thrillers and adventures were taken on by the one much older. Perhaps by my mid twenties there were many more who took the appearance of my age group. Now that I'm much older it seems like everything is for young adults and all adventure is had by the young.

But let's get back to you.
When I started reading SF (round about 1840)...

Are you a vampire or something...maybe that's why you have difficulty relating.
 

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Nov 23, 2002
Messages
25,546
Location
UK
Older characters IMO are very much regarded as a diversity issue. I've seen agents doing #tenquieries on Twitter react with joy when they get offered a sf/f novel with an older protag. However, you're right - they are not common. And they should be.

IMO there's a societal bias - emphasised in existing stories - that only very young people, with no ties or responsibilities - can ever had any kind of adventure, or fun time. Which is why heroes not only tend to be young, but also orphans. Families are treated as plot devices, who exist merely to be killed to spur the protagonist on. Parenthood is almost non-existent.

I think you'll see these issues challenged, but we're talking about a generational change rather than anything over the next couple of years. But it is coming.
 

Randy M.

Well-Known Member
Joined
Mar 7, 2012
Messages
2,285
Brian, is it possible that the show business mindset transferred to commercial fiction writing?

By this I mean, while a good portion of TV broadcasting appeals to older viewers, movies (especially summer movies) have since the 1950s or '60s been seen as appealing to younger audiences. So, have you seen that kind of attitude in the past? Is the search for older protagonists a fairly recent development in genre?

Toby, as a kid I daydreamed of sharing Sherlock's adventures and of myself as one character or another from comic books or fiction. I'm not sure the mindset you're talking about is completely generational.


Randy M.
 

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
Joined
Apr 9, 2016
Messages
3,264
I can think of a few more older characters. Eddings' Elenium and Tamuli feature more older characters than not, including the MC. Katherine Kerr's earlier books feature a very old protagonist. I think F'lar in McCaffrey's earlier books is old enough.

Characters that spring into being with wife and child already... very rare.

As for identification/emotion - I'd say I'm somewhere between you, Toby, and the people you describe.
 

tinkerdan

∞<Q-Satis
Joined
Dec 10, 2012
Messages
5,264
Location
x² + y² = r²:when x~∞

Lew Rockwell Fan

Have tasp, will travel.
Joined
Apr 5, 2016
Messages
463
Location
Sol 3, most of the time
. . . we don't hear much about in SFF is older and more "settled" characters, by which I mean ones with established lives and families at the start of the story (bonus points if the family doesn't get killed off in the course of the novel).
Heinlein's Jacob and Hilda Burroughs. I believe that was "The Number of the Beast" but I may have my titles confused. Also one of his juveniles, "The Rolling Stones" I believe it was, had Mom, Pop, teenish twins, and an elder aunt or maybe Grandma. A lot of Heinlein's stuff had more of a group of protagonists that shared the focus, rather than one strongly central character with kith and kin as accessories and ray gun fodder.

Since you mention Poirot, I'll step out of the genre long enough to point out that he had actually RETIRED in the first novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and only a few stories were set before that - most were set afterwards. Miss Marple, Dame Agatha's best IMO, is seventyish.

But back to the true quill - and to books with more clearly defined protagonists - Asimov's central human character in "The Gods Themselves" clearly wasn't young. In his "The Caves of Steel" the protagonist had a wife and a more or less grown son. In the last novel featuring him he was at least borderline old. The protagonist in his short story "Gold" was an older man. I forget if he had a family. In the Foundation novel that featured Hari Seldon as a protagonist and not merely an historical personage, I don't believe Hari was exactly a spring chicken but it has been a while since I read it. I don't recall the title ATM, but it is actually my fav of the Foundation novels, though not for that reason.* My impression of Anderson's Nicholas van Rijn was of a man in his 50s, although he definitely wasn't a family man. This is made especially clear in the classic story "The Man Who Counts", which is among the best in all of SF. There are probably other examples but that is all I can think of off the cuff.

But in truth, if you posit a society in which people still age in the traditional way, it is only realistic that younger characters predominate because in truth the young ARE more often involved in the kind of dangerous activities that make good stories. But much of SF is set in the future. And if it is more than a few decades out there are only 2 classes of possibilities that are at all realistic - either civilization as we know it will have collapsed into some dystopian nightmare or aging will be a solved problem. So if you posit a society that would be at all pleasant to read about, set more than 50 years or so in the future, long lived old characters that are biologically young aren't just plot devices, they are simply most-likely-case realism.

---------------------------
*I'm tempted to say why . . . but no, no spoilers - I will say that you'll like it better if you've already read the Good Doctor's earlier novels and not just the Foundation ones.
 
Last edited:

Kylara

Ghosting
Joined
Jul 16, 2012
Messages
1,621
I think some of Banks' Culture novels havelder protagonists.in my research for my final essays I found a really interesting essay by Card who discussed this.

Peter Brett has older characters (but they start each younger and quickly grow up)
Discworld, Hamilton, Gemmel, Hitchhiker's guide. A certain amount of Card's secondary characters.
Most of PKD's are older characters, and I was beaten to it with F'lar, though McCaffrey does have lots of older characters and protagonists across her books, the coluera, Robinson in PERN etc,

Having discussed this idea in my children fic course (lack of family, prevalence of orphans) the main ideas that came up were interesting. Freedom, uncertainty, isolation, drive to belong, desire for self worth/acceptance, and vulnerability. All of which are more heightened and believable/emotive with a younger character. Older ones lose out on the vulnerable, drive to belong, and the uncertainty and the rest can be toned down. Not always true, and we were looking at kids lit but I think the same applies - younger characters work for everyone: either you relate because you too are young, you have children, or it chimes with your memories of being young. Older characters are much harder to write well because they need more work to make them shine for everyone. Not saying they shouldn't be written, just that maybe that extra work scares people away!

(apologies for any typos. On my phone!)
 

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Nov 23, 2002
Messages
25,546
Location
UK

galanx

Well-Known Member
Joined
Dec 21, 2015
Messages
398
Detectives have to be older- Sherlock was 27 or 28 when he first met Dr. Watson, though they were together for a long time. Philip Marlowe and Hercule Poirot were also detectives, which meant older characters- check out Rickard in "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (same with the movie "Blade-Runner")- takes a while to develop the required world-weariness.
 

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Supporter
Joined
Jan 22, 2008
Messages
6,646
Lots of interesting replies. It’s not something that strikes me as a raging injustice, just a curious blind spot. It strikes me that the experience and outlook of a person of, say, 40 is very different to that of a person of 20, and that SFF compared so, say, crime, is missing out on this. I agree that crime, especially the hard boiled sort, benefits from older protagonists and perhaps more optimistic or strange SFF benefits from younger ones. Many fictional detectives are rather worn out people whose disillusionment with their own lives perhaps reflects that of the society they uncover. SFF is often about discovering wonders more than corruption and perhaps that’s better for a more naïve protagonist who discovers the world at the same pace as the reader. But maybe not in all SFF. Fury Road, being after an apocalypse, includes a lot of characters who carry around a lot of baggage (strapped to the roof of their armoured wagons, usually).

I've seen agents doing #tenquieries on Twitter react with joy when they get offered a sf/f novel with an older protag.

I jolly well hope so because I’ve written one!

As Brian says, it is logical for younger people to have more adventures than older ones for a variety of reasons. Also, in a more ordered society, the older, more experienced people tend to give the orders and the younger ones carry them out (a theme, it seems, in a lot of anti-war stories and songs). In a fantasy setting, though, the distinction between officer and private blurs more (Eddard doing his own executions springs to mind). A hero like Theoden, who both deals in diplomacy and leads his armies to war, could be really interesting as the one character could almost tell two stories at once.
 

Ursa major

Bearly Believable
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Aug 7, 2007
Messages
22,987
Location
England
One of the most obviously older protagonists in SF, surely, must be John Perry in Scalzi's Old Man's War: at the beginning of the book he's 75 years old. But equally obviously -- and by definition -- he isn't typical of the 75-year-olds we (might) know in real life.
 

Randy M.

Well-Known Member
Joined
Mar 7, 2012
Messages
2,285
I see a lot of older protags in SFF films and TV. Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, even Johnny Depp immediately come to mind.

TV, yes, because the base audience is older, which partially explains the popularity of"The Good Wife" and "Major Crimes" among others, and why aging A-listers and B-listers migrate to TV.

Movies ... the actors are older (Damon, Cruise, Depp) but I'm not sure their characters are older. With better health choices and the miracles of medical science, a lot of older actors now look 10-15 years younger than they are.

Anyway, I guess I'm curious whether the entertainment mindset of a few decades ago is just being slow evaporating in light of an older audience.

Randy M.
 

Mythopoet

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jul 30, 2015
Messages
61
Location
The Perilous Realm
One other reason I can think of for a prevalence of younger characters is that everyone has been young, but not everyone has been old. Thus it is easier to write a younger character that a wide variety of people can relate to and less easy to do so with an older character.
 

MWagner

Well-Known Member
Joined
Feb 25, 2015
Messages
1,130
When I was younger, I had the feeling that there was an "adventuring age" for characters who were definitely adults and not teenagers: probably between 20 and 40 for both genders, perhaps up to 50 for men. Maybe it was the style of characterisation, but I often had the feeling that many male heroes were in their thirties: Sherlock Holmes, Dan Dare, Philip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot and so on were all at least 35 and quite possibly older...

I seem to read in a much colder way than a lot of readers on the internet. I don't massively identify with any characters, even my own: sometimes a writer captures a feeling I know, but I don't want to see myself portrayed in SFF terms. Nor do I experience the constant emotional rollercoaster that a lot of younger readers have - no "feels" for me, thanks.

Recently, I read an article by an SF fan which was basically a list of relationships that the writer had wished his favourite characters had had with one another. This is just alien to me. There was no sense that the characters were "mine" in that way. They did what they did in the book and there was no alternative, no "headcannon" or anything like that. For one thing, it didn't matter that much. It was the entire book that mattered, not my favourite characters.

Has anyone else felt this?

I'm the same way. I became a voracious reader at about 10. At that time (1980), there just wasn't a whole lot of fantastic or adventure fiction with young protagonists. Treasure Island is probably the classic boy's story, and when I read it (I think I was 9) I no doubt identified with Jack Hawkins. The Chronicles of Prydain and A Wizard of Earthsea also fit the bill classic young hero stories. But by 12, I was into fantasy of the darker sort (Moorcock and Donaldson), and historical fiction. I can't say I felt any strong identification with Corum or Thomas Covenant. And while Rosemary Sutcliff's characters were often young, they had the sensibilities of Romano-British or Brigantes, not those of modern people.

The works that left an impression on me in my teens weren't tailored to young readers either. Dune, Aztec, the Broken Sword, I Claudius. They were more about setting and plot than strong character identification. I also read a tonne of Stephen King in my teens, and there aren't a lot of kids in his books either. Just loads of 30-something teachers and writers.

Maybe an interest in history also correlates to a more detached approach to story. I avidly read books on the Trojan War, the Napoleonic Wars, Vikings, and WWII in my teens, and never once imagined I was a Napoleon or Guderian. I suppose it showed I could have a keen interest in a human drama without putting myself in the skin of any particular character.

It's probably a generational thing. I look at the library at my kids' school today and it's nothing but YA books. There simply weren't enough books of that sort in the 80s to keep an active reader going, so I had to look further afield for fantastic settings and adventures. Today, a reader never has to leave the YA genre to get their fill. Which I suppose is nice if that's what you're into. But it might be limiting in terms of variety of stories and characters.
 
Last edited:

Extollager

Well-Known Member
Joined
Aug 21, 2010
Messages
8,339
Interesting topic. Some of H. Rider Haggard's books would qualify. For example, in She the narrator, Ludwig Horace Holly, must be well into middle age. In Haggard's Allan Quatermain stories, as I recall (I've read most of them), the narrator is typically a middle-aged or elderly fellow; he might be remembering adventures from his youth, many years before, or relatively recent ones. In Charles Williams's novels some of the main characters are elderly: Sybil in The Greater Trumps, Lord Arglay in Many Dimensions, the Archdeacon in War in Heaven, but they share pages with younger characters who are in love, etc. Some of Lovecraft's narrators might be elderly or at least middle-aged, as with some of M. R. James's ghost stories. But principal characters in sf who are middle-aged or elderly -- that must be unusual indeed.
 

MWagner

Well-Known Member
Joined
Feb 25, 2015
Messages
1,130
IMO there's a societal bias - emphasised in existing stories - that only very young people, with no ties or responsibilities - can ever had any kind of adventure, or fun time. Which is why heroes not only tend to be young, but also orphans. Families are treated as plot devices, who exist merely to be killed to spur the protagonist on. Parenthood is almost non-existent.

I think you'll see these issues challenged, but we're talking about a generational change rather than anything over the next couple of years. But it is coming.

For a long time, pop culture catered to Boomers. Now it caters to Millennials (it pretty much skipped Gen-X). Millennials are just entering their parenting years, so we may see more stories about families, children, and (eventually) middle age. Or people may continue seeking out the same stories they enjoyed when they were 15. It's hard to say.

Brian, is it possible that the show business mindset transferred to commercial fiction writing?

By this I mean, while a good portion of TV broadcasting appeals to older viewers, movies (especially summer movies) have since the 1950s or '60s been seen as appealing to younger audiences. So, have you seen that kind of attitude in the past? Is the search for older protagonists a fairly recent development in genre?.

I wouldn't say so. In the thread about literary criticism of YA fiction, I commented that in the past people would read different things at 15 and 35 and 55, and that seems to be less true today, when theatres showing superhero movies are packed with 30-somethings and 40-somethings. Pop culture today is dominated by youth culture in a way it wasn't even back in the 60s when the Boomers came of age. Compare the top box-office movies of 1966 with today. Many of the most successful movies of 1966 held little appeal for 16-year-olds: Dr. Zhivago, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Man for All Seasons. Hard to imagine movies of that sort topping the box office today.

Having discussed this idea in my children fic course (lack of family, prevalence of orphans) the main ideas that came up were interesting. Freedom, uncertainty, isolation, drive to belong, desire for self worth/acceptance, and vulnerability. All of which are more heightened and believable/emotive with a younger character. Older ones lose out on the vulnerable, drive to belong, and the uncertainty and the rest can be toned down. Not always true, and we were looking at kids lit but I think the same applies - younger characters work for everyone: either you relate because you too are young, you have children, or it chimes with your memories of being young. Older characters are much harder to write well because they need more work to make them shine for everyone. Not saying they shouldn't be written, just that maybe that extra work scares people away!

I agree that those elements have a lot of dramatic appeal. I guess I'm a bit disheartened by the notion that they're the only stories worth telling.

One other reason I can think of for a prevalence of younger characters is that everyone has been young, but not everyone has been old. Thus it is easier to write a younger character that a wide variety of people can relate to and less easy to do so with an older character.

Yes, no doubt you're right. But aren't we exercising our empathy when we read? Isn't that one of the appeals of diversity - that we can see the world from different perspectives?

I recently read the Cicero series by Robert Harris. The titular protagonist is an ambitious and brilliant Roman statesman. I suppose that being a father, and being close to 60 than to 20, I have some life experience in common with Cicero. Still, I'm not a 50-something Roman politician, and yet I found him a deeply sympathetic and interesting character. The Cicero books have sold well, so there is an audience for novels with older protagonists. However, I'd be willing to bet the median age of the people reading the books is over 50. Which is a shame, because human drama skilfully told is is human drama skilfully told. It's so limiting to only seek out familiar outlooks and tropes.
 
Last edited:

Mythopoet

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jul 30, 2015
Messages
61
Location
The Perilous Realm
Yes, no doubt you're right. But aren't we exercising our empathy when we read? Isn't that one of the appeals of diversity - that we can see the world from different perspectives?

Oh, I agree with you. I just meant that may be one of the reasons publishers see for using younger characters. For publishers, the goal is always to get as many people to buy the book as possible.
 

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Nov 23, 2002
Messages
25,546
Location
UK
On the subject of older protagonists - I actually believe that one day JK Rowling will start a new set of novels dealing with the original Harry Potter characters when they are 40 years old. Publishers will rush to name this as a new genre. I am not kidding in the least.
 

Top