Fine Wine and Moldy Cheese – Aging Fictional Characters


I lost my car keys the other day. For many people, that’s a ho-hum, everyday event. For me, it was a traumatic milestone, a really big deal. I never lose my car keys. But these days, as I approach the dawn of my seventh decade, it’s just another in an unwelcome series of “firsts.” Forgetting names. Forgetting past events. Forgetting, as my editors continually remind me, how to place a comma, although that’s an ability I arguably never had. My own aging process is something I can’t control. But must I subject my fictional characters to the same indignities?

My protagonist, Pen Wilkinson, is thirty-six years old. It’s hard for me to think of her getting older. In some ways, aging might make her less interesting. You generally don’t expect a young woman to need a wheelchair, and as she gets older, that situation won’t be quite as unique. And yet, for any interesting character, aging seems to me not only desirable but inevitable.  Aging is universal; for a character to be relevant, he or she has to share in that experience. A good character will acquire wisdom through experience. And ideally, that’s what we want the reader to do with the experience of reading..

That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m forced to age Pen in real time. That’s what Robert B.Parker decided to do with Spenser. When a year passed between the release of Parker’s books, Spenser, Hawk, and Susan would also be a year older, so that at the time of Parker’s death, Spenser had to be nearing seventy. That’s an age when his physical exploits were becoming less realistic. And there wasn’t much Parker could do to change course; he had tied his characters’ ages  to historical people and events, such as Spenser’s fictional fight with a real-life Jersey Joe Walcott, whose last real fight took place in 1953, or Hawk fighting with the French in their war in  Indochina, which ended in 1954.. An extreme example of this problem was Martha Grimes’s Richard Jury and Melrose Plant. Grimes (a great author, by the way) painted herself into a corner by recalling Jury’s childhood during the World War II blitz in London. Tied to that fixed event, Jury would have had to be well into his seventies for Grimes’s later novels, past the retirement age for Scotland Yard detectives, and far beyond a realistic age for some of his romantic ventures. Lee Child has avoided this problem in part by going back in time to recount some of Jack Reacher’s adventures as a younger man.
I don’t want Pen to get old anytime soon. I’d like her to be young enough to retain some idealism, enthusiasm, and energy. I’d like to have her retain some physical ability, limited though it is. She still faces possible decisions about marriage or children. Accordingly, I’m aging her only a few months at a time, at least for now. Eventually that will have to change. But that’s part of the beauty of being an author: You can stop time itself.