I was once writing a non-fantasy book in which one of my POV characters was in his 30s and had to have an argument/fight with a teenager. The problem I ran into was, why would a full grown adult in modern society get so pissed off at a teenager he wasn’t related to? The character was a well-adjusted, mature, level-headed adult.
This is just one example of the issues writers run into when writing characters of different ages. I love it when books, especially fantasy, have different aged characters. I think it helps the world come to life and we see how the plot has an impact on different aged people, and how different aged people understand the goings on.
But at the same time, I think fantasy tends to do this thing where young characters are just too mature. I’ll get more into that, but let’s start already.
Your Main Characters’ Ages
Why are your characters that age? This is a pretty simple question to answer. Maybe you write teenagers because that’s your target audience or you’re writing YA. Maybe your characters have to do things that are more adult in nature, so you write them a little bit older.
But remember that age is a part of what will influence your characters’ decisions and actions in the plot. This is why I don’t get the whole “Let’s make this 14 year old with no experience king of the land, because he’s the most qualified candidate.” If I was put into that position at 14, it would have been a nightmare.
If you choose an age for your characters, then their actions and decisions should reflect that. Even the most “mature for their age” teenager is going to probably make some very immature “teenage” decisions at some point, even if they don’t mean to.
Another good question is: How does my character’s age impact their choices/actions? This might be trickier for you to answer, especially if you have it plotted out, but it can be done. You just need to justify it.
If you’re writing fantasy, you might be inventing your own culture(s). Remember that different cultures have different ideas about ages and milestones. For example, in the west if your kid isn’t completely financially independent by a certain age, it’s a problem. Whereas in other cultures, it’s completely normal for kids to live with their parents and receive their support until they’re a bit older for various reasons.
In the past it was common for people to be married young, which mainly had to do with lifespan and starting to have kids. Children died a lot, so it was good to start early so you could maximize your chances of having kids that would survive.
How does age work in your own cultures? It can be anything and everything, but here’s a few things to consider:
- What is the proper age to get married or have kids?
- At what age does “adulthood” start and “childhood” end?
- How are the elderly treated? Are they honored or a burden?
- At what age is someone considered “elderly”?
- What are the milestones of life people hit and at what age? (independence, marriage, kids, becoming grandparents, retirement, etc.)
Here’s where more fantasy elements come in. You might have different races, you might have magic, you might have other things that influence the lifespans in your world. If you’re writing a medieval fantasy with no modern medicine, access to magical healing, poor sanitation, etc. the lifespan will change.
However, if you have characters like elves whose lifespans are much longer or even eternal, the way they act in the story is going to partially derive from their age.
Lifespan will also have an impact on milestones. People got married at 13 because they weren’t projected to live into their 80s/90s like in the modern developed world.
If you have characters with a very long lifespan, how does that influence their behavior? How old are they at the story’s start? What have they lived/experience that makes them how they are now?
Immortality is trickier. It runs the risk of having a character that is very overly-wise, yet looks young and beautiful. They may be more private and secretive people, they might not have very many offspring in their culture because you don’t want to have tons of people who are going to live forever taking up all your resources. You also might have a very overpowered character in that they’ve had all this time to master tons of skills.
My advice is always to add conflict in the mix. Give them a real flaw and other personality traits that might not have as much to do with their age/race. Did they fall in love with a mortal person back in the day? How many immortal people are walking around and how does that make them feel? What skills did they focus on and are good at, which ones are they not as good at?
Keep this in mind when crafting characters. It sounds cool, but there needs to be balance.
Children are hard to write. It’s hard for a grown up to write children and still make it accessible to the reader. Often times children aren’t that helpful in fantasy conflicts/situations. They often get in the way. They require an adult or someone to lead them and help support them, depending on how old they are and their background, which can make them more of a burden in general.
George R.R. Martin is great at writing children in general. A lot of bad things happen to young characters in his books, but he still manages to let these things have an impact, while still maintaining the childlike characteristics.
Be careful not to make children overly wise. I know there’s a common phrase “Wisdom from the mouth of babes” and children are pretty perceptive in general, but at the same you shouldn’t abuse it. A lot of times “wisdom from the mouth of babes” is an accident. It’s from someone who doesn’t fully understand the situation at hand and makes an observation from their own perspective that is deemed innocent or wise.
Instead, show also what children are. They need to eat, sleep, they trust easy, they repeat what they hear, they aren’t too knowledgable or informed on the goings on the world for the most part, and haven’t achieved much education yet. In a high stress journey, a child along is a liability and a risk for the child and everyone else.
Also remember the world you’re writing. If you’re writing a war, there’s going to be a lot of orphans running around, many wouldn’t live long, but they’ll still be around.
A final thing on children is trauma. A lot of fantasy writers will have trauma happen to children for no reason other than to show the darkness of the world. Avoid this if you can, because it often seems like shock value and nothing more. Also if a child in your story experiences trauma (abuse, parents dying, etc.) remember that kids are pretty resilient. Children will often run from a conflict, retreat, and hide. They may rely on fantasies and their imagination to help them make it through.
I’d like to see more elderly people in fantasy, if possible. In a harsh world, the elderly are often victims by nature of their age. The ones that remain are hermits or wise old sages. But what about wine loving grandmas that flirts with the younger men? Or grumpy grandpas? Old people are a good source of information, humor, and even conflict.
Not only do you have to consider an older person’s physical abilities or lack thereof, you need to consider their mental capabilities. Things like dementia weren’t really known about for a long time, but old people sometimes were considered “senile”. Consider this if you want to include or write older people.
Another thing is there’s a few kinds of old people that show up in fantasy: the grumpy recluse/hermit, the wise sage, and the sweet, perfect grandmother that the protagonist thinks on fondly. Switch it up. Old people are still people with their own views and complexities in the family dynamic. My grandmother is awesome, but back when I as younger she and my mother (her daughter-in-law) had conflicts I didn’t even know about. I know parents that complain that their kids’ grandparents spoil them too much, or give them too much candy, and so on.
Having old people in your story is also a good avenue to learn about the things that happened before they were born that might be relevant to the plot. Maybe the grandma was once a serving maid to a king and overheard the secrets, for example. It’s also a good way to show change in the world and to add to world building and backstory.
So consider older people in your work, but make sure you justify it and make it authentic.
Teenagers are also hard to write, I’d argue. The concept of the “teenager” wasn’t a thing for a long time. It’s a pretty modern notion. Adulthood would start around puberty and then you have all the awful history of child labor in the industrial age and so on.
My problem with teenage protagonists is that they’re always too awesome. They’re too smart, too good, too mature. I have a hard time believing that a teenager who just found out that he/she is the heir to the throne isn’t going to be tempted to use their new station for their own desires. Even if those desires aren’t “evil”, they’ll spend frivolously on new clothes or horses, or companions, maybe they’ll want to party and so on. These things can all be adult characteristics too, but still, what would teenage you actually do? How much wisdom would a teenager who never trained to be in that position have to actually run a country well?
I think Harry Potter is a great example of writing good teenagers. Granted, the books were still for kids, so they delve into much into some issues that teens deal with (sex, drugs, and the heavy stuff), but still. Harry and pals had their squabbles, bullies, awkward phases, puberty, sports, school, etc. It wasn’t just “Harry is the best teen ever and is gonna defeat the bad guy”. It took him 7 years to get that point and he was put through a lot to get there. Not every adult around him was an idiot, some had less than noble interests. For the most part, Harry was just a kid who wanted to hang out with his friends and loved ones and play sports.
Teenagers screw up. They do stupid stuff. I was generally a “good kid” as a teenager, but even I didn’t tell my dad my brakes were going bad on my car because I didn’t want to take the bus to school (I got caught). They’ll carefully plan out how they can get away with stuff and not think of the longterm consequences.
No matter how mature and good your teenage protagonist is, you should still reflect that they’re teenagers. Maybe they’re considered “adults” in your world, but it will depend on what you want to show your audience. If you want your audience to relate to your teenage character, show them doing dumb teenage stuff. Maybe they get drunk and race horses when they should be doing something else, maybe they won’t tell the guy/girl they “like like” them and it causes conflict. Make them awkward.
I was watching Leave it to Beaver last month during one of my breaks while traveling. In the episode the teenage son thanked his dad for not allowing him to go on an unsupervised trip to a bakehouse where there’d be girls and probably drinks. I told my dad, “I don’t care if it was the 1950s/60s, no teenager is going to thank their parents for not letting them go party, at least not for another 20 years.”
Even if they have to defeat the big bad to save the world, show them being dumb teenagers too. Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games had the weight of the world on her shoulders, but she still had an attitude towards many of the adults around her (for often good reasons). She was still a kid in many respects.
Jazz up your teenage characters like this. They don’t have to be stereotypes, but they should have something that makes them relatable and authentic in this way, if it works for you.
I like writing adults. For me it’s a good balance. Not everyone does, that’s cool, and in the modern day, adults are different at different phases in life. An adult is going to be more disciplined, perhaps more cynical, and more knowledgable than a kid/teenager.
But at the same time, they’re just as diverse as anyone else. People are products of their backgrounds, personalities, and somewhat by the company they keep. Consider your adult characters’ backgrounds, level of education, skills, career, knowledge and perception of the world, etc.
A common thing I see is cynical adults have their eyes opened by intelligent/wise kids/teens and I’m kind of tired of it. Especially when the kid/teen is a peasant or something with no knowledge of the stuff that the adult character is an expert in. Really? Unless it’s established that this kid is a prodigy or something, that’s ridiculous to me.
I also see adults be really envious of teenagers in fiction, usually because the teenager is “smarter” than them or something. The closest I’ve experienced to this is my mom going “Man, I wish I was your age again, that’d be awesome.” but it’s all in good humor. Unless the adult character you’re writing is this level of narcissistic, it comes off wrong to me. Now, this can be fine if this is the teenager’s perspective. I have heard young people say “My teacher hates me because I’m better at [subject] than them.” and I’ve said “No, your teacher is annoyed because you don’t get your work done on time.”
Another thing I hate is that the writer makes all the adults dumb in the story. There are probably dumb adults, sure, but not every single one that shows up in the story is dumb. If your adult character is mean, or dumb, or cynical, or whatever you have to give them a reason for it. It can be a dumb reason, Snape was mean to Harry because Snape hated Harry’s dad and Harry reminded him of Lily. But at least it’s a reason that’s justified to the character in context of the story.
Not every adult is bitter and has given up, not every adult is bad, not every adult is mean, not every adult is dumb. For all of these flaws/attributes, provide a contextual reason for it. You’ll have much better characters.
For more on character development in general, see the other posts I’ve made on character development.
Diversify your ages. Let different ages come into story and don’t be bound by stereotypes if you can help it. Characters’ ages can tell the reader a lot about who these characters are and helps guide the characters’ actions and decisions. Consider context, culture, and fantastical elements as well.
Write a fantasy scene or short story from the perspective of a character who is of an age you haven’t previously explored. (If you write teenagers, write a child or an adult. If you write adults, try a teenager or elderly person, etc.)
- How old is this person?
- How does their age reflect who they are, what they know, where they are, and what they’re doing?
- Does their age influence how they interact with others? If so, how?