Sunday, November 15, 2009

Age and Characters

Olga Boznanska--Portrait of Francis Thomasson--1925 The other night I was sleeping and I pulled a muscle in my back.

“*&$#@!!!” “What’s wrong?” asks my husband, alarmed at the 3:00 a.m. cursing.

“I pulled something!” "How?” "I think I rolled over funny.” Then I was awake. I pulled something. While I was sleeping. How completely ridiculous. I’d never done such a thing in my 20s or early 30s. Bleh.

I have two protagonists for two different series for two different publishers. They’re both elderly.

Myrtle Clover for Midnight Ink is an octogenarian. Lulu Taylor for Penguin is in her sixties.

The challenge is to accept the limitations that age can provide, make the story realistic, and still have them both actively engaged in crime fighting.

I’ll admit I have some pretty amazing older ladies in my family. My great aunt was water skiing in her 60s and my grandmother was very active in her 90s. Both of my children’s grandmothers go to the gym for workouts every day. My life has been populated by strong women who say what’s on their mind and are clear matriarchs that everyone respected and listened to.

Myrtle is unhappy when she’s talked down to as if she were a child. In fact, Myrtle might actually take revenge if you did such a foolish thing. It wouldn’t be pretty.

Myrtle isn’t above using her age to her advantage. You might think she was a completely innocuous old lady and lower your guard around her.

That would be a mistake.

What would be a problem for my protagonists? If they took a spill. They really don’t need to fall down. I try to take good care of them and for their part, they’re sharp as tacks and in great shape. They’re not afraid of much. They’re feisty and spirited and ready to take on any villain you send their way.

But still I have people asking me questions. One elderly man demanded in a workshop, “I want to know what ‘old’ is to you.”

I was quick to answer, “Old is a state of mind.” And I truly believe that. He felt that my protagonists would be more limited, physically, in real life. I disagreed.

Although the entire day when I walked around with the pulled Latissimus dorsi, I was reminded that 40 is just around the corner. I wasn’t exactly doing jumping jacks that day. In fact, I was downright cranky.

There’s a new term for the burgeoning genre marked by older protagonists—geezer lit. I think Myrtle and Lulu would find that term belittling.

What if your characters are really young? Are they taken as seriously? Are there limitations based on reasoning skills? What if they aren’t old enough to drive? What kind of independence do they have? There’s a reason why there are so many orphaned child protagonists out there: grownups are lousy at letting children do what they want to do. If you do have parents in a juvenile lit or YA book, are the parents really lenient? How do you handle the problem?

What age are your characters? Do they have age-related challenges?

It's my Sunday to host a guest at the Mystery Lovers' Kitchen. Hope you'll pop over and visit with Midnight Ink author Sue Ann Jaffarian. She writes the Odelia Grey mystery series and the Granny Apples Mysteries.