Thursday, February 24, 2011

Your Characters—Frozen in Time, or Aging During Your Series?

Ukrainian Girl Tending Geese--Nikolai Kornilievich BodarevskySometimes I’d like to be my protagonist. Time moves at a much slower pace for them than it does for the rest of us.

Margot Kinberg had a thought-provoking post on her Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog the other day about the passage of time in series writing. In one interesting example, Margot points out that Agatha Christie had Tommy and Tuppence age in real time in one series while Miss Marple really doesn’t seem to age at all in her series. Christie wrote Miss Marple books for almost 40 years and Miss Marple would have had to have been well over 100 if she aged at the rate that you and I do.

I write two series with protagonists in their 60s. I also write Myrtle Clover, who is an octogenarian. I’ve decided that, while time passes (the murders in the series are not happening back to back in real time from book to book), its passage is a lot slower than ours.

This suits me fine because I like to cultivate a slower-paced, cozier feel anyway. My characters grow—but in talent and character…not in terms of age.

I’m being vague about the passage of time in my books, primarily because of my characters’ more advanced ages. But there are plenty of writers with young protagonists who stop time…Nancy Drew has stayed 18 for the past 80 years or so (well, she was 16, briefly, at the very start of the series.) Clearly, having Nancy age was going to put her in the category of ‘grownup’ to many of her elementary-school age readers.

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone still lives in the 1980s. Grafton’s first book of the series, A is for Alibi, was written and set in 1982. Her last book, U is for Undertow, which released in 2009, is set in 1988. Time does pass…but very slowly.

Then there are writers who have let their characters age over the course of a series—which sometimes results in the end of a series. The Little Colonel books come to mind (she married and that was it), and the Little House on the Prairie books where Laura grows up and marries (resulting in the end of the series.) Because really, how far do young readers want to stretch from the familiar? Reading about married life when you’re ten years old can be something of a bummer.

So here are the possibilities, as I see them, for passage of time and character age: Follow real time fairly exactly (so, if you put out a novel a year, then your character will age each year in real time)

Freeze time completely.

Slow down time in a vague way (my current approach)

Slow down time…dramatically (à la Sue Grafton.)

Speed time forward temporarily. Maybe you’ve frozen time for a couple of books or more and now your next book is set five years out from when your last one ended.

Any other thoughts on how to wrangle space and time in a series? Which approach do you take when you write…or which do you like reading?