How Old Are Your Characters?

Happy Labor Day, and a belated “rabbit, rabbit” (I’ll admit I forgot).

I had an interesting conversation with my agent lately. No, no new contracts in the offing, but much discussion and negotiation. I have faith that my agent will come up with a good solution. Or two. Or three. Some old, some new.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. My agent is well connected with the ever-changing publishing world, and she made the observation that some publishers are now looking for younger protagonists from us aged writers (most of us here are “of a certain age”). Not young young (she wasn’t thinking of teen books), but maybe in their twenties?

Which got me thinking. When I started writing early in the current millennium, I knew nothing about writing conventions for current popular fiction. It didn’t feel right to write about protagonists who were my age, so for about half of my characters they were in their twenties. I’m not. These were mixed in with others who were probably in their late thirties, or maybe even fortyish. Now I’m trying to figure out how I made those decisions.

My best guess is that I believe that women who are twenty- or thirty-something have a reasonable amount of experience in living, but they also still have a lot of options open to them. They may have been through failed romances, or they may have lost more than one job through no fault of their own (hey, this is fiction!). They don’t just give up—they choose another career path or life path, if you want to call it that. They try something new. They have faith in themselves, and they have hope for the future. And they usually (in the books or series) find a profession and a love interest that make them happy, after they’ve overcome a few minor difficulties (often a dead body, if it’s a mystery).

My most recent (and, coincidentally, youngest) protagonist, Maura Donovan in the County Cork Mysteries, may be in her mid-twenties, but she’s a city girl with no family and not much education or working experience, so she takes on a big challenge when she goes to Ireland. She’s an old spirit, if young in years. And it has been fun to write her as she opens up and learns new things and makes friends and handles running a pub and, yes, kind of falls in love. It wouldn’t be the same if she was forty-something.

But if you’ve read any of the books in that series, you’ll notice that I deliberately chose to include a wide range of characters, from a teenager to a couple of eighty-somethings. Each of them is a distinct character, and each contributes to the stories in their own way. This is as close to the real world as I can make it.

What about you? Readers, do you prefer to read about main characters close to your own age? Younger? Older? Writers, what age (or ages) do you feel most comfortable writing about?

Fatal Roots cover 4
The next County Cork Mystery, coming in January 2020

24 Thoughts

  1. Hi Sheila,

    My characters are a mix of ages. Most are younger than I am, but that’s probably because of the following two reasons:

    1. The vast majority of people in the universe are younger than I am.

    2. It’s a sad-but-true fact that my emotional development is barely post-teen, and I find that I am still waiting for that magical moment when I will actually feel like a grown-up. I’ve been waiting for that moment since the age of seven.

    To be serious (just for a moment, I promise) in both reading and writing, I like the interactions (both positive and negative) between characters of different ages. As a writer, I would find it really dull have all … or even most of my characters in the same age range. I think the mix keeps things fresh.

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  2. Thanks for sharing that from your agent, Sheila. I love that both Julie and Barb now have protagonists who are “of a certain age.” I find that refreshing. In my Cape Cod series I purposely made Mac Almeida older than 35 because I wanted to have a running story line of her biological clock running out for having kids, but my other two protags are in their twenties, and we know how slowly book time moves relative to real time! So I guess I’m right with the curve. ;^)

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    1. Adding a baby to the mix (or even just thinking about it) definitely changes the dynamic of a story, but I’m pretty sure that most of our (female) readers think about it for our characters at least occasionally.

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  3. Lee Barrett, my protagonist in the Witch City mysteries was 30 in the first book–Caught Dead Handed–and in Book #9, Late Checkout she is 33, In Book 10 she is still 33. Aunt Ibby has always been a discreet “60-something.” O’Ryan the cat? Nobody knows! In my new paranormal series, Haunted Haven mysteries, protagonist Maureen will be in her twenties.

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  4. I don’t care about the age of a character if the writing is good. I often wonder if what the “publishing industry” wants is really what younger editors want and what everyone ends up reading is what’s available. If you post on one of the cozy Facebook groups I think you’d find a vastly different opinion that industry claims.

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    1. I’ll admit that a lot of the editors (at least the ones who edit my submissions) seem awfully young. Twenties? But Agent Jessica was only passing on the comments she’d heard from editors, not what she believed. I think they’re hoping to cultivate a younger group of readers, looking toward the future. Who knows? I’m not sure my thirty-something daughter has ever read one of my books, although I know some of her friends have, so maybe there is room for growth there.

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  5. Well, I enjoy reading about all different age groups. That way you can relate to those your age, have a glimpse into the future or remember the past experiences. If we get locked into a number, then we close ourselves up to so many opportunities.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

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  6. I don’t particularly care for young protagonists. Be definition they don’t have the depth of knowledge and experience to be good amateur detectives. Also, romance gets in the way of the story. I really dislike the love triangles. They are distracting and annoying.

    On the other hand, if one plans on having a continuing character, he/she can’t be too old to start with. Agatha Christie said her one regret with Poirot is that he started out so old.

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    1. Hi Ginny,

      I’m actually a big fan of what Rex Stout decided to do. Even though his Nero Wolfe mysteries started in 1934 and continued to 1974, he kept Wolfe and Archie the same age throughout, even though the New York City in which they lived worked changed and kept up with the passing years.

      On the other hand, I think the wonderful experience of seeing an aged Poirot in Curtain was a great gift to her readers, but my point is that the author can control both the characters and their environment, and thus determine arbitrarily the year and the protagonists’ ages. We’re masters of our universes; we are free to violate the laws of physics and biology if we choose to do so!

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  7. I like interesting characters no matter their age, I love your “Irish” series, love Maura, you can actually feel her finding herself as the series progresses but I also love Billy who adds so much to the stories! I also love Nell who is obviously a little older in you Museum series. There are a lot of “older” main characters that I love Lilly in Julia Henry’s new garden series, Charlie, in Miranda James series with pal Diesel, Jane Darrowfield in Barbara Ross’s new series and I adore Martha in Mary Mark’s quilting series.

    To me an interesting character, a great setting and an interesting premise are way more important than the age of our hero or heroine!!

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  8. Kaitlyn Dunnett, Julia Henry and I all came out with series characters 60+ in the last couple of years and since then I’ve been on panels about older sleuths. So my guess would be that if the current trend in publishing is away from that, it’s a reaction to a prior trend, where maybe they over bought. There’s a lot of throwing spaghetti at the wall in genre publishing.

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    1. Barb, I think you just hit the nail on the head. In publishing, as in television, if somebody has a successful book or TV show, you’ll find a whole bunch of carbon copies the following season. And then, of course, everyone is astonished when the copies are monumentally unsuccessful.

      I believe that a book (or a TV show) works because an author has a good idea (and perhaps, if she or he is very lucky, a really original idea), and executes it extremely well. In television, at least, the copies are written by hacks who deliver just what you’d expect from a hack. In publishing, I think authors end up most successful when they are writing to their own ideas and their own characters. All too often, I think that new authors are so desperate to get published (and frankly, even some established authors are desperate to get a new series approved and published), that they’ll go forward with what the publisher tells them is currently hot,

      You and I know that if Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers was browbeaten into writing about a 20-something suburban crime-solving housewife, they could still come up with something interesting and exciting. But alas, I fear that most of us lack that genius. (And personally I shall be eternally thankful that publishers weren’t able to convince Dame Agatha that nobody would be interested in reading about mysteries solved by an elderly spinster or convince Ms Sayers that the exploits of a middle-aged Lord wasn’t trendy enough to sell this season.)

      My own pet theory (and I freely admit I lack any personal experience to back it up) is that publishers (at least at the editor level) are terrified because they don’t really KNOW anything (hopefully, apart from the ability to recognize good sentence structure) and are deathly afraid that they’ll be blamed personally for something that doesn’t sell. So, if they stick to a herd mentality and do what everybody else is doing. At least then, they won’t be the only one fired.

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  9. Age really doesn’t matter to me as long as the character is interesting and the story is good. The series I read have main characters of all different ages. It’s nice to see some older main characters occasionally. I think under 25 is too young, but that’s really just an arbitrary number.

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  10. I’ve noticed the average age of a cozy protagonist seems to be late 20’s. I prefer have a variety of ages for my main characters, however.

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  11. I can’t but suspect this is the same logic by which Hollywood insists the only way to make a hit is to make movies for teenage and early twenties guys. Which is not logical at all (lots of movies with different demographics do great), it’s just that that’s the designated “cool” demographic.

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  12. I enjoy characters of all ages. When I was a teenager, I was reading Miss Marple, Poiret, Lord Peter Wimsey, Inspector Alleyn, etc. Ten books could cover a few months time in a character’s life. However, Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn was in his forties in the first books, courted his wife for several books and ended up with a grown son and still was an active policeman. Marriage and kids can mess up the time stream!

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  13. I didn’t get online yesterday, but I feel compelled to chime in.

    My Laurel Highlands characters are mid-30s. Like you, I feel this is an age where they have some experience, but there are still a lot of options open for them.

    However, in the WWII mystery I wrote, the main character (and her friends) are all 18-19. The story line wouldn’t have worked with older characters – or at least not worked as well. I needed to capture a certain spirit and mindset for the times and this age seemed the best choice.

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  14. Interesting blog, Sheila. Like you, I try to include a variety of people in my mysteries. That’s life. But I personally prefer protagonists who are out of the turbulent twenties and have some experience of life. My protagonist, Kate, is 46, but her daughter and son are in college. She is a young widow, open to another relationship. She knows grief and joy. Two other main characters are in their 60 and 70s. One commenter mentioned the obsession we have in the U.S. with youth and beauty (my interpretation of his words). One of the best things about British TV, in my opinion, is the wonderful, talented pool of actors and actresses who carry a few extra pounds and haven’t had their teeth capped. Let’s be real.

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