To Age, or Not at All

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(Photo by Alexy Sergeev, who retains all rights therein)

My friend and fellow TKZ contributor Joe Moore offered up an excellent post three weeks ago concerning the pros and cons of writing a series versus writing a standalone novel. You can find it here if you wish to refresh your recollection of it. My little offering today is focused upon an issue which arises in a literary series when— oh joy! — it becomes extremely popular and continues for books and books and years and years.  Lurking in that blessing is a problem: do you let your primary characters age gracefully, or not at all?

I have been fascinated with this problem since I was nine years old. I was reading a daily comic strip at the time titled “Dondi.” It was created by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen and was about a World War II war orphan who was brought back to the United States and adopted by a G.I. The strip had been going for five years by the time I discovered it in 1960; my mother, seeing me reading it, wryly observed that Dondi was the only five-year old kid in 1960 who could still remember World War II. Dondi stayed five until the strip shut down in 1986. This got me thinking about the problem of aging in fiction, one that is confronting a number of authors right now.  No one really expects characters like Spenser or Lucas Davenport or Harry Bosch or Jack Reacher, to age in real time. What occurs in a novel of genre fiction typically takes place over a few days or weeks, with a new novel being published every year or two. I have heard it said that a year in real time translates into a month or two in the world of the fictitious character, less than that if the succeeding book picks up where the previous book left off. The problem, however, is that when you have series that have survived for three decades and beyond that, events in the real world overtake a long-running series. It’s the Dondi problem, if you will: how is it that a veteran of the Vietnam War is tracking a GPS location on their android phone in 2012, all the while climbing fences and taking down the bad-uns like the thirty-something year old they were when the series started in 1982? Even the most youthful characters should be manifesting signs of becoming long in the tooth at that point. Yes, some authors are addressing this to varying degrees. Ace Atkins, who picked up the Spenser reins from the late Robert B. Parker, is slowing him down just a bit, letting age and damage manifest themselves incrementally but irrevocably. Michael Connelly and John Sandford seem to be moving Bosch and Davenport, respectively, into new situations where they might not be quite as physically active as they were twenty or more years ago. James Lee Burke addressed the problem of age brilliantly in LIGHT OF THE WORLD, wherein he appears (and I stress “appears”) to write finis to the darkly poetic accounts of the life of Dave Robicheaux. Age and death may be inevitable; it is tough, however, to contemplate saying goodbye to these folks, to watch them walk upright, if a bit stiffly, into the sunset.  Do they necessarily have to age? Or can they be like Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson, stuck in the amber of grade school forever?

For those of you honoring me with your presence today…what say you? If you are writing a series, do you plan to age your characters at some point? Do you have an end game planned? Or will they be forever young? And readers of series…what do you think? Do you want your favorite characters to age, or do you prefer them to be forever young? Do you have a preference?


28 thoughts on “To Age, or Not at All

  1. Good question, Joe. This aging phenomenon first bothered me when Nancy Drew remained perpetually eighteen, driving her blue roadster convertible, never going to school or getting a job, yet she’d solved 40+ mysteries by the time I quit reading her.

    My vote is for realistically aging series characters, including scars and wounds from previous books. If I’m reading a series out of order, I want to go back and read the earlier book to learn how the bullet lodged in the hero’s spine.

  2. The Hardy Boys had the same problem, Debbie. They and their “chums” stayed perpetually eighteen. They finally relaunched those series, as they often have to do in comic books as well. Somehow, the relaunches are just never quite the same. Thanks for the reminder about Nancy, Frank and Joe, et al.

  3. The best handling of character aging has to be the Harry Potter series. Seven years of school, seven books, the wizarding crew grew up before our eyes.

    On the flip side, The Simpsons haven’t changed a bit and that works as well.

    I vote for a graceful aging in a series, especially genre, each book building on the experiences of the past. I like how Bosch is being handled. Mickey Haller seems more worn as well as the books go on. It adds more depth. My main problem with series characters is personified by Sanford. Lucas Davenport basically develops super-powers as the series progresses. A common jibe launched at Tom Clancy was, “What’s next for Jack Ryan? Pope?”

    My current series is a planned four to five-book arc, that takes place over about 3 years. At the end of the arc, I will decide if I want to take them forward and let them age in real time.


    • Jack Ryan for Pope? Bring out the dry straw. I’ll take that!

      You’re right, Terri, the no-age thing works great for The Simpsons. It generally works a bit longer for comic characters, though I’m not sure why that is. Your plan for your own work sounds like a good one. Good luck!

  4. Joe, Thus far, all my books are freestanding, so I haven’t faced this problem. Although I have to go through the creation of a whole new cast of characters each time, my notes as I create them are complete enough to be adequate as I spin out their adventures. I don’t have to trust my memory.
    I’m currently re-reading Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher books, and I’ve found several areas where he undoubtedly had to check previous books to get the backstory right–and a couple of places where he got it wrong. True, his hero doesn’t seem to age much, but maybe that gives me the illusion that neither have I.
    Thanks for a thought -provoking post.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Richard. Re: Jack Reacher, my understanding is that Lee Child originally designed the series so that anyone could pick up any book in the series and read it, and then continue reading it in any order. If that was originally the case, Lee has obviously changed things up a bit in the last few books which follow one after the other. Reacher certainly hasn’t aged much, but with no offspring to gauge his progression (that we know of), he can get away with it.
      And I’m totally with you on our own respective ages. I feel like I’m in my twenties in most ways, which is not always a good or smart thing.
      You bring up an excellent point concerning your stand alones, as far as not having to remember your back story is concerned. I don’t know who guys like Stephen Donaldson or Terry Brooks do it. Oh, The Humanity!

  5. I aged the characters in my Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper series — but slowly. Amelia, the 9 year old daughter, was 13 by book 10. I don’t age the characters in my Dead-End Job mysteries because Margery Flax, Helen’s landlady, is a sprightly 76. At book 14, she’d be going on 90, and wouldn’t be quite as active.

    • My older daughter was at one point fond of the Babysitters Club series, Elaine, and I always wondered if they’d age and go on to college, though apparently they didn’t. Aging four year in ten books sounds pretty good. And, of course, you don’t want a popular elderly character to age at all! Thanks!

  6. To my mind, a lot depends on the character ~ Travis MaGee aged, slowly, and realistically- aches and pains, both physical and otherwise~ Bond (James Bond), didn’t ~ at least until recently- and his “over-the-top-ness” makes it somewhat plausible (if that’s the right word).

    I think the length of a series can dictate the aging process as well~ JSB’s Ty Buchanan is three books long, and the timing is close enough to not start showing the anachronisms; similarly C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett tends to age appropriately (if not gracefully), as opposed the the aforementioned Mr. Bond (though each of Flrmming’s yarns tend to be more “standalone” than serial).
    Just my pair o’pennies~


    • Always good to hear from you, G, and thanks for stopping by! Interestingly enough, there was a James Bond, Jr. cartoon series that lasted for a season or so, though that seemed more designed to attract younger viewers than to relaunch the character. Two series that I thought handled the aging problem quite well were The Phantom comic strip and Dr. Who. In both, after a certain point,you just get a new one.

  7. Great question, Joe. I’ve seen this issue treated in numerous ways. In the case of Dirk Pitt or Jack Ryan, their sons take over as the tradition continues. On the other hand, there are super heroes like James Bond, I don’t think Bond fans want him to age, just adapt to his surroundings and continue to do his job. There’s no aging with the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew because readers grow up and out of the series while new readers come in behind them–replacement readers.

    My co-writer Lynn Sholes and I wrote a standalone in 2005 that turned into a 4-book series. We had not planned for a series or character aging, and had to jump through some hoops to work around it. Advice: if you’re writing a series, plan ahead.

    • Joe, I hope that anyone who missed it will follow my link in my post to your own post on stand-alones vs. series to look at other aspects of presenting (hopefully) long-running characters. I think it’s most difficult to keep characters from aging when they have children. As for the Bond books, they’ve done some interesting things, everything from relaunching him to going back and telling heretofore unreported adventures from the 1960s. I’m sure that those books and movies will continue long after I’m in any shape to enjoy them. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. A good question, but one that doesn’t have a One Size Fits All answer.

    Sherlock Holmes never seems to age. Hercule Poirot doesn’t seem to age, either; until the last book. I was never aware of their agelessness until you brought it up! It was just the way things were.

    The only series I’ve planned takes place over the course of a year or two, so aging isn’t a concern.

    But an unplanned series that has evolved on it’s own covers the lives of characters from their mid-twenties to their deaths and then continues with children and grandchildren.

    So there is no right answer.

    But it is a good discussion and something to keep in mind. Thanks for getting it started!

    • You’re welcome, Carrie, and thank you for stopping by! Here’s one for you: Spider-Man, who started off as a high school student and then very slowly transitioned into college and graduate school. He was finally relaunched a decade or so ago but it was difficult to swallow. One problem is his Aunt May, one of the most popular characters in the series, who seemed elderly back in the 1960s and was somehow still going strong well into the twenty-first century, a series of convolutions notwithstanding.

      BTW…I probably would never have considered the entire issue if my mother hadn’t mentioned the Dondi aging problem to me some fifty years ago. I just read the books and comics and assumed that was how they rolled!

  9. This is first question any writer should ask herself before beginning a series. And then you have to pick the “ground zero” age at which you begin the arc. We chose mid-twenties for our protag Louis Kincaid and we have aged him roughly a year a book over 13 years. I am soooo glad we started him young, a little green, and with the cocky presumptiveness most young men have. He had things to learn. Now he’s 30-something and is much more circumspect, and emotionally, his heart is more open.

    But I tell ya…we have to stay on our toes regarding things in his past, so we write every event, person he meets, and new “baggage” down in his dossier. Just yesterday, as I was writing a scene in the new Louis book, I had a horrible sense of deja vu. I went back to book 4 and yup…there it was: I had already dealt with these ghosts in his past. I had to chuck the whole chapter and start over.

    As for my tastes as a reader, I can go either way: The set-in-amber Kinsey Milhone/Jack Reacher model or the Harry Bosch reality show. Though I do really enjoy seeing a writer like Connelly dealing with a maturing character and my fave character of all time is Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, who was un homme d’un certain age. but still ageless.

    • Ah..yes, Kris, thank you thank you, I was hoping that you would read and comment as you happen to be the author of one of my favorite series. I’ve been really comfortable with Kincaid’s age progression and I think I speak for all of us when I say it’s great to get an additional look behind the veil that cloaks how the job you do gets done. The story about having to rewrite the chapter was very interesting…as we used to say back in the day when I was in radio…”That’s so nice, I gotta play it twice!” Thanks again.

  10. Joe, great topic. You always pick such interesting ideas to discuss. I wouldn’t miss one of your posts unless I had no access to the internet, and then I would read it later.

    I vote for aging. In real life the alternative is not good. I didn’t read any arguments above to disagree with, and certainly some heroes must remain superhuman and unchanging ?omnipresent?

    I’m a beginner. I’m working on the second book of a four or five book series. I’m aging my protag. I know I would get bored, even if it were successful. So I want to ensure my series will have to end. Romantic tension will lead to the inevitable marriage, and then boredom will set in. Thus the series ends just before the boredom.

    Thanks for a great post and discussion.

    • Steve, thank you so much for your kind words. You are very easy to please. My computer is littered with half started word docs that were said aside with the words, “No one wants to read about THIS!” Thanks for the encouragement. Also, thank you for sharing what you have planned for your own series. I hear from readers occasionally that they hesitate to jump into a series if there are 20-25 books and it’s still going with no relief in sight. It sounds, as Joe Moore suggested, that you have a plan and it’s a good one, strongly thought out. We’ll look forward to seeing how it all unfolds. Again, thanks so much for dropping by and for your encouragement.

      • LOL! Your thing about “nobody wants to read this” hits home today, Joe. I just went back and reread yesterday’s work and realized I had devoted nearly an entire page to the regional differences in coney island hot dogs. As my old newspaper editor used to say, it’s more than we wanted to know about hummingbirds. Or as Leonard wisely said, leave out the parts folks skim over.

        Now I, for one, am fascinated with the intricacies of making a good coney dog. (I am from Detroit and we profess to have the best coneys in the world). But I don’t think anyone else cares all that much.

        So into the “No one wants to read this!” file it goes. Maybe I just had to get it out of my system…

        • Actually, Kris — again, speaking only for myself — that info about coney dogs sounds interesting to me!

  11. Good question. I wonder too if you age your character do you then change the demographic of readers for the series? We know readers relate to characters, so if we make our character 40-ish to target that audience, shouldn’t we then have them grow with that audience? I’m not sure of the answer, but basic thinking would point toward yes, the character should age along with the readers, albeit slower. No one wants to feel their age. I like your math. 1 year = 1 month.

    • Sue, I would say that you pose an even better question re: changing the demographics of your readers. I don’t know…I started reading the Dave Robicheaux series because the character was an alcoholic struggling with recovery and was a few years older…I’ve stayed with the series, not because James Lee Burke aged the character, but because I love his writing. However…it’s a good point, particularly in the thriller genre. Some readers might resent that the character who was their age twenty years ago and kicking posterior and taking names, can still do so now, when the only posterior the average sixty year old can kick, alas, is one’s own. Thanks for raising the issue. and for stopping by.

  12. Lawrence Block handled the aging of Matthew Scudder well, I thought, and I enjoyed the development of his character. When Matt finally broke down and admitted he was an alcoholic in one of the early books, he said he cried like a baby. I did too.

    Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn aged well in his series.

    When I see a character age in a series, it always seems to add a nice touch. When I don’t see it, I don’t even think about it.

    Great post.

    • Thank you, Dave, for the kind words as well as the great examples, particularly for the reminder about Joe Leaphorn…how could I forget?!

  13. I posted a response yesterday–I was 72 then–but I MUST post again today–while I’m 86. Joe Hartlaub’s thoughts on the aging of a character in a series compels me to do so. Not because I have the answer to everyone’s question on aging, but I must present my solution that will work for me in my current book series.

    I am, as we squeak–my granddaughter said once–finishing the last edits for my first book in a series kind of on the paranormal. I’ve signed agreements that I can’t divulge much about the book until the publisher clears the publishing date, but I can discuss the writing problem. (I ask you to forgive me, but I know you all know what I mean.)

    My series deals with a character who is exceptional. She is a small town girl. Read that small, town girl. Small in size, she was raised by parents who were exceptional in their own ways. But they kept their American exceptionalism–all right, I know some of you are booing–hidden under a cloak of Southern Baptist modesty. My character fits into that milieu but doesn’t realize it so much.

    Despite her small stature–you know, guys. You’ve met her. Cute, little, an Independence Day sparkler who looks great in a bathing suit, little black dress, or Marine camis–she is a U.S. Marine. Believe it not she is a military police officer despite all the physical reasons why she should not at all qualify for such an MOS.

    A horrible thing happens to one of her and her twin sister’s best friends, a friend they had both sung professionally with, on the outdoor stages of Disneyland. The matter requires that she get out of the Marines and come home for good.

    She does come home to help solve the matters of murder(s) and a missing child.

    The matter is complicated because of a cryptid creature that some argue is supernatural, and some argue that they–it–don’t exist at all. In this novel, she is married, has twins and she and her husband adopt children because the doctor advises her not to have any more.

    The story solution in this book requires two fierce, exhausting physical battles. In one of the fights, she is severely injured.

    In the second book, she is still the same wonderful little, home town girl, except the children are in kindergarten and the first grade. She is no longer in the same physically demanding occupation, but is pursuing a career in music that exists because of what she and her twin sister do in the first book.

    But she must put all of that in hold for a long weekend as she is called in to help join a search for a child in another state, in a national park because she is still a member of her home town’s auxiliary police force. (Do you know that many people including men, women, and children have and do disappear in alarming numbers in certain areas of the country, including an expectedly high number of cases around national parks? No one knows why, except, and this is true, that the children who are found, often describe that they were taken away by a large, creature, something like a dog.)

    So obviously by the second book, she is older. The next couple of books, she must still be young enough to endure and accomplish story tasks that require tough physical feats, though not necessarily hand-to-hand fights. But she is fighting against the supernatural.

    She must still be young enough to enjoy her children and still lust after her husband whom she believes is incredibly handsome and has an extremely cute butt. And she still enjoys the great sex life she and her husband have. By the third and fourth and, alas, perhaps last books of the series, the children are still in grade school. (There is none of this elementary and middle school baloney in her fiercely independent Oklahoma hometown, in the same state in which the governor defied the state’s supreme court decision to take the Ten Commandments statue out of the state capitol grounds. So in Warner’s Crossing, Oklahoma there is still kindergarten, grade school, junior high school, and high school.)

    So, I’m in for the fun of watching my character grow, but never grow old.

    By the way, my character has three fathers, two mothers, a horseman, and a twin sister born of another mother. You’ll love why and how this all happens,

    • Jim, I want to read this book and series very badly. For so many reasons. Interestingly enough, I discussed disappearances in this space a couple of weeks ago and yes, there are so many disappearances annually that one might almost think that the Rapture is occurring, albeit incrementally. If you think of it, please let us know when the first book in this series drops. And thanks for stopping by.

  14. I thought Harry Potter handled this very well, teen angst and all. There was a book series I read as a kid, where the heroine never aged past 14, but boy, the covers did. They started sporting these steamy teen romance covers, even though there was no guy or romance in the books at all. As a kid, they embarrassed me so much that I stopped reading it.

    I’m writing a 10 book series right now that starts off YA, then becomes NA as the characters age up, move out, hold down jobs, and deal with romantic and magical entanglements. I plan to have everybody married by the final book, after The Big Apocalypse.

    • Kessie, that sounds like a great concept for a series, one that will age with the audience. Please keep us advised on how that progresses. Thanks!

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