Handling Age and Time in Series Fiction

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Age.

Like the weather, we talk about it a lot but can’t do anything about it.

Remember the original Nancy Drew books? I devoured 37 of them before outgrowing the series. From the first book The Secret of the Old Clock (1930) until #37, The Clue in the Old Stagecoach (1960), Nancy was 16 to 18.

Thirty-seven adventures in two years? Busy young lady, that Nancy.

But she started me thinking about writing series characters.

Can they stay the same age through numerous books?

Should they age?

That raises more questions when writing a contemporary series with continuing characters.

What kind of character arc can an author create if the hero doesn’t age?

Is an evolving character arc important to today’s readers?

How does an author keep characters fresh and interesting if they remain approximately the same age over a number of books?

Classics like Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple remain basically static; the plots change but the characters don’t.

Then there is the quintessential hard-boiled hero, Philip Marlowe.

Even Philip Marlowe was young once – photo credit Maika, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Although I don’t believe his specific age is ever mentioned (please correct me if I’m wrong), the reader has the strong impression that, at birth, Marlowe was already old and cynical.

Over two decades, starting with The Big Sleep (1939)  and ending with Playback (1959), Marlowe was repeatedly beaten up, double-crossed, and betrayed. His life remained solitary with occasional sexual encounters that didn’t end well. The tarnished knight won a few victories but ultimately lost the war against evil. As vivid and memorable a character as he was, he didn’t change much, except for more scars. (Note: I’m not counting Poodle Springs, Chandler’s unfinished novel completed by Robert B. Parker and published in 1989 where Marlowe married, at least for a little while.)

How would readers react to Arthur Conan Doyle, Dame Agatha Christie, or Raymond Chandler if their books were released today?

Contemporary readers seem to lean more toward series characters who go through ups and downs similar to those we face in real life.  

In James Lee Burke’s series, the beleaguered Dave Robicheaux moves from New Orleans to New Iberia, switches jobs, falls off the wagon and climbs back on, gains and loses spouses and friends, and adopts a child who grows up through the books.

Readers meet Kinsey Milhone at age 32, with a police career and two marriages already behind her. In the course of Sue Grafton’s 25-book Alphabet Series, Kinsey has her home blown up and rebuilt, loses her beloved VW convertible, discovers the roots of her absent family, falls in and out of love several times but remains determinedly single. In the final book, Y is for Yesterday, she is 39.

Judging by their popularity, readers relate deeply to characters like Dave and Kinsey. We’ve been in the trenches beside them as they live through the same life trials that we ourselves do. They become close friends we’ve known for years.

What do series authors need to consider when time passes and their characters age?

When I wrote Instrument of the Devil in 2015-6, I didn’t envision a series. The book was set in 2011 as smartphones were transitioning from exotic toys for geeks into phones adopted by ordinary people. Because of a new smartphone, my character Tawny Lindholm stumbles over her milestone 50th birthday and into a nightmarish world of technology. Unbeknownst to her, it has been rigged by a terrorist to launch a cyberattack she’ll be blamed for.

The book was published in 2017, six years after the story takes place.

Near the end of Instrument, a brilliant, arrogant attorney, Tillman Rosenbaum, came on scene to defend Tawny. He was intended as a minor walk-on character. However, the match and gasoline chemistry between him and Tawny propelled them into more books where she goes to work as his investigator despite her dislike for him.

[Spoiler alert: they ultimately fall in love. But you’d already guessed that, right?]

What I originally conceived as a one-off had longer legs than anticipated.

Although there are no time stamps, roughly two years pass during the second and third books in the series, Stalking Midas and Eyes in the Sky.

Then, in 2017, Hurricane Irma struck Florida and knocked out power to 16 million residents.

The event tweaked my writer’s imagination. Reports of people who mysteriously went missing during that storm, along with scary personal experiences related to me by family and friends, turned into Dead Man’s Bluff.

After drifting along a vague fictional timeline starting in 2011, all of a sudden there’s a real date that’s set in stone. Uh-oh.

Okay, I figured from now on, I’d just make oblique references to Tawny’s age. Her children are in their thirties. Let readers infer she’s somewhere in her fifties.

As often happens with writing, life had other plans.

2020 hit.

Can an author ignore monumental events that tilt the world on its axis?

Not unless you write alternate history.

For much of 2020, writers debated how to handle the pandemic in current fiction. If it was incorporated into the plot, readers who were sick of it might be alienated. If we tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away, we risked being perceived as unrealistic and insensitive. (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?)

Some authors attacked it head-on with thrillers about biological weapons or adventures in a post-pandemic, futuristic, dystopian world.

Some retreated in time to historical genres where major outcomes—like who won the war—had already been determined.

Others dove into fantasy genres where the author, not real life, decided the outcome.

Now in the last quarter of 2021, the world changes faster every day. What you wrote this morning may well be obsolete and out of date by this afternoon.

The sixth book in my series, Flight to Forever, is set in spring of 2020. When a Vietnam veteran can’t visit his beloved wife in a memory care facility because of pandemic restrictions, in desperation, he busts her out, seriously injuring two employees during the getaway. They flee to a remote fire lookout in treacherous Montana mountains. Tawny races to find them to prevent a deadly showdown between the cops and the vet who has nothing to lose.

Do the math. If Tawny was 50 in 2011, that made her 59 in 2020. 

Uh-oh, I really should have hired a stunt double for her in this book.

Even though 60 is the new 40, will readers find some of the action implausible for a woman her age?

Many people in their 70s and 80s are in fantastic shape. Recently I wrote an article for Montana Senior News about the Senior Olympic games where nonagenarians are setting athletic records.

Yet ageism lurks in the world of publishing and literature.

Especially about sex.

Many younger readers are creeped out by the notion that characters who are their parents’ or grandparents’ age enjoy sex.

Newsflash, kid—that’s how you got here. And, since you grew up and moved out, it’s even better.

How about physical wear and tear on characters?

Gunsmoke cast – public domain

Remember classic TV westerns like Gunsmoke? Whenever Matt Dillion got shot (reportedly more than 50 times), in the final scene, he’d be back in the saddle with one arm in a sling. By the following episode, he resumed life as usual—galloping horses and engaging in fisticuffs.

How realistic should series fiction be? How far will contemporary readers go to suspend disbelief?

If we put our lead characters through hell, in the next book, should they suffer from PTSD or physical disability?

 

What if you write middle grade or young adult books? Every year, there’s a new crop of readers to replace older ones who’ve outgrown a series. Perhaps MG and YA characters don’t need to age. Nancy Drew did all right. What do you think?

For now, I’ll keep writing Tawny and Tillman in their fifties and hope no one checks my math too carefully.

CC by 2.0

Or maybe I’ll let them drink out of Nancy’s fountain of youth.

~~~

For discussion:

Question for series authors: how do you handle age and the passage of time with continuing characters?

Have you found workarounds, tips, or tricks?

Question for series readers: Do you care about the main character’s age? Do you want to see evolution and change in them over time?

~~~

To follow series characters who age more slowly than the calendar, please check out Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion.

Amazon link

Other online booksellers:

Instrument of the Devil    Stalking Midas    Eyes in the Sky

Dead Man’s Bluff        Crowded Hearts     Flight to Forever

This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writers, #writerslife, #writetip, time management, Timeline, Timelines, Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the Zebulon Award. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, Dead Man's Bluff, Crowded Hearts, and Flight to Forever. Debbie's articles have won journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

59 thoughts on “Handling Age and Time in Series Fiction

  1. Good morning, Debbie. Thanks for a great post as well as the ee card, which is hilarious.

    There used to be a newspaper comic strip named “Dondi,” about a WWII war orphan who was brought back to the United States by a U.S. GI and adopted. The story took place in the here-and-now but resulted in the problem of Dondi being the only seven-year-old kid in 1960 who had crystal-clear memories of World War II.

    I have noticed a number of authors — John Connolly and James Lee Burke among them — who have solved the problem which occurs when an author naturally (to some extent) ages their long-running character. Both authors (and others) drop back and tell write a novel (or two) dealing with the exploits of their protagonist either before or at the beginning of the series. It works!

    Thanks for a terrific post and interesting questions, Debbie. Be well.

  2. Debbie, I recall Michael Connelly remarking that he regretted his decision to have Bosch age chronologically with each book. It locked him in. So I’m a bit coy about it in my series. Plus,. I don’t think readers care about the specific age of a character. They’ll accept a 2022 Jack Reacher kicking butt as if it were 1995.

  3. When Michael Connelly wrote Harry Bosch, he made the conscious decision that he would age in ‘real time.’ Given the slow pace of traditional publishing, he aged relatively quickly. JD Robb’s series is 50+ books strong, and I think three years have passed.
    For my series, time moves at whatever pace I set. They’re written in the ‘now’, but only loosely. I will reference things that happened in previous books with something like, “last summer,” or “a few months ago” or whatever I need. When I decided my original Blackthorne characters should be getting a little long in the tooth for the covert ops work, I brought in new blood. However, that’s not a traditional series; it’s a set of connected books–more of a repertory company. My Mapleton series follows a single set of characters with one protagonist. Deadly Secrets, the first book, was published in 2011. Book 10, Deadly Options, came out in February of this year, but in book time, it’s been about a year, maybe 2. (You can tell I don’t worry a lot about time in fiction. It’s fiction. I make stuff up.)

    • Bringing in a new generation works great in your series, Terry. I like your attitude about time.

      Maybe I’m too literal from writing nonfiction where dates and ages need to be accurate.

  4. Great post, Debbie. I really enjoyed FLIGHT TO FOREVER. And I have INSTRUMENT OF THE DEVIL lined up on my virtual TBR pile. I didn’t really think about Tawny’s age when I read FLIGHT TO FOREVER. I just thought of her as a “50s something” and that’s young to me.

    In my middle-grade fantasy series, I’m aging the characters accurately. The more I think about this subject, the more I like the idea of a static age. Wasn’t it Lee Child who said, “Character arc, what character arc?” Since I write fantasy, maybe I’ll have my characters find the fountain of youth.

    As a reader, I don’t mind a static age for the hero. I want him or her to be solid and remain physically able to perform heroic deeds. We suspend our belief for the feats the hero can perform, why not the age?

    • Thanks for your kind words, Steve.

      When I mention MG and YA fiction, I was thinking about your characters in the Mad River Magic gang. Young readers want to follow exploits of kids their own age or slightly older. They outgrow a series before much time passes.

      Glad to hear another vote that readers don’t really care about age.

  5. I guess technically I’m old, but I still get cast as quite a bit younger so I’m going with it. My agent says I would get more commercial work if I let my hair go gray, but I have no desire to do old person victim or pill du jour commercials (yet). I’ll save those for when I’m 80. I was gray in Southern Comforts and Steel Magnolias – much to my surprise I discovered my older sister and I look a lot alike (she’s a brunette with straight hair, I’m blonde with curly hair). We grew up thinking we looked nothing alike. Plop a straight gray wig on my head and we’re twins.

    I don’t read for realism. I read for fun. Give me fantasy and happily ever after. If I want gloom and doom I’ll turn on the news.

    I’m pretty sure Jack Reacher will still be kicking butt at a hundred and ten.

  6. Good morning, Debbie, and thanks for another interesting post. I’m working on the third book in my Watch series now. The two protagonists are ages 27 and 30, so they have plenty of future ahead of them. I’m not sure whether I want to age them realistically or go the Nancy Drew route. So far, each novel takes place within a short time period, so I can keep this up for a long time. The first book is set in 2010, so I doubt I’ll make it to the pandemic.

    Glad you mentioned the Senior Olympic Games. It’s a wonderful organization that sponsors competitions for people ages 50 to 100+. My husband and I have been competing for several years (I run track. He runs and throws things. 🙂 ) We befriended an amazing 90+ year-old woman, Dorothy Gray, at the Minneapolis games in 2015. Frank said she should have been named “Dorothy Gold” because she won gold in every event she competed in. Training for the games is a great way to stay in shape and keep up the energy for writing the next book.

    • Kay, I expect you and your hubby will still be competing in Senior Olympics for a couple more decades!

      One gentleman in his 80s I interviewed bemoaned that two different running events were scheduled on the same day and he was cutting back to ONLY the 400 meter sprint.

  7. I think establishing a character’s approximate age is important, but it’s safe to stay away from the exact year the story happens in (unless you’re writing about 9/11 in which case…) The reason I say this comes from advice I got early in the crime writing game – that 3/4 of my readers will be, and are, middle age to older women. I know from my feedback that’s true and I believe that, subconsciously, they bond better with a m/c who is closer to their age. In my new series, City Of Danger, here’s how the female m/c is introduced: “A stunningly attractive and stylish high-status lady — exceptionally fit — a natural brunette, except for dyed umber highlights, showing dolphin-smooth skin — in her fifties with impeccable brows accenting mahogany eyes and classic red wine lipstick, steps out.” And I’m sure 3/4 of my readers look exactly like this. Enjoy your day, Debbie and KZers!

  8. Great question, Debbie. I’m dealing with the same in my Grafton County Series. Since the date played an important role in book 1, I’ve had to date each subsequent book. But my storyline takes place from 2003-2006 (book 1) to 2011 (book 5 WIP), so I don’t have to deal with the pandemic. Ruger, a dog all my readers adore, will be the oldest living dog on record b/c I can never let him cross the rainbow bridge. 😉

    Like you, when I wrote MARRED I thought it’d be a standalone, so I didn’t care that my main characters were in their late-40s and 50s. I would also never have chosen a one-word title with a double meaning. It’s a PITA for future books. That’s neither here nor there. In regard to age, I decided I had to age their son (it would look weird if Noah stayed a toddler forever), but I’m remaining vague on the ages of the rest of the characters.

    • Sue,

      Ah, the lessons we learn and things we wish we hadn’t done. But I’m very glad to hear Ruger is drinking from the fountain of youth!

      Maybe we should paraphrase the saying: “If I knew my series was going to last this long, I’d have taken better care of my characters.”

  9. You bring up some interesting questions. As a reader, I don’t find myself questioning much about if the character ages across books. If they’ve written a good compelling story, I’m good with it. I have enough to keep track of in my own life without worrying about nitty gritty details of age in someone’s story. But of course, if they made some glaring error book to book that I caught, then that might put me off, but most books seem to handle age vaguely in a series and it seems to work well.

    As a writer, I almost always think in series terms, whether a book becomes books in a series or not. And I don’t handle it the same way in all books. I’m developing a series that I will no doubt tweak—the protag is featured as a kid in the first book, then as an adult in subsequent. But I’m too early into it to know what changes I might make.

    I have another short series where the character’s age will be treated roughly the same in each book.

    So I guess I just keep coming back to 2 things: 1) write an engaging story and 2) don’t make glaring errors and all will be well.

    • BK, those two things are great rules to write by!

      Talked to an author recently with an unusual character age arc, somewhat like your proposed one. In the first book, she’s 13; second book she’s 16; and in the unfinished third book, she’s 20. It’s an adult thriller with a young protagonist.

    • So I guess I just keep coming back to 2 things: 1) write an engaging story and 2) don’t make glaring errors and all will be well.

      Some readers will check! They will let you know that James could not of jammed to 867-5309 in 1978, it came out in 1981. I know people who always count the stars in flags at the movies. Don’t add Hawaii before its time.

  10. Intriguing post, Debbie. I address these things by not addressing them at all. In my Jonathan Grave series, which is soon to be fourteen books long, Tony Darmond is still president of the United States, just as he was in 2009 when NO MERCY first introduced the entire case. Gail Bonneville was severely injured in one of the early books, and while it took her several books to recover, the pages on the calendar turned much more slowly.

    When I refer to incidents that occurred in previous books, I use vague phrases like, a while ago or some time ago. I think some elements of world building are more important to the writer than they will ever be to the reader. The fact that Jack Bauer’s cell phone had impeccable service and a battery that never died did not limit my enjoyment of the series. (By the way, you talk about healing abilities! Jack Bauer’s clotting factor was through the overhead!)

  11. Debbie, Fabulous post with such great info. I’ve just pubbed The Big Six-Oh! which is Book #2 in my Cozy In The City Series. Retired NYPD cop with a James Bond edge, Ralph Marino is about to turn sixty and he’s freaking out about it. Not that his ex-fashion editor wife, Blake Weston, at fifty-seven is so thrilled about the idea, either.

    As they work to solve a murder, they must also deal with the reality of aging. It was super interesting and great fun to write cuz there’s lots and lots of humor to be mined in male (and female) vanity and attitudes about aging.

    I will drop the whole issue of age in future books and just let Blake and Ralph be their inimitable, snarky, vivid selves.

    • Ruth, I’m neck deep in The Big Six-Oh and it’s giving me more laugh lines (wrinkles)! You totally nail the conundrum of age in a way that’s authentic yet hilarious.

      Good plan to ignore future aging.

    • Ruth, you just gave me a great idea for my cozy mystery series. My was to have my main characters stay fairly steady through the series, but the “color” will be provided by new major/minor characters. In my next book, two young girls provide the excitement. You gave me the idea to incorporate an aging couple in the following book. Thank you!

  12. Great questions about aging and time-passage. When I wrote Open Season, the first book in my Seasons Mystery Series, I dated each chapter to show passage of time in the investigation. That technique is something I saw in other mystery novels. Open Season was first published in hardback and had the dates, but when I got the rights back and self-published the paperback, I decided to take the dates out. I think readers are savvy enough to realize that time passes in a story and an investigation. By changes in personal circumstances in subsequent books, it’s clear that we are in another time period. And I do have a character reflect, “Has it already been two years since…”

    I’m intrigued by the concept of your newest book.

    Maryann

    • Thanks, Maryann.

      There was a period (’90s-early 2000s maybe?) when many thrillers and mysteries had time-stamps throughout. Was the reader really obligated to keep track that closely? If there was a ticking time bomb, it mattered. Most of the time, though, it seemed like a distraction.

      As you say, readers are savvy.

      Thanks for your interest in Flight to Forever! Let me know what you think.

  13. Ha! I’ll see your Age and raise you one more. In my latest Neanderthal series, my hero not only ages in normal calendar fashion, but he also has to deal with different worlds in different spacetime dimensions. So he’s multiple ages in multiple worlds. Take that! 😉

  14. My sister and I were recently discussing one of her favorite series, a comic mystery. The heroine has the common sense of a toddler, but she continues to age without changing through the series. Ditzy at 21 may be charming, but it’s just sad as the character hits her 40s.

    I never sold a series, never needed to because of the genres I wrote, but my first books were a supernatural suspense trilogy that followed a family with each book having a different main viewpoint character with the other characters as part of what was going on and as viewpoint characters. I wrote it as a solid trilogy. Each book was a standalone yet all three formed a thematic whole with a happy ending for everyone who deserved one. It spanned around five years.

    Then I realized I didn’t want to leave this world, and these people. Ooops. The other books were never written because the first didn’t sell, but I’d figured out other characters I would follow, and that I’d move out into this world outside of this family in various subgenre directions. I did sell a paranormal romance set in the same world, but not the same family, with minor characters reappearing. And a romantic suspense without the paranormal had another minor character appear.

    I’ve always regretted I never got to share these characters and their world with anyone except myself and a few friends. They still run around in my brain, though, as real world what-ifs happen and I wonder what David would have done. And, no, I won’t self-publish because I just don’t have the energy or desire anymore. Retirement was a good choice.

    • Thanks so much, Jodie! The comments reassure me that readers don’t really care about exact age and time as long as the characters and story are engaging. I can ignore that fixation developed while writing nonfiction to be precise and accurate. Whew! That’s a relief.

  15. Great post, Debbie . . . some things I’ve never thought of.

    I don’t have any personal experience with writing a series and “aging” characters, so I can’t speak to how I dealt with it as an author.

    However, as a reader, I hardly pay attention to it. And, to apply this topic to movie series: in the Lonesome Dove series, one of my favorites, Captain Call aged magnificently through three different actors. Actually four, if you count the prequels. Ditto with The Godfather franchise. We saw Michael from childhood to death.

    Maybe to age or not to age depends on the story.

    🙂

    • Deb, you make a good point that aging depends on the particular story. In The Godfather movies, Pacino aged perfectly from idealistic young vet to the head of the family to the disappointed elder looking back with regret.

  16. In her “Death” series, J.D. Robb, and Marie Force in her “Fatal” series, handle the story’s age and time issue with each new book taking place within days or weeks of the previous one. Their characters grow older, wiser, change, and learn. As a reader, those personal changes in the characters are essential to my reading pleasure.

    I don’t mind characters who age, as long as that means their physical abilities and speed of recovery from fights or footraces with thugs reflect at least a semblance of reality. Not every main character has to be a superhero. And the most important requirement is always a strong story.

  17. I am a reader, not a writer (but working on it). I know several book series and more than a few TV series ruined by the story arc. And Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Quincy come to mind as detectives who spent years solving the case and coming back next week. Sherlock did eventually “age”. The later books are Dr. Watson reading from his files.

    James Bond and Dr. Who both have 40 + year careers never aging although their faces and bodies change. I am enjoying Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor.

    Do check your characters ages, especially younger characters. If you saw “Blame it on Rio” when it came out on the big screen Michael Caine is committing statutory rape. In re-release the young lady’s birthday moves making her over 18.

    • Reading is great training for writing, Alan.

      Time changes the standards of what’s acceptable. Lolita caused a huge sensation when it came out. Same with Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver and the supposedly nude Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon (actually a stunt double).

      I wonder if any of those films could be made today.

  18. Steven King was interviewed about fiction and COVID. He talked about changes his WIP was going to need. No cruises, no taverns, etc. Finally he hit on a different solution. WIP now takes place in 2019.

  19. Hey Debbie – been monitoring the comments today. Lots to consider.

    I would like to develop my series and progress the story every 4 months, starting in 2014. I have considered this and I’m going to use the oil crash back then to lay waste to my made up Middle East country.

    The problem I need to work out is that my lead is almost handicap because of a third-degree burn. The more I age him, there’s the likelihood he’d get in a bad way.

    I guess their fictional character and not actual people. 🙂

    Wow, some of the above have opened up my eyes. Also want to say that I really enjoy post on TKZ. They are more helpful than you know.

    • Aw, thanks, Ben. Glad TKZ has helped. A lot of the support comes from the great commenters who spark new ideas and ways to solve our mutual struggles with writing.

      Wow, third-degree burns are really serious. Would the story still work if they were second degree? Have you talked to a dermatologist?

      Emu oil is supposed to help serious burns.

  20. Enjoyed your post, Debbie. I hadn’t planned for a series when I sold the first novel in the Red River Series, and I thought for a long time about how to handle the progression. I decided to age the books and characters in real time, based on one book a year in this historical mystery series beginning in 1964. This gave me a wealth of detail to insert in everyone’s story and to set the period, but by the time I was four books into the series I found my precocious kids (boy and girl) were already aging out. By then they were 14 years of age and some of the things they said and did weren’t as cute as before. That’s when I had to add other challenges and characteristics that made readers bond with them.

    I began to compact the timeline, and the last 3, I believe take place in 1968-69, with still another upcoming novel set in late 1969. But what about the ‘70s? I wonder.

    To expand my own horizon, my newest novel, The Texas Job, (February 15, 2022) is a prequel set in 1931. Woo hoo! Now I have 3 decades to work with, if I want.

    And boy, are some my old folks spry in the later Red River books.

    Rev

  21. Interesting post. I wrote a novella a while back, okay a long while back. Now I’m picking up the story. My protagonist is in her early thirties. I’m following her career so I am following her age. I picked her age so it wouldn’t be an issue in a short series. The story is set in Seattle where politics has spilled into the street. Covid and politics will take the story off track. I”m not sure how to handle it.
    The continuing story through the novellas is the toll the violence in her life takes on her.

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