In some novels, age doesn't matter. The characters are adults and if they're thirty or fifty the book unfolds pretty much the same way. Readers can assume the characters are about the same age as they are (if they're adults of course) and it still tracks.
Other novels read differently depending on the age of the character. Imagine a YA novel if you suddenly made the protagonist thirty. Nothing would read correctly and readers would likely assume that author couldn't write.
Often getting a character's age into the story is as easy as putting it on the cover blurb--fifteen-year-old Nya does cool stuff--but you can't count on readers seeing that or remembering it when they start the novel. Sometimes you need to mention it in the opening scene, but stating it can feel awkward, especially if you're writing a first person POV.
- I stood at the bus stop with my fellow sixteen year olds.
- I stood around the water cooler, a thirty-three-year -old woman chatting with other thirty-somethings.
Three Ways to Show a Character's Age
1. Just Say (or Think) It
In conversations: Age come up in conversations, and when it does, it makes sense for a character to share how old she is. If your novel has a conversation where this flows naturally, this is a perfect place to get that information across. If you don't have a scene like this, then don't force it. It's much better to have one awkward sentence with age mentioned than an awkward scene trying to slip age in.
- "Hey, birthday girl," Bob said, grinning. "The big 4-0. Feeling old yet?"
- "I'm sixteen, Mom, I'm not a kid anymore."
- Lila snorted and toasted with her glass. "Hon, I'm eighty-three. It won't be the bourbon that gets me."
- I wasn’t sure which Saint covered luck, but I must’ve snubbed her big at some point in my fifteen years.
- Who was she kidding? She was thirty, not thirteen. This was no way to act around a man.
- Bob giggled and shoved the grenades into his pocket. Even at forty-one, grenades were something to get excited about.
2. Just Suggest It
If stating it outright won't work or feels awkward no matter what you do, try leaving clues that suggest the age of the character. Location can play a big role, as can clothing or accessories. Certain ages also come with traits that place the character in the correct age group, even if the exact age is still uncertain.
- Lila walked up the steps of Ridgemont High. (This is a teen)
- Lila walked up the steps of Ridgemont High, her lesson planner tight in her arms. (And now she's an adult teacher)
- Luis pulled his scrubs over his head and tossed them into his locker. (This is an adult)
- Luis balled up his varsity jersey and chucked a perfect three-pointer into the hamper from the bathroom. (This is a teen)
- Marla kicked off her shoes and flipped through the mail. Bills, more bills, credit card applications. (This is an adult)
- Marla slipped her homework into her backpack. (This is a teen)
3. Show the Context
No matter what age or what story, context is king. What else is going on around the character influences how readers will view that character. How the POV character views the world will also influence readers. If the character is an adult, she'll see and interact with the world as an adult would, same as a kid or a teen would interact with their world, and they'd all do it differently.
Let's see how the same situation with different context and details changes how old the character feels.
Lila walked up the steps of Ridgemont High. A group of students raced past, barely giving her a glance, but never getting too close. Would any of them be in her class? The students barreled past another boy and knocked him over. They laughed and kept on going. She took a deep breath. Jerks. Hopefully, they weren't in her class.There's a different vibe for each of these paragraphs. What can we assume from what's written about the ages of these characters?
Lila walked up the steps of Ridgemont High. A pack of guys raced past, barely giving her a glance, but never got too close. Would any of them be in her class? They barreled past a geeky guy and knocked him over, but just laughed and kept on going. She took a deep breath. Hopefully, they weren't in her class.
Lila walked up the steps of Ridgemont High. A group of male students raced past without looking over, staying just out of range. Would any of them be in her class? The future delinquents barreled past another boy and knocked him over. They laughed and kept on going. She took a deep breath. They'd better be in her class.
The first feels like a young teacher starting school. Clues like students and another boy suggest she's an adult looking at teens or kids, and her class suggests ownership of that class. Her concern over difficult students being in her class also suggest a younger, more unsure adult.
The second feels like a teen on her first day of school. Clues like pack of guys and geek guy are how a teen would refer to her peers. Her wish that the jerks aren't in her class feels more teen in this context.
The third feels like an adult, but not young. Clues like male students and future delinquents suggest older and more cynical, as does the hope that these boys are in her class. Perhaps she feels she can straighten them out or teach them a lesson.
It doesn't take much to drop enough hints (or state outright) how old a character is or what group she belongs in. A few words here and there is often all it takes to show age.
JUST FOR FUN: Write a short snippet in the comments that suggests a character's age and see who can guess it correctly.
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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