Wednesday, February 12

An Age-Old Question: How Do You Show a Character's Age?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.
Um...yeah. What teen talks like that? It even sounds awkward coming from an adult.
  • I stood around the water cooler, a thirty-three-year -old woman chatting with other thirty-somethings.
People just don't think of their age in this way, but they do think about it and talk about. The trick is to find ways that flow naturally into the scene and still get that age across.

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."
In internalization: A character can think to herself about her age as well, and sometimes this feels more natural, especially if the character is chiding herself (as they often do). A character can also refer to her age in an offhand way that shows a passage of time.
  • 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.
With a little creative thinking, you can find a natural way to slip in a character's age.

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)
Clothing and accessories:
  • 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)
Miscellaneous details:
  • 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)
Details work best when combined with other details to ensure the right age is getting across. It's possible for a teen to flip through the mail and see bills, just as a mom going back to school can put her homework into her backpack. That's why it's so important to...

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.

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.
There's a different vibe for each of these paragraphs. What can we assume from what's written about the ages of these characters?

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. 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Thanks for this post! I've been trying to think up a way to say my character is sixteen without actually saying it.

    1. Hopefully this gave you some ideas :)

  2. Excellent examples! I've bookmarked for reference and will pay attention in revisions. I like the subtle clues in the last example especially.

  3. As Mom and I stood in the E-H registration line, my eyes focused to the red splotch of who knows what that had attached itself to the ceiling. I hoped it was ketchup and not the remains of some unfortunate sixth grader. That could be me up there next...

    1. Nice! I love the voice in this. Totally seeing a 12 year old, first thought is boy.

  4. Great post! I hadn't really thought much about this but definitely important. I'll be keeping this in mind as I revise.

    Here's my snippet -

    I shifted again, the paper lining the table sticking to my bare leg as I tried to close the back of my gown. Did I want the test to come back positive? Were we ready to start a family? I couldn't fight the smile anymore. Maybe he'll have Ben's blue eyes or she'll have my love of dance. Yeah, we're ready. A knock on the door made me jump, my grip tightening on the gown. This was it.

    1. I'd guess 25-30 as well. Old enough to be ready for this step, young enough to still have that touch of fear. Nice!

  5. Great examples; good ideas. Reposting on my class wiki!

  6. and here is my snippet, which is actually the (present) opening of my book:

    Daddy told me women can’t be scientists.
    But now I have proof he’s wrong.
    I tug at the frayed cloth edges of The Story-Lives of Great Scientists[1] and stare out the kitchen window. If Madame Curie could make exciting scientific discoveries, why can’t I?
    For one thing Madame Curie was white.
    And for another thing, I’ll bet my last dime that Madame Curie had rich parents who could afford to send her to the University of Paris.
    Only a few colored kids make it to college. And if they do, it’s only to the small colored schools. Not the fancy ones like Duke or the University of North Carolina. That’s where scientists are born.

    1. I'd guess 12 or so, because of the "Daddy." Though the focus on college could make her older.

    2. Hmmm…I know what you mean about "Daddy" being typically younger. Although given the historical context (1950) I think I'm safe. I sent you the entire first page for Real life Diagnostics so you can have a bigger context. My 30+ year old step-children still call their father, Daddy, to this day! I think the relationship matters too. Character is actually 16.

    3. I could see it going either way. This is one example where more context would make it clear, and a reader would certainly have that.

    4. thanks. That's what I think too!

  7. Hi Janice, good post, thanks
    Another nice way to suggest age is to pick something people know and reminisce.

    "They're playing Living on a Prayer. Haven't heard that since high school, when Marsha dumped me right before prom. I can still smell the vomit after we raided Dad's drinks cabinet and got wasted on brandy...


    1. Good tip. Even if the reader doesn't know the reference, they'd know "high school" and that suggests adult.

  8. Alright, so this was a very interesting read. I actually found this, when I typed into google "most common age of main characters in fiction", as in what age is used the most for a main character in a story? It's amazing how search engines could never find what I'm looking for. Even when I'm being specific.

    With that being said, this is an interesting read. Now I am a writer myself, and I must say, that you have very good points on what constitutes for conveying a characters age, without being blatant and outright saying, "My name John. I'm sixteen." Or something to that effect.

    Now I'm actually going to give out four snippets, and I'll see just how many people can figure them all out.

    Snippet #1

    I walked through the familiar halls once again. Colorful characters and happy fruits and vegetables adorned the walls and doors. I put my backpack in the little cubby, there were countless little kids running about. Of course, some were my height. Or rather I was there height... again. I decided to go inside and sit down, so that I could get this over and done with. When I get back to the lab and to the device they better have that million on them. Then when I get back to my wife, we can have more than enough money to take her on that cruise she's been wanting to go on for the past twenty-five years. Now normally, I would have just worked hard and saved up, until I could pay for the cruise for her. I just didn't want to wait until we were both old and grey, before I finally could. I also would have never done such a radical and new (and possibly untested) experiment. I mean what if I'm stuck like this forever? Would I be able to grow back up? Or would I be stuck? But hey, it's an easy mil and I want my wife to feel pleased so we can go on that cruise. But as I sit down on the chair, I can't help but think "did they really have to put me in this humiliating Bob the Builder T-Shirt?"

  9. Snippet #2

    I went to the store, to pick up a few things for the guys tonight. It was my turn to get the beer, for our annual cook-out. We've done this ever since we first met in college, it was our thing. I picked up the beer (two sets, one was for drinking, while the other was for the cookout), burgers, brats, hot dogs, veggie burgers, corn, cheese (Original, Colby, Colby-Jack, Pepper Jack, Swiss, Baby Swiss, Mozzarella, Gouda, and even Muenster), ketchup, mustard, honey mustard, mayo, pickles, lettuce, onions, potatoes (French Fries and chips), and soda for the kids.

    As I was bringing the stuff to the checkout, the lady there had given me this unsettling look. I would have just went to a different aisle, but they were all full or not opened, and I had to get back so we could do this, so I decided to just "grin & bear it".

    When the beer was scanned, she asked me for my ID, and I gave it to her.

    She looked at it and frowned. No. That wasn't it. She scowled.

    "Is this some kind if a joke?!," she asked of me in a rude and snotty fashion.

    "Excuse me?!," I said back to her.

    "Do you really expect me to believe, that you are old enough to drink alcohol?!"

    I tried to explain it to her, but she would have none of it. She had the nerve, THE NERVE, to call security on me.

    Luckily I was able to explain to him my situation, that I was old enough to buy alcohol, but I just had a condition, that made me look younger. I even had my mother, father, and girlfriend vouch for me.

    I don't think I'll live this incident down.

    It's funny, because she looked to be about forty-five or fifty, and I would expect this from some teenager, not from some broad who should have known better.

  10. Snippet #3

    I walked down the streets, when I really didn't need to. I was just bored. I looked at the humans of today. I remember when their ancestors would burn sheep and oxen as a tribute to me, so that they can get better chances at hunting. Now no one even notices me. No one is thanking me for helping them kill their meal, as they now have super markets and restaurants. Now on blessing their arrows in my name. For they now have bullets. No one even knows who I am. I'm just a myth to them. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

  11. Snippet #4

    I looked outside to see today's kids playing. I so wanted to go out and play with them, but I get really shy, and the other kids and their mommies and daddies say they feel cold, when they're around me. They call it a "chill". Plus they're wearing weird clothes. I mean I'm wearing a dress, as it's only appropriate, but these girls! They're ... They're ... They're showing skin! I can see their ankles! In a way I want to join them! Can I take off this dress, and wearing those short-pants, and those arm-less shirts? I'm not sure! I mean sometimes I get people who visit me. Like this crazy old lady, who came from Long Island? She kept bragging about her size or something crazy like that! I mean seriously?! So you're a medium! Well I'm petite for my age! You don't see me complaining! Then there was this guy, Zachary was it? Zach? Is it Zak? He was interesting! He would show up with his friends and ask me questions! Since I got a good strapping or two, for being rude back in the day, I knew to be polite and answer all his questions. He asked me if I knew who I was. I told him my name, and told him, that it was nice to meet him. I even offered him tea for a tea party, but he and his friends only heard me say my name. He then asked if I remember what happened to me. Well it was hot and flames were everywhere, and the men in their horses and carriages didn't get to me in time. But I don't care! Now I can talk these interesting people! They had magic cameras! They were interesting! Although Zach? Zak? Zachary? Well he always wore a mask! None of his friends did though! What was up with that?!

    Now I see my fellow kids, well the kids of today, walking and running and playing. They even would tap at these plastic things, and talk to them! And I even heard one talk back! It was amazing! It was magical!

    Maybe I should just say "hi". It gets boring in this dusty and creaky house anyways.

    End of Snippets

    Ok! So I hope you like my snippets, and let's see who can guess each one's age. Hint: Only one of them is set in realism. The others? Not so much.

    Well good luck!