The Townhouse of Ideas

Aging Your Characters Over Time

One of the pleasures and challenges concerning writing my novel Song to the Siren was that the book took place over several years. The main character, cult rock figure, Reed Sinclair, started out as a gifted eight-year-old. The book then took him through his teenage years, his young adult years, and well into adulthood.

The challenge was to make Reed a charismatic but realistically-written gifted child, then a rebellious teenager who may or may not have had mental problems, then a young adult musician, and then the adult who became a legend in rock-snob circles for not only his music, but his wild behavior. Reed had to remain Reed throughout the whole book, yet he had to mature with age.

Now, the main problem with such an undertaking is keeping the character not only in character, but also keeping the character not just recognizable, but also likeable.

Too often in such undertakings, I see authors who make their characters quite compelling when the characters are younger, but totally depressing messes as adults.

For instance, take the novel Brideshead Revisited. One of the characters, Cordelia Flyte, was a serious, religious child, but one who was quite likeable because of her childlike faith. As Cordelia aged, she was the same person without a bit more maturity or humor, and she was no longer likeable. In fact, the book showed her to be, ultimately, a tragic character. The same thing happened to every character in the book. Everyone was so likeable at first, even though they were flawed beyond belief. By the time the book was done, I hated everyone in it. Is life really so fatalistically tragic that not a single character had a ray of hope in them? Apparently not. The book became a slog for me to read. But apparently, it became a classic because every ray of hope was extinguished?

I ended up feeling pretty depressed by the end of the book, because people I’d grown to like turned into people I couldn’t stand.

So, when I was writing Reed Sinclair, I said, “Keep him likeable. Keep a little bit of hope alive, even though there’s tragedy. Don’t depress the reader. Depressing them will make them slog through the book instead of turning the pages eagerly.”

How did I keep hope alive? Simple. Reed had one big, redeeming quality, even when his career hit the skids and he started having substance abuse problems. He had the capacity to love others, especially his friends, and especially the young woman he’d loved since he was a child.

Even in tragedies, a ray of light shows the characters’ humanity. Hell, in the last act of Hamlet, even Hamlet had time to show some pluck, humor, and cleverness.

Song to the Siren was a modern-age bildungsroman, which is just a fancy term for, to quote Wikipedia:

a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from childhood to adulthood (coming of age), in which character change is important. The term comes from the German words Bildung (“education”, alternatively “forming”) and Roman (“novel”).

I like that: character change is important, whether it’s a period of years or months. All characters change over time. But the audience has to keep liking the character over time. If a character in a series of novels becomes a nothing but a bitter jerk without hope, at a certain point, the character loses the audience.

It’s like that with all human relationships. We’ve all had that friend that we liked a lot when we were younger, but how they ended up as adults was so depressing, we left that person behind, because we had no way to relate to them. 

Don’t let your character be that friend the audience has to leave behind because the friend painted themselves into a corner and has no capacity for change or growth or making things better for themselves.

But it’s also important that the character does change and grow up. Without change, the character can become boring.

That’s not always true. Sherlock Holmes didn’t change, except he kicked cocaine and his roommate, Dr. Watson, got married and left 221B Baker Street. Oh, and Holmes “died,” but that didn’t last long, because the audience wouldn’t stand for it. But Holmes is an icon more than a human being, so let’s say he’s an exception to the rule.

I remember reading a detective series where I liked the detective a lot. Apparently, the author did too, as she refused to let him change and grow. Six novels in, I realized that I could come back to the series, and nothing would change except who was murdered. When I realized that, I stopped reading the otherwise-enjoyable series.

Years later, I picked up the most recent volume of the series. I was right– nothing had changed at all. I laughed, then put the book back on the shelf, because every book was still the same: the same characters doing the same things, telling the same jokes, trotting out the same trite catchphrases, and so on.

They were stuck in time, while I had moved forward, and away from those books.

Evolve your characters over time, but never forget to add the qualities that make them likeable.