Happy Christmas to any of my Orthodox Christian readers!
Lately I’ve been wondering, on and off, about whether I started the original generation of my Atlantic City characters at the right age all those years ago. They were mostly eleven, in fifth grade, when I created them in November 1991 (December 1941 for them). And over the years, there came to be many important events tied to them being a certain age, or in a certain grade, in a certain year. The age differences between them and their siblings were also chosen for a reason.
While doing my significant rewrite and restructuring of the chronological first book, The Very First, I deliberately made their starting age ambiguous. The most the reader knows is that they’re under twelve. I also seriously toned down a lot of the age-inappropriate behaviour that had peppered the first two drafts. At times, I’ve played with the notion of initially making them two years older, so that they’d be nine and turn ten during the 1938-39 school year.
It’s a social satire, and meant to be funny in its deliberate over the topness. There’s also the local secret society of sorts, WTCOAC, which is always used to explain why these young people look and act about 4-5 years older. A running joke is how horrified, shocked, and offended outsiders are when they visit the town and see what passes for normal, or when the residents go on holiday. Great examples of this are when the Sewards stay at a skiing resort in Vermont in December 1943 and are prematurely thrown out because of their shocking conduct, or the culture clashes between the Greens and all the British refugee children floating in and out of their mansion.
One of the things about being extremely advanced intellectually but not socially is that you don’t have the best idea of how young you really are, or how your peers really act. I was largely going on the “issue” books and tv shows of the early Nineties, thinking books about preteens and teens HAD to include wild parties, drugs, drinking, smoking, sassing parents, sibling fights, underage sex, skipping school, shoplifting, snobby popular kids vs. unpopular goody-goodies, cheerleaders and football players ruling the school, all sorts of dreadful clichés that don’t really reflect how most normal youths live.
Now that I’m an adult, and know a fair amount of children in my local community, I can’t imagine anyone in upper elementary school (barring a seriously broken home) smoking, having sex, drinking, doing drugs, hosting a wild party while parents are out, dating, shooting a school enemy, anything like that. The mere thought horrifies me, even though I always meant it as so deliberately unrealistic as to be funny, and spoofing modern-day little bad-asses who think they’re so mature and all grown-up already.
If I didn’t age them up a little bit, another option could be to continue toning down the more shocking, age-inappropriate behaviour. There are some things which couldn’t completely go, though; for example, Kit’s entire character is pretty much defined by her wild antics and her dysfunctional, darkly comedic relationship with her mother. A Kit who never has sex, dresses sluttily, or fights with her mother wouldn’t be Kit anymore. Violet also wouldn’t be Violet anymore without her abusive relationship with Dave, and entire, important storylines would disappear if Sparky and Elaine weren’t sexually active.
I’m just used to thinking of them as being born in 1929-31, and aging along the timeline I’ve had in place for 22 years. Aging them up slightly, or toning down most of the wildest behaviour (which really only lasts from about 1941-44 anyway), would require significant frogging and putting everything back together almost from scratch.
When I read about them in those early years, they really don’t strike me as really being ages 10-13. They easily seem like they’re about 13-14. And my earliest Atlantic City books are heavier on funny stories and spoofing modern life than historical worldbuilding. It’s kind of hard to explain, but young people 50+ years ago were in some ways younger than their modern counterparts, and in some ways older. Say, a 14-year-old might have adult responsibilities for taking care of younger siblings and the household, and not be shielded from harsh realities like poverty and disease, yet also never have had a boyfriend and not know about the existence of sex.
Would a two-year aging-up have a truly significant impact on years and years of established timelines and storylines? Could they be reconstructed without undue effort? Or would it be better to leave the age and just have a few characters with that short-lived rebellious lifestyle?