When should you change a character’s age?

Changing a character’s age might seem a little detail akin to changing a name or city, but it can be quite complicated. The longer you’ve been with a character, the harder it becomes to change, not just emotionally, but in terms of story infrastructure.

My long-shelved character Anne Terrick’s age was all over the place in the picture books, short stories, and finally novella-length diary format book she featured in. Sometimes she’d be a small child; other times a preteen; still others a teenager. Her location also shifted a lot. At one point she lived in Alaska, and then finally ended up in 19th century Boston and Oregon Country.

When I resurrected her in November 2017, I decided to age her up two years from the hot mess of the book I was radically rewriting. Instead of starting at ten in September 1840 and turning eleven in January 1841, she starts at twelve and turns thirteen four months later.

I was able to do this so easily because her age had never been set in stone, and she’d been shelved for 25 years. Thus, I wasn’t emotionally attached to her being a certain age and doing certain age-related things (e.g., finishing school, menarche, marriage, sweet sixteen) in specific years.

The way I wrote Anne as a preteen myself felt wildly inconsistent with her supposed age. The way she thinks, speaks, and acts feels more realistic to a junior high girl. I wanted her to start young, but not that young. If she’d stayed 10–11, her thought processes, adventures, and misadventures would’ve felt really off the mark.

Plus, I can just do more with her sooner because she’s a little older!

I made the starting age of my Atlantic City characters 11 because that was my age too. It felt right to write about peers instead of little kids or teenagers. But unfortunately, almost nothing about them reads like fifth graders. (I was in sixth grade at the time and turned 12 shortly after I created them.)

I’m far from alone in this. Many other writers have been guilty of not depicting young characters in a manner realistic to their true age. E.g., 9-year-olds who come across like overgrown babies, 12-year-olds with mature understanding of complex political issues, 16-year-olds who feel more like world-wise 30-year-olds or childish preteens.

One of the blessings of youth is that we never realise just how young we are at any given age. Just about everyone is convinced s/he’s so much more mature and smarter than peers. Only when we’re much older and have greater hindsight does it dawn on us in shock how immature, inexperienced, childish, young, etc., we were at 8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 16, 18, 21.

Thus, young writers tend not to depict people their own age as they truly are. Even many adult writers do this when they write up (e.g., MG books with 11-year-old characters written at a lower level for younger readers).

Looking back, there was a perfect window of opportunity to slightly age my Atlantic City characters up in 1997, during the final leg of writing the prequel series. While all four rough drafts were hot messes in dire need of radical rewrites, they nevertheless were a turning point in my development as a writer and getting to know who these characters truly are. They were transformed into real, complex people, no longer interchangeable names doing and saying uninspired, unoriginal things.

At that time, I was early in Saga III (the Sixties) of Cinnimin. The characters were only in their thirties. Most of them were still building their families, and others had yet to marry or have kids. I was 17, old enough to have some perspective and rethink juvenile decisions.

Had I aged them up then and there, there wouldn’t have been nearly so many complications as if I did it now. E.g., the late-life children many of the ladies have could’ve been born a few years earlier, with their storylines starting from there and proceeding accordingly.

If you decide to age a character up (or down), it’s most ideal to do it as early into the story or series as possible. That way, you won’t be particularly emotionally attached to it, and it won’t be deeply embedded into every single fiber of this world, to the point where changing it requires massive frogging and reconstruction.

You shouldn’t make a change because of pressure or suggestions from anyone else. Stand by your creative vision, even if a crit partner thinks it’d be better as MG or YA. However, I wish more people years ago had planted seeds by asking, “These kids are supposed to be eleven?” Or 12, 10, 13, etc.

If a story truly would work better were the characters a little older or younger, that should be a decision you arrive at on your own, because it just feels right. If you’re thinking about it but not 100% sure, change the age in a new draft or the rest of that book to see how it feels.

Only if it feels right down to the very core of your soul should you commit to making a permanent change. You can always change the age back if it feels wrong, but if you commit to the change in a published book, it can’t be undone nearly that easily.

2 thoughts on “When should you change a character’s age?

  1. So true about nearly everyone thinking they are smarter and more mature than their peers.

    I had not really grasped this in a writerly way until I read Springhole – the writing advice website. When so many characters had come out of “you’re mature for your years thinking” the pattern was easier to see – and to act upon. This was August 2018.

    And when you talked about not being emotionally attached to Ann T – and having explored her at a variety of ages and attitudes and places – seems to be like a potpourri or scrapbook.

    Jane Eyre’s book started when she was 9 and took her through when she was 10 and 18. And then some undefined age from the narrative perspective. Probably over 25.

    “9-year-olds who come across as overgrown babies”. Seemed like a lot of my own real life! I don’t know if I would have written it that way, though.

    Sixteen does seem like a particularly hard age to write – though your characters in the Atlantic City world seem to have “levelled up” or just levelled.

    Ann seems like a very independent and self-contained and introspective character.

    Like

  2. Pingback: When should you change a character’s age? | Ups Downs Family History

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