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.

Age-based category problems

It seems as though, at least in the U.S., age-based categories of books have become more rigid and inflexible over the last decade, and lines that existed when I was young have radically shifted. Some of these developments have been for the better; e.g., most modern MG and YA are written for those respective age groups instead of younger kids reading up.

And while there’s just as much fluff as there was in my generation, there are a lot more substantial books for teens and preteens instead of derivative, interchangeable books. Series books, so ubiquitous in my day, have largely gone by the wayside, replaced by trilogies and duologies. Modern series are nothing like the neverending, keep the cash cow going, quantity over quality ones of yesterday.

But….

Age-based categories seem less a general classification than a rigid pigeonholing now. E.g., the oft-repeated “Kids read up!” mantra has led to many agents and editors not taking books straddling the fence between upper MG and lower YA, despite many librarians, writers, parents, and kids themselves longing for more books about characters age 12–14.

If they don’t already exist, make shelves for Upper MG, Mature MG, Lower YA, Tween, or whatever you’d like to call it. That solves the supposed crisis of not knowing where to put these books!

Yes, kids do tend to read up, but that doesn’t mean literally no kids ever read about characters their own age, nor about slightly younger characters. Sometimes a story with kids aged 8–10 demands to be written in an upper MG style instead of as a chapter book or lower MG.

Many classic MG books have protagonists above or below the apparent modern sweet spot of 11–12, and they’re neither written for teens nor little kids. We need to quit treating all kids like reluctant readers who can’t handle more than Common Core vocab, paragraphs of more than five lines (if that), chapters above five pages, sophisticated themes, or more mature situations.

Likewise, many great adult books just happen to focus on child or teen characters, yet weren’t written as children’s books or what would now be considered YA. Particularly in a Bildungsroman which follows a character over her/his entire childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, you can’t neatly classify it in just one age-based category.

Many books now considered YA classics, like The Catcher in the Rye, were originally published as adult literature. Other books now mostly read by adults were intended as children’s books, and indeed are shelved in both sections in libraries and bookstores.

The choice should not be between aging characters up or down and being made to feel there’s no market for, e.g., a mature MG book with 9-year-olds or a YA book with 13-year-olds. Changing a character’s age should only be something you do because a small, still voice compels you and it makes sense, not because you felt pressured into it as the only good choice.

I felt compelled to make the age of my Atlantic City characters ambiguous in the books formerly known as The Very First and The Very Next to make them seem more timeless, not rigidly bound to any one age-based category and off-limits to the rest. For over 20 years, I was so confident in them being born late 1929–mid-1931, esp. since these books aren’t intended as straight hist-fic. Eopolis isn’t meant to be a normal neighborhood, either in the present day or in the past.

There’s no “just” about aging characters up or down when you’ve been with them for years and that age has become so deeply embedded into every fiber of that world. Even when I was their age and barely older than they were, they never felt like typical kids of that age. They were a special kind of preteen. Almost 29 years in, I no longer remember if I always truly intended it that way, or I developed an elaborate justification for mental SORASing as time went by.

Why do we need to keep pigeonholing books into strict age-based categories instead of just telling stories as they naturally unfold? Not all books with teens are automatically YA, just as some books with child or preteen characters have a writing style and topical content more of interest to adults.

Instead of rigidly enforcing barriers, we need to judge individual books by their intent, style, language, and content. The literary world would indeed be a very boring place if everyone only read about people roughly their own age, and automatically dismissed any characters younger or older.

Should their age stay or go?

I’ve been thinking about slightly aging up the original generation of my Atlantic City characters since at least late 2013 (and possibly even early 2012), but never went through with it because I was so emotionally attached to their 1929–31 birth. I had a headache thinking about such radical frogging and reconstruction.

The more I think about it now, the more sense it makes to age them up 2-3 years, but I’ve kept their age ambiguous in the book formerly known as The Very First. I need that door to remain open for either choice.

Pros:

1. Storylines aren’t set in stone. Many times they improve by leaps and bounds when garbage is excised, like healthy new skin replacing rotted flesh. Only a complete amateur or narcissist thinks there should never be any real editing.

2. I have so many new storylines in mind, particularly for about 1945–63. I’ve long known those years need a near-complete overhaul. E.g., Cinni and her most intelligent friends could attend Bryn Mawr while Sparky and Lazarus attend nearby Gratz College. Max and Al could be divorced, not just broken up, before their emotional reunion when Max finally realizes just how much he loves Al and regrets taking her for granted.

3. They don’t feel their age until about ninth grade, which is right when they start settling down. A lot of their adventures in fifth and sixth grades were based on my life in junior high and high school. Ditto for their junior high and my underclass high school years. It wouldn’t be that hard to synch their mental and actual ages.

4. Even for satire, deliberately over the top humor, and an era where kids matured earlier by default, their cognitive development is all wet. I knew jack about child development. Even after significantly toning down the age-inappropriateness, there’s still a disconnect between how old they truly are and how old they act, look, think, and speak.

5. Though age-based categories aren’t set in stone, it’ll be easier to market and classify the prequel series as mature upper MG, and Saga I of Cinnimin and most of the Max’s House books as YA, if they truly are preteens and teens during those respective books.

6. One of Cinni’s most formative early memories is writing a letter to Pres. Hoover with her big brother’s help in 1932, and being crushed to get a form letter from a secretary saying Pres. Hoover can’t respond to everyone. She was barely two! That would be like me wanting to write Reagan a letter at that age! At most, I might’ve been excited to wave at his car or plane if it came through the area.

7. When Cinni says Sparky’s haircut makes her look like Shirley Temple, Sparky says she likes Shirley’s movies and thinks she’s about their age. Except she’s three years older, and I only put that in as part of making their age ambiguous. Their ages would truly match if I aged them up.

8. Cinni already knows Santa isn’t real, and almost all her friends do too. Most kids figure it out around 8–9 instead of already knowing for a few years, though some knew early on because Santa doesn’t visit poor kids.

9. They’ve essentially had all their major coming-of-age experiences by 1945.

10. I always intended shock value, but not that much!

11. It’s very telling that I never gave their age in excerpts shared here, and felt the need to make it ambiguous in the first two books. They won’t suddenly be 12–13 instead of 9 when their age is finally revealed!

Cons:

1. It’s supposed to be shocking and over the top! A running thread is how people are always scandalized at what passes for normal there, along with comments like, “You’ve been sexually active since age ten?!” The shock value is emphasized due to being set in an era most people don’t associate with things like premarital sex.

2. Age-gap dynamics between siblings and friends would radically change if they were, e.g., suddenly closer to Irish twins than four years apart, or same-age peers instead of like a surrogate big and little brother.

3. Advanced maternal age! This by far holds me back most. While it’s unusual to become pregnant (naturally or through fertility treatments) at 45–51, at least it’s not unheard-of. By 53, it’s high-near impossible.

4. Cinni is stunned to snoop in her mother’s old journal and learn she was almost aborted due to her family’s slide into poverty after the Stock Market crash. What would the incentive be if she were born in 1927–28, just not wanting a fourth child?

5. It’s just more convenient to leave it as-is, instead of frogging and reconstructing so much. I also like how each Saga of Cinnimin depicts a full decade of her life; e.g., the Fifties are her twenties, the Seventies are her forties.

6. Emotional attachment. Enough said.

7. I’d be selling out after all these years of justifying the most over the top elements as intentional, meant to show real life isn’t like a Norman Rockwell painting for most people.

8. Since that age is established in my already-published books about Jakob and Rachel, it’d automatically be a retcon.

9. Age-based categories are NOT set in stone! Some preteens might not mind reading about younger kids so long as it’s not written at that level.

Cognitive development and your characters

I was so close to getting it for so long, but because of my emotional attachment to the original generation of my Atlantic City characters being born 1929–31, I engaged in powerful cognitive dissonance to justify keeping their age as-is. After becoming so deeply embedded into the very fabric of this world I crafted across so many books and so many decades, it feels impossible to all of a sudden change.

As I’ve admitted many times, the way I wrote both child and adult characters as a teen was laughably off the mark. The kids all acted like junior sages, spoke in full sentences under a year old, and had serious conversations about literature and politics before kindergarten. The adults meanwhile acted like overgrown 13-year-olds.

I had it arse-backwards with the original generation. Their wild years are 10–14, and then once high school starts, they just settle down and became boringly domestic, with a bunch of cliché, derivative, insipid, unoriginal, cookie-cutter storylines and situations you could find in any teen soap (print or film).

In the second book of the permanently-shelved first series, they have some stupid party in early 1944 to celebrate their “new and improved selves.” Hostess Violet spews some really stupid lines, like “We’re all being much nicer to Sam” (whom I later recast as a genuine antagonist, not a sweet, innocent victim of senseless bullying), “Even Kit is dressing like a lady” (when that’s the last thing she wants to be seen as, even as an older woman!), and “Look at us. We’re children of the Forties!”

Said no real teen of the Forties, EVER! Normal people don’t go around hyper-conscious of living through a given decade. At most, they might say to an older person who seems out of step with the times, “This is 1940, not 1040.”

Even the most mature, academically gifted, intellectually advanced, physically developed 8-year-old, 10-year-old, or 12-year-old is still a child, and it’s doubtful all four of those elements will simultaneously exist. This is a major reason I’m so opposed to radical acceleration (skipping several grades at a time), even for the most brilliant kids. Their unusually precocious academic development doesn’t cancel out their cognitive development and make them mini-adults.

One of the blessings of youth is that we never realize how young, immature, and inexperienced we are at the time. Only when we look back with adult hindsight do we realize in shock just how little we really knew, how we were nowhere close to full maturity.

Cognitive development is a long, slow process. Each new stage happens gradually instead of coming full-blown upon milestone birthdays. This is why even fairly small age differences feel so magnified when we’re young. Four years might as well be forty when you’re a kid.

I mentally SORASed my Atlantic City characters, and kept them mentally SORASed, because I was academically advanced and an early bloomer myself, with age-atypical interests, and didn’t associate much with peers outside of school. I also copied what I saw in many MG books of the era, where preteens were often depicted as a fair bit older.

Just compare any MG book of today with one published in the Seventies, Eighties, or early Nineties, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. But even then, that wasn’t entirely realistic.

Even before helicopter parents and freaking content warnings on old Sesame Street episodes where kids walk around the neighborhood and play without constant parental supervision, and even in the case of parentified children compelled to step into adult responsibilities and roles at very young ages, the preteen brain is nowhere near finished developing.

Kids are just starting to come into their own interests and beliefs, independent of what they’ve been encouraged in by their families and teachers. While I was quite annoyed at the “This is how young the Class of 1998 is!” list for claiming we only had a memory of one president, it’s fair to say we were only politically knowledgable about one.

I knew Reagan and Bush, Sr., were in office, could easily recognize their photos, and vaguely knew my parents didn’t like them, but couldn’t have told you jack about their politics at the time. I only began developing my political views around the ’92 election. Fine-honing my beliefs and being able to express them in my own language was a process which took years.

I didn’t even know how old Reagan was, and was shocked to learn he dyed his hair! Zero chance any real child holds complex, mature political opinions or can express one’s budding views in more than basic language.

Kids tend to read up, which accounts for so many of the MG books of my generation featuring characters of about 11–16 yet having a rather simplistic writing style. Younger kids want to read about sophisticated, mature older kids, who must be seriously dating and doing daring older kid stuff already. Some of them might even be having sex and going to unchaperoned parties!

But just think about the kids of your characters’ ages you know, or what they were like at those ages. Were any of them in serious relationships in fifth grade, discussing 19th century political theorists and upcoming presidential elections in preschool, sporting size C breasts at not yet eight years old, well-versed in Russian literature at five, interested in anything sexual at ten?

I wasn’t even aware of some of the things my characters are so passionate about (e.g., Gayle and Eastern wisdom, Cinni and political philosophies) until I was in my teens, yet I depicted them as super into this stuff in freaking elementary school?!

Understanding is much different from knowledge. E.g., I recognize Thai and Korean letters, but I don’t understand how to read them. I’ve a passing knowledge of Sikhism and Zoroastrianism, but I haven’t nearly as much understanding as I have about Hinduism or Judaism.

knew kids under thirteen look, act, think, and talk a certain way, but for the longest time, I didn’t understand what that actually meant in relation to my own characters. Because my Atlantic City books are intended as a mix of hist-fic, spoof, satire, and deliberately over the top humour, I never saw any reason to question why these very young characters are nothing like the age-realistic kids in my other books.

Even the parentified children in Little Ragdoll aren’t like that, not even intellectually gifted ones like Emeline and Girl/Deirdre. Super-smart kids with age-atypical interests are still kids where it really matters.

The prefrontal cortex doesn’t finish developing till age 25. If grown adults don’t have complete brain maturity yet, why would you depict mere children as though they’re just slightly more immature versions of adults?

Even satire and deliberately over the top humour can’t cancel out normal cognitive development. You always want your story to be plausible, esp. when it’s an otherwise real-world setting.

IWSG—The toughest literary choice ever

InsecureWritersSupportGroup
It’s time for another meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The first Wednesday of each month, we share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears.

I set a super-lowball goal for July Camp, only 10K, and overachieved by quite a bit, but it feels like cheating since it almost entirely came from creative non-fiction blog posts, not the fictional project claimed. This apparently permanent lockdown and still being stuck in a place I hate has destroyed my normal daily averages and opportunity to write anytime I want.

At this point, I’ve almost lost hope I’ll ever be back in a home of my own, in a city of my choosing, with walls and doors for privacy and sound reduction instead of an annoying open concept.

I also finished proofing the four volumes of Dark Forest for their print editions, and am now back to one final proof of The Twelfth Time before it finally goes into hardcover. Even if you only make a few minor corrections or changes here and there, you still need to look over the document just to be sure. So many times, new errors have slipped in during what I thought was the final edit!

Next up will be the final proofings of Dark Forest, and then all my books will be available in print.

The book formerly known as The Very First is scheduled for release on 23 August, and I cannot stop going back and forth as to whether to age my characters up by a few years or keep their long-established birth years of 1929–31 as-is. Each choice has very compelling pros and off-putting cons.

I’ll be pushing off my pet-themed month to focus on promoting TVF, and will go into much greater detail about this issue in later posts.

Just look at all this hard work I’ve put into making family trees over the years! If I changed the starting generation’s age after coming up on 29 years this November, it feels like at least 90% of their stories would unravel.

I could’ve aged them up without too much inconvenience before a certain point. Now, being up to 1998, it’s too late. So many things are built around characters being born and doing things in certain years.

That age is also established in my already-published books about Jakob and Rachel, which automatically makes changing it a retcon.

It’s like the time travel paradox. You think you’re only making a tiny change, but it has huge, wide-ranging repercussions for so many other things. It’s also like skipping a few grades—it might work brilliantly at first, but eventually that jump creates big problems.

A number of the ladies have late-life babies (change of life surprises or results of early fertility treatments). Some of them might be aged out of plausibly having those babies!

Although granted, a couple of those kids serve no real purpose other than to give their parents a child together in a second marriage.

This would also necessitate different age gaps with many siblings and friends, which would radically alter their relationship dynamics.

Logically, I know it makes the most sense to age them up about three years. Keeping them at a 1930 birth year is convenient and assures everything stays mostly the same, but makes them a really awkward age for categorization and marketing purposes prior to their high school years.

Even within the context of satire and deliberately over the top humor, it strains credulity re: normal cognitive and physical development. Even a very precocious child is still a child where it really counts.

It’s one thing to have a single character like Stewie Griffin or Lisa Simpson. When near the entire cast are mentally SORASed, people are less likely to go along with it as totally normal per the rules of that world.

During the last major edit of TVF, I made their age deliberately ambiguous. At most, it’s stated they’re under twelve.

Events could be backdated or restructured, and I’ve long known most of my drafts set from about 1945–63 need a major gut renovation.

But these aren’t characters I just created or shelved for 25 years! We’ve been together for almost 29 years, and everything was structured around their being born with the Depression!

Have you ever re-aged a character after many years? Do you feel it were the right decision? What’s the most radical continuity change you’ve ever made? Would you be willing to help with promoting TVF with a guest post or cover reveal?