Today, we’re talking age. Clutch your pearls right now and get it out of your system. Out yet? Good. Now relax, because we’re talking character age.
I have a pile of writing aids collected from various sources and various time periods both on and off the internets. Many of them include some form of character sheet, character builder, or some sort of matrix to identify and understand the people who populate our stories. Most of those include a box or line item for the character’s age. Age is important, y’know–a kid protagonist will tell a whole different story from a grizzled war vet protagonist.
Everybody knows that you can’t lie about your age with the numbers, and there’s only one direction the numbers go. Now we can’t shave off years out here in the really real world, but our characters…well, they’re only as young as we make them. So when you can be any age…how do you act your age?
Age Is Just A Number
The beauty campaigns, of course, want you to think that number is too high so they can sell you stuff that makes it look like there’s less of a number, or to make you feel better about your number. But your age, in terms of perception, has never been just the number. Ask any 16 year old if they magically developed a maturity to driving overnight on their birthday (ask any parent of any 16 year old the same question). The simple addition of 24 more hours to your lifespan between the day before your birthday and the day of, does not, in itself, grant any additional wisdom to you than the addition of 24 more hours any other day of the year.
What gives veracity to you as a person, and consequently, your characters as people within their world, is your apparent age, which is a much broader concept. How you act, dress, and view the world makes up for a much much larger influence on you as a person than the number of candles melting the frosting on your next birthday cake.
Going To The Extremes
You can, of course, use your apparent age as a way to stay “young” (or be “more mature” for those of you on the lower end of the number line)–other people tend to react favorably to certain age groups in certain situations. But as far as your characters go, you can use apparent age for so much more.
Remember the guy who’s way too old for high school girls hanging out at the high school hangouts? Or the woman way too old for the twentysomething pub set propping up the end of the bar? Or the guy (or girl) who just can’t let their past glory go (or their past humiliation), even after twenty years and everyone else has forgotten? And to go in the other direction, who hasn’t sympathized with the tension of two young girls hoping their fake IDs get them into the bar, or the young person who seems mature enough to attract the attentions of an older love interest, but isn’t quite sure how to react in the circle of more sophisticated people.
All these people are interesting because their apparent age is different enough from their physical age and it creates conflict and tension. There’s no reason you can’t exploit that in your storytelling.