Friday, August 21, 2009

Aging Series Characters by Chester Campbell

The age of your character could become a problem if you’re writing a series. The best known current series character is Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. Since I don’t have the early Spenser books, I’m not too sure how old he was when he started out, but it was at least mid-twenties. The Godwulf Manuscript was published in 1974 and the 2009 model, The Professional, will appear later this year.

With thirty-seven books in as many years, that would make the wisecracking, rough-and-tumble private detective almost sixty years old. He’s pretty agile for that age, but I’ll go along with it. My new protagonist, Sid Chance, is fifty-nine in the first book, The Surest Poison. He’s physically big and tosses a couple of guys off the porch.

Lee Child’s rugged Jack Reacher should be mid-forties in the thirteenth book, Gone Tomorrow. He would have been around thirty when he got out of the Army six months before Killing Floor chronicled his first brush with the law and the world of bad guys. Who knows how long he’ll be able to continue his superhuman escapades in wiping out a host of nasties in each book.

Sue Grafton took a different tack in dealing with her smart and headstrong PI, Kinsey Milhone. Since A Is for Alibi came out in 1983, there have been twenty-one books, including U Is for Undertow, due for publication later this year. As far as I know, Kinsey is still in her thirties. I believe the books are set in the seventies, before cell phones and DNA and a lot of other forensic stuff. It works well for Kinsey as she ages slowly.

When I wrote Secret of the Scroll, published in 2002, I didn’t have writing a series in mind. I liked the characters, though, and decided to keep them around. But age was a problem. Greg McKenzie was sixty-five. I didn’t plan on him tackling the villains like a football player, but I wanted him to be a physical challenge. The Sue Grafton method seemed like a good solution.

Designed to Kill took place a year later. Since then, the stories have been separated by three or four-month intervals. Book two was set in November, Deadly Illusions the following March, The Marathon Murders in August. The fifth book, now underway, takes place in December of the same year. So in Greg and Jill McKenzie time, it’s still 2004.

How do you feel about aging characters? Should they follow the calendar, or take their own sweet time?


Mark Troy said...

I'm more like Spenser than Kinsey. I haven't aged as fast as my driver's license would indicate. I think a person's true age is what they would be if they didn't know when they were born. I have no problem with Spenser's exploits because I see him as being close to my true age and I think most readers think the same way. That's why guys like Spenser and Reacher can keep up their exploits over such long series. Sharon McCone is another character in a remarkably long series who's at just the right age for me.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Mine have aged. The main character in my first book is 17 when it begins. By the time the fifth and final book in the series comes out next year, she'll be 25. I've enjoyed watching the characters age.

L. Diane Wolfe “Spunk On A Stick”

Chester Campbell said...

I like your take on it, Mark, that a person's true age is what they would be if they didn't know when they were born. That parallel's my view that you're only as old as you think you are. My driver's license says I'm rather ancient, but I don't think of myself that way.

Watching your character grow is an interesting process, Diane. I think of my characters growing more in the way they think or approach situations rather than in physical time.

Helen Ginger said...

When I read a series character, I have to admit I don't pay a lot of attention to the protagonist's age. It doesn't matter to me whether they're 35 or 75, or whether they seem to never age or age consistently. It's the writing that I look at.

Straight From Hel

Chester Campbell said...

Good point, Helen. One of my two less than stellar reviews (both on the first book) took me to task for Greg McKenzie's age. The reviewer wrote: "an old, retired man, yet he still had the physical capabilities to go to Israel and battle against much younger, infinitely more dangerous people." Greg was only sixty-five, and he used his wits, not his brawn. Oh, well, can't please everybody.