Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How old is your sleuth?

Recently a question was posed on DorothyL about the age of series sleuths. The question inevitably arises because a series might last years or decades. Readers have aged over that time, should the sleuth age at the same rate?

One of the arguments for having a sleuth age is that readers like to see their favorite characters change or evolve. A series sleuth might change very little in the course of a single story, but will evolve over the length of the series. Consequently readers can expect their favorite sleuths to show evidence of change over time.

We might ask, however, if the change is due to aging or to an accumulation of life events. Have we grown because we have added years to our lives or because we have experienced love and the loss of love, have had accomplishments and failures, have been sick or injured, have faced death or watched others die? In the real world we tend to go through these events over time, adding years as we go. It doesn't have to be like that in the fictional world. With the exception of child-rearing, most life events are episodic.

Does it really matter to the reader if the sleuth ages? It certainly won't matter once the series has ended. If we know the sleuth won't age anymore, it doesn't matter if the sleuth ages at all. In my mind, Sherlock Holmes is in his mid-thirties, even though he was said to be 60 in his last story. He has been fixed in my mind at a certain age and that's where he stays with each story I read.

It would make some sense for the sleuth to age along with readers if readers read the series as they are written. But except for the most loyal readers, that is probably not the case. I can't think of any series I have read in order. Two years ago, my wife and I decided to devote the summer to catching up on Michael Connelly's novels. Over a three-month period we read all that we hadn't read and re-read some that we had. We didn't read them in order, but took them as we found them in new and used bookstores. Harry Bosch first appeared in 1992, so the stories spanned 17 years, but since we read them in 3 months, did Harry age 17 years or did he age 3 months. Or did he age at all?

Does aging help readers identify with the sleuth? Each of has an ideal age, an age that doesn't match the age on our driver's license. It's the age we would be if we didn't know when we were born. I believe we are more likely to identify with a sleuth of that age than with one our actual age. Our ideal age doesn't change much. It's usually the age when we were at our best. It makes sense that we would identify with characters who are at their best.

Who ages most in a series? The author. We get better and more experienced as we age which shows up in our writing style. We accumulate life experiences which show up in our stories. We accumulate wrinkles and gray hair which show up in the picture on the back cover. If the author shows signs of aging, does the reader expect that aging to show up in the sleuth? Maybe the secret is to make our sleuths the age we would be if we did not know when we were born and keep our birth dates out of the author bios and our pictures off the back cover.

What do you think?

Mark Troy
Hawaiian Eye Blog


Terry Odell said...

I don't think aging is as much of an issue as keeping up with the changing times and the technological changes that go along with them. When reading a Sue Grafton novel, it takes a conscious self-reminder that the entire series is covering only a few years of "book time."

Michael Connelly said he made the decision to write in "real time" and that means Harry Bosch is pushing the limits of being an LA homicide detective.

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

My heroine started out in her early thirties and I think she must be in her early forties now though I seldom mention age. Though the books are a year apart, what happens might only be a couple of months in the next book, though between two of the books, two years passed.


Mark Troy said...

Terry, I've found it hard to read the Kinsey books at times because of the period switch.

Marilyn, I seldom mention age in my stories either.


Morgan Mandel said...

I agree with Terry. If a book is written for the present day, it needs to reflect that. However, if it was written 10 or 15 years ago, or meant to reflect another era, I'd not expect it to be like present day.

As far as the age of the main character is concerned,I'll read any age group if the author has a great voice and the story is well written.

Morgan Mandel

Anonymous said...

Great blog!

I like the idea of having the P.I. in my series stay at or close to the age he is now, at least for a while.

His life circumstances do change, especially his love life, but I find it easy to think of his as staying within the same age-area from book to book. Things are not static, though, in other respects.

Thanks for blogging about this.

Joe DeMarco

A Body on Pine