Kids, Adults, Teens, the Elderly, and other Generic Age Groups in Stories (and how to write them in a realistic way)
Last week, we addressed the problem of filler characters, and how they can sometimes be painfully two-dimensional.
There’s another kind of character that I’ve always felt gets terribly represented in fiction, though, and that is any character who’s not the same age as the target audience.
In other words, adults in kid literature, and kids in adult literature.
Often, when reading a book about an adult, I notice that their son or daughter is basically just a generic child who exists for the purpose of making the protagonist’s life more difficult and challenging, and placing extra obstacles and roadblocks between the protagonist and their life. The children often behave in painfully stereotypical fashions and sometimes are even portrayed as unbearable little brats for the duration of the story.
Inversely, adults in stories intended for kids are usually thrown into some kind of extreme with virtually no deeper development: Strict, mean, dumb, evil, or worst of all, invisible (I’ll get to that last one in a bit). The adults are weirdly clueless about everything, disregard the kids, and have a tendency to disappear from the protagonist’s life unless they are directly necessary to the plot, either as a helper or an obstacle.
You’ll see this same thing with toddlers and the elderly, teenagers, twenty-somethings, and basically anyone who isn’t within 5 years of the main character’s (and/or intended readers) age.
I can understand the tendency—as a writer, you have a limited amount of time and space to flesh out your characters, and it’s easy for secondary characters, even if they’re important, to fall into stereotypes. This can also happen when you’re very unfamiliar with the age group you’re writing about. Just because you were seven years old once, doesn’t necessarily mean you understand the mind of someone who is currently that age, nor can you generally think like they do. If you aren’t around many children, you might lump them all into one category—“kids”—and write them accordingly.
So how can you get into the right mindset to write age groups you might not be familiar with, or who might generally hold an adversarial/obstacle role in your genre?
Much the same as we did last week!
There’s an added step in this version of fleshing out your character: You have to honor the generation this individual comes from. Are they a little kid, known now as a “Digital Native”? Are they of The Silent Generation, born during the Great Depression and World War II? Are they the rebellious-but-also-responsible-adults of Gen X, or the controversial Millennials (who are either bashed as the “me” generation or hailed as intrepid new thinkers)?
What decade your character was born in will impact their behaviour as much as anything else about them. It will dictate the jokes they get, the references they make, the opinions they hold, and basically everything else having to do with the way they see the world.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to spend a little time with the people of your chosen age demographic. This can be tricky, but if you’ve built your writer network, you’ll be able to reach out and ask if they know (or are) of that generation.
This works even if your story isn’t set in our time/our world. It’s more about getting the right feel for this age than anything else at this stage.
Now that you know the generals better, it’s time to get into the details. As with all characters, the richer the backstory, and the better you now it, the more easily you can write a compelling character, even if they only have a few lines here and there.
I mentioned in my post about writing diversity that stereotypes are not your friend, and the same holds true here. Do some 22-year-old girls go out clubbing all the time? Yes. Do all of them? Absolutely not. Presenting every single early twenty-something as a perpetually-drunk party girl is going to be insulting to an entire demographic—it’s entirely possible to encounter a 22-year-old businesswoman who owns her own company, works crazy hours, and spends her weekends volunteering at a homeless shelter.
Likewise, some 70-year-old women might enjoy knitting, but there are plenty who don’t even know how, and prefer other pastimes (like snowboarding, or playing guitar).
You don’t have to go crazy with the stereotype-defying characters, but don’t be afraid to give someone a personality and lifestyle that deviates a little—it’ll keep them more interesting and make you seem far more intelligent and credible as a writer.
How about little kids? I mentioned earlier that they’re often portrayed as either brats or outrageously hyper little house-destroying monsters. Then there’s the tendency toward writing these quite, hyper-intelligent (often creepy) kids to move a plot along (playing the role of the only one who can see ghosts, or something like that).
The child doesn’t have to be outrageously intelligent to step outside the boring and, frankly, irritating stereotype of “hyped up on sugar” kid. Make the kid crazily interested in something, like ancient Egypt, or World War II aircraft, or ocean life. Rather than have them run around screaming for no reason, have them drawing space ships or reading a book about pirates.
The same goes for teenagers. I get frustrated when I read books that lump all teenagers into the “moody and disrespectful” category because that’s incredibly unfair. There are all manner of teenagers, and they don’t have to be constantly slamming doors and screaming, “I hate you!” to be realistic people. Include these elements if they truly serve your story, but give them context, give them meaning, don’t just throw it in there to mess with your main character.
Also: Parents. Parents tend to disappear in kid’s books. I can’t deny that I’m guilty of this, but usually I kill the parents or separate them from their children in circumstances completely beyond my characters’ control. I do this because the idea that kids are just running around, doing whatever they want, completely unsupervised at all hours of the day is completely absurd. A lot of kids’ books only bring the parents into play when they serve the plot, and they essentially don’t exist otherwise. This is silly. It’s also incredibly unrealistic.
If you are going to use this angle, maybe comment on how your character is basically being neglected, or that the parent has some other reason (like having to work two jobs to support the family, or caring for a sickly relative) for being out of the picture so often.
Stereotypes might have some validity, but they don’t account for the whole person. They leave members of that group feeling alienated and misunderstood, and everyone else feeling no emotional attachment to the character, because they’re incomplete and therefore uninteresting.
Take a good look at your manuscript and ask yourself if these side characters are contributing anything to the story at all. If they aren’t, and you can’t write them beyond a bland stereotype, maybe you’re best off cutting them entirely.
If you don’t want to remove the characters (or can’t), but you’re still struggling with them, try this exercise—it’s a little more time-consuming, but it can reap amazing rewards.
Sit down and write a short story about the character you’re trying to flesh out. Make them the main character, and focus entirely on them—their thoughts, their emotions, their reactions to things. Have them do something unrelated to the plot of your primary story, like working on a hobby or dealing with a personal challenge the novel they came from never touches on.
Spending this quality time with your character will make it so you can’t help but see them as a more real and whole person. Once you know them a little better, you can reintroduce them to the book. You’ll find you naturally write their actions, dialogue, and interactions with more ease, and it’ll be more enjoyable for both you and your readers.
As always…have fun with it! Stepping outside the stereotypes into some “real people” writing is infinitely more rewarding and fun, so enjoy it!
How do you get into the mindset to write characters who are important, but often overlooked?