Ageless Characters

Many middle grade books have a fundamental problem with their main characters.  Someone who is supposed to be sixteen seems twelve– someone who seems twelve seems sixteen.  The latter occurred in Brandon Mull’s The Beyonders trilogy; the former occurred in Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart and The Rithmatist.  Perhaps this problem only plagues those named Brandon.  It would make sense, except I encountered the same problem in my own writing.

In my scene, I had a character who was supposed to be twelve.  Unfortunately, he seemed six.  His brother, supposed to be sixteen, seemed twelve.  Of course, my method was not ideal– since the scene was just a prologue and the rest of the story would happen five years later, I scrapped the idea altogether.  If you’re writing middle grade and have this problem, don’t do what I did.

However, while I was struggling with the scene, I realized a few things.  Number one, this problem can be pinpointed.  Number two, it can be fixed.  (Hey, that’s pretty much the way it is with all story problems.)

This problem has annoyed me in many books, long before I ever encountered it.  When I did encounter it, I knew what was happening, and I was able to trace it back to dialogue.  Everything the two characters said made them seem younger than they should have.  They didn’t seem real.

But why was that?  Dialogue is informed by the characters themselves– otherwise it wouldn’t be true to the characters.  The problem showed through the dialogue, but it wasn’t the dialogue itself.  The characters behind the dialogue were at fault.  But those characters had worked elsewhere; the problem had come in the switch between the regular characters and the younger characters.

I’ve spoken about writing for kids before.  It was a while ago and I can’t remember everything, but I spoke about writing for kids– not writing the kids themselves.  Not talking down to them is important, but that doesn’t mean all child main characters should seem like adults.  If a character is a kid, they should seem just as real as an adult character– not like an adult in a kid’s body.  And while Brandon Mull’s specific problem (making the kids seem older than they are) arose from that phenomenon, kids seeming younger than they are is a different problem.

When people look back on something, they see the extreme more often than the actual memory.  The same happens with children.  When adults look back at kids, they see the youth, the irrationality, instead of the way kids actually are.  When kids are very young, they are plenty irrational.  They make weird arguments, come to false conclusions, and in general act feelingly instead of logically.  That’s what most authors pick up on when they write kids, and unfortunately, they include too much.

But noticing that and overcompensating is just as dangerous.  That creates the opposite phenomenon, as I mentioned before.  A character who thinks very logically and basically acts like an adult is going to seem much older.

So what’s the crucial balance here?  It’s difficult to say, because it’s going to be different for every age.  I’m having trouble figuring out a universal solution myself– I don’t think there is one.  It’s going to be different for every character.  Sometimes they need to act irrationally, and other times they’re going to be completely clear-headed.  Sometimes they’ll be logical about one thing while generalizing wildly about another.  There is no single rule to follow.

I think the one thing you can do, however, is look at real children the age of your character.  Look at their motives for everything they do.  Many children grow more independent as they grow older, trying to pull away from their parents.  Simultaneously, they defer to their parents for fundamentals, taking things for granted.  The emotions of a kid are really weird when you think about them, but that’s what makes them real and interesting.  It’s almost more difficult than writing an adult.

Take a look.  Pinpoint the problem and ask yourself what the motivation is behind it, and how it needs to change for the better.  You might not think it’s necessary.  Imagine your favorite middle grade books with characters who seem five years too old, or five years too young.  It won’t be the same.  This problem can destroy the best of stories, but fixed it can redeem the worst.  Think about it.


44 thoughts on “Ageless Characters

  1. Interesting post. The only time I can recall thinking a character acted too young was in the Trixie Belden books. Bobby, her younger brother, was supposed to be six, but he acted four. Now, perhaps I’ve just hung around different six-year-olds than that author had, but it was still annoying. There have probably been other times where the characters felt the wrong age, but I can’t think of them at the moment. I just started The Rithmatist, so that’ll be interesting to observe.

    “Imagine your favorite middle grade with characters who seem five years too old, or five years to young.” I’m looking at you, Percy Jackson movies. (Okay, so that was actual age change, but…)

    Also, do you want to be cabin mates for Camp NaNo?

    1. In the first PJ book, there was a point where Percy was a little whiny, and he suddenly seemed really young– but just before, when he was in a car crash and killing a minotaur, he seemed his age (surprisingly). I think Riordan figured this out pretty well, actually.


      1. Okay, so I’ve been thinking about this concept, and it occurred to me that sometimes in real life people act older and/or younger than they are, hence you hear the phrase “act your age.” That being said, is this something that (unless it’s a character trait or plot-related) doesn’t translate well from real people to fictional people? It has the potential to add a touch of reality, but with the possible cost of annoying the reader.

      2. Agreed. I’ve noticed it too. I think it can work in fiction, but not when you’re introducing the character– that’s an important spot to make them act their age. Also, make sure you show the variance. Whereas people can change from one style to another, they don’t stay that way for too long. They swing back and forth between too old and too young– once you hit upon that pendulum and show those variations, I think you’ll be able to make it real without making them seem older or younger than they are. Also, make sure it’s consistent with the character.

  2. Very interesting, I’m reading Steelheart at the moment, and now that you mention it I do see the 16 but acts like 12 age thing. I guess this makes sense. Though sometimes I find myself acting a lot younger than my age group (normally around close friends and family). And then I’ll act older around strangers. I do find that some people just act a lot older or younger than they really do. Typically, when they act younger it annoys me.

    I thought this post was very intriguing, excellent job!

    1. Even though people act different ages around different people, they tend to stay seem around a certain age on average, and that’s pretty much what I’m talking about. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  3. I have had this problem, as you know. I know how I think I fixed it. But part of that was an accident. And it may be just my characters. *shrug*
    I have no idea how you’ll reply to this comment.

  4. When I read the first two books of the Beyonders trilogy, I really enjoyed them and anxiously awaited the third to come out in paperback. Now the third book is sitting in my room. It’s been hard to “get into”. I keep looking at it and promising myself that I’ll eventually get around to finishing it one evening. I work on it, but I’m only really able to take three chapters at most before I get bored with it.
    Jason annoys me.
    He’s seems so darn old. He’s fifteen, right? In general, I really like Brandon Mull (I loved the Fablehaven series), but there’s something about this book that kinda bothers me. Sure, I understand Jason’s in a tough situation (They all are!), but he still feels too old. (Rachel too, for that matter, but she doesn’t bother me quite as much for some weird reason.) I’m a bit disappointed that he doesn’t feel as young as he really should. I also don’t really like how Rachel’s becoming this Edomic master practically overnight, but I won’t go on about that. The only reason I want to finish the book is because I want to see more of Ferrin.

    As for writing characters at appropriate ages, I struggle with that. For some reason, I can’t seem to gauge how old someone is in real life, and that often messes my writing up. I can’t tell you how old a seven-year old was if he didn’t tell me his age. He could be five or ten for all I know. I try to learn and copy from the people around me to see how a small child or a teenager or an elderly person would normally act, but it’s still a struggle. It doesn’t help that I often automatically act older than I am when I interact with other people, which tends to change my perception of people.
    …..I just need to practice writing all sorts of ages and personalities.

    THANK YOU for this post! It was really cool to read and to think about how I could improve my writing.

    And I’ll finish that Beyonders book. Eventually.

    1. Darn it, if you haven’t finished it yet, I can’t give you spoilers. I really want to talk to someone about that whole thing, but no one has read it. I think you hit the nail right on the head, though– Jason feels old, the promise that Edomic would take a while to learn was ignored, and pretty much the only interesting character is Ferrin. When you finish it, come talk to me.

      I agree. People change even day-to-day. It isn’t like you can just label a certain set of quirks a seven-year-old, to be copied every time you need to write a character that age. It’s easier if you can figure out why they’re doing what they do, instead of just what they’re doing. At least, it helped me.

      I’m really glad you enjoyed it!

      1. It’s getting a bit more interesting now that there’s Valiant. (For me, anything is okay if it has something like Valiant). I’d love to talk to you about it when I finish it! No spoilers, please! I’m trying so hard already NOT to read the end of the book before the middle. (Not succeeding very well, either. *hides face*)

        We human beings are so unpredictable. Just imagine how an alien would respond to how darn unpredictable we were in every-day life if they came to Earth. I’ll work on figuring out why people do what they do.
        I also have trouble just looking a a person and roughly guessing by their age by their appearance. People do look older/younger than their real age, so it’s sometimes hard to guess how old they really are. Teenagers are a bit easier for me now, but anyone younger than 12? There’s no hope. Drawback of being a homeschooler and not going to a co-op, I guess. Oh well.

        😀 I love reading your posts!

      2. I figure aliens would be of a similar unpredictability. not every alien is going to be Vulcan.

        Well, it’s good we don’t have to rely on descriptions to tell the person’s age– it’s the dialogue and actions that tell that.

        Thank you.

  5. Hmmm… I don’t think I have this problem… except with Aliana, but she’s kind of supposed to seem older. You know, the generic creepy kid genius thing… 😛
    I sure hope I don’t have this problem. (I think I’m compensating by making Adyn extremely annoying, but so far I think that it is working!!! 🙂 )

    1. Creepy child geniuses are difficult to pull off, but they certainly act like kids at times too. Ender’s Shadow, by Orson Scott Card, pulled that off really well.

      I hope you manage to identify it, if you do have that problem– if you don’t have it, I’m happy for you.

  6. It would be cool to meet an alien. I wonder what their “music” would be like…..

    Very true!

  7. I had someone tell me my thirteen year old character sounded like she was sixteen, once. I was completely lost as to what to do, especially since, I was thirteen at that point in time, so I was pretty much just making her say things that I would say. (That says a great deal for my character development, doesn’t it? >_<) Then again, I have been mistaken for being sixteen before…. Great.

    I’m really hoping I don’t have this problem right now. Except maybe one character, who’s supposed to be seven, but who might sound more like five sometimes. I’m having a little trouble with her, though, because the only little kid around that age that I can look at is my eight year old sister, who’s not at all like my character. Heh, at least she’s only a minor character, so I’m really hoping it isn’t too big of a deal.

    Also, sorry for commenting like four days late… I haven’t been on WordPress lately at all.

    1. You haven’t been anywhere lately… But I’m just glad you’re here.

      That’s difficult. It really helps to have someone to model your character, at least in childishness.

      1. I’m an introverted homeschooler. Where am I supposed to go?

        Yeah… Maybe I should try to hang around the nursery at my church or something. Or wait until my baby brother is old enough to be a good model…but that might be a while.

      2. Never say never. 😛 Currently, I’m going to try for the strategy of just talking and talking until you get bored of me and stop replying. Do you think it’ll work?

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