Writing: Age Tropes

I have a plot floating around in my head and I’m struggling with one factor: AGE

I need the character to be young enough to be “impressionable” – but old enough to actually be effective in their world.  Old enough to garner respect of those around them. You know: An Adult.

I classify characters, protagonist or not, into a few “age” tropes:

  • Child. A child can have any number attached, but they dependent on someone else for education, support, supplies, etc. Whether 2, 20, or 200 – if they are still unable to support themselves within their society, they are A Child.
  • Transition. The classic “coming of age” character. Trying (and sometimes failing) at being independant. Hopefully having a good support system to fall back on. I love having secondary transition characters. Highlighting either my protagonist’s continued child status, or creating a point of conflict when they are the person the transition-er is becoming independant FROM.
  • An Adult. What this means (again 2, 20, or 200…) they do not need anyone else to take care of their survival needs. They are in a place in life where they can be moving into leadership; afterall, their “training” or “education” which defines them as “done” in their society says they could be ready for it.
  • Teacher/Elder. This is the “Gandalf” trope to a tee. This is the elder-advisor who even An Adult is allowed to turn to for advice. The teacher might be a 2-year old dragon who is linked to the universal touch of magic or a 200-year old wizard. Doesn’t matter – they have the knowledge that is being sought.  A seven year old child who is teaching the protagonist how to cook for the first time steps into this role for at least a scene.

I call them tropes instead of groups because, as I stated multiple times, the number in their age doesn’t matter – it’s all about the role they are playing. And a well-rounded character might slip in and out of these roles throughout a book/series.

Setting of course is integral to picking the age of a character.  In a pre-modern-medicine world, 16 should be An Adult. But in sci-fi, someone may not be prepared to take command of others pre-30s.  Then they are An Adult.  If the age at which someone should become An Adult does not match the setting “natively” or does not match modern expectations (soooo many fantasy settings still put ~18-20 as transition or adult… it makes me giggle) – the author needs to make sure they explain WHY.  The dragon is tapped into the memories of all their ancestors. They are “remembering” rather than “learning” knowledge.

The struggle is when in my head the world is about 80% built and I don’t like the expected age. I don’t want a 15 year-old protagonist. I don’t want 30 either. I want them to have had more “transitional” experiences than fifteen allows. BUT: I need them young enough they are not yet An Adult, I want a protagonist who can do some good growing. AND – I would have to explain why they aren’t married/kids/farm/trade/SETTLED…

I have to do one of two things: adjust my character or adjust my world. Why does THIS world maintain a later “age” of adulthood than pre-modern-medicine actually did. How do they compensate for a shortened breeding span? Do they? Or do they mimic modern-medicinal treatments with magic? Maybe I can give up on some of the pre-novel experiences I would like them to experience. Will they still have the knowledge and skills they need to survive the plot? If I give up experience A, and they haven’t dealt with it before – can they still tackle plot point 3? Would it still make sense?

I put a lot of thought into my protagonist, but I’ve had this same struggle with other characters: the “Gandalf” trope is strong in fantasy and it’s hard to get around it sometimes (there are reasons it works so well!). BUT…. the old man with magic having the tools/knowledge/desire to help…. it’s soooo old (no pun intended). Surely I/we/you can put some kind of new spin on this! Maybe instead of an old man it’s a ghost. Or a vampire. Or… a dragon… a fairy… but then WHY.

Many of my characters who show up for one scene have a lot more built out in my head… I know what is motivating them. I know how they managed to make this Age Trope match their actual age-number/description. I have to know.


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