And, no, before you ask, this is not a parenting article, nor is it an article of how to manage your aging parents (I knew you always wanted the house to yourself, o schemer mine). However, in fiction, individuals of much younger or much older age can pose problems to the inexperienced writer.
All’s well when you write about middle aged adults and teenagers, right? They’re pretty predictable and (no offense) fairly drywall for the most part. Of the characters in literary works (both movies and books), most of them fall into the category of young adult or middle-aged adult. And no wonder: those are the individuals with the most action, the most fight. They’re the movers and shakers: the ones that get things done.
The elderly and children are often (if you don’t count teenagers, that is–there’s a whole world of those kinds of story) sidelined as far as the mind’s fantasy is concerned. This is because they can differ so much: from well-behaved 5-year-old Mozart to your neighbor’s Dora-the-Explorer-addicted bratty son, from your kindly grandmother to Ebenezer Scrooge, the elderly and children can have a level of character that is far different from others of their kind.
Naturally, since writers duplicate from the world around them, the artists find themselves confused as they try to read for certain archetypes as they did with other characters. Your children characters tend to be vague and unoriginal (because of the sheer lack of content to add to them) and your elderly characters suddenly seem to posses a unexplained yet profound youth.
However, I exhort you: fear not! (I’m feeling poetic today, as you may have guessed already) If you were thinking about creating a good kid or grandpa then you need look no farther. (That sounded weird…) Just like Tiny Tim and Scrooge (in the same story, even), characters both elderly and young can become some of the best-written ones in general.
Here’s my top hot tip (say that ten times as fast…): when you hit a roadblock in making characters, go for an interview. Let’s say that you based the old wizard in your story after That Old Guy in the Park Who Feeds the Pigeons. Next time when he goes birding, catch him with a notepad handy and prepare to ask him a few questions along the lines of If you were a powerful magician…
This method is good for all kinds of characters, but the elderly and children especially. Unless you are 60+ years of age (hey, pardon a young whippersnapper this once) you probably don’t know what goes on in the mind of someone who is considered “old” by most. Even though you were a kid once, you probably don’t remember everything about what you would have done in a given fictional situation. (And if you do, you might want to interview yourself)
What kind of questions would you ask? Mostly the kind that follows the template of If you were X, would you do, say, think, or act like Y? After all, your model in real life is the person. You can make minor changes to what the person says that they would do, say, think, or act like. Don’t feel tethered to what that person said, but keep it as a sort of key word outline. Something to point your thoughts in a good direction, something to get you unstuck.
Aside from that method, you could always use the method of Quote-Farming. (Let it be recorded that I was the first to coin and use that term) Quote-Farming is gathering quotes from people in real life, then deducing that person’s character from scratch based on the quotes.
For example, your four-year-old progeny may not say very intelligible things, but when he or she does, write it down. Do this until you have a pretty solid ten to twenty “quotes”. Then start from scratch, forming a character based on the quotes (as in, you make the kind of character that would say the kind of things that a two-year-old would say).
Remember, when you have a problem with any character, start back at the roots. You don’t necessarily need to rewrite the whole person, but going back and seeing what your prime inspiration was may help you more than you think.
Good luck, and happy writing!
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!