Friday, December 06, 2013

To Age or Not to Age

In mid-November I joined two other mystery writers for a four-day book tour in the Raleigh, North Carolina area. At one of our stops, someone in the audience asked a question that I am still pondering. She (as I recall the questioner was a woman) wanted to know if the characters in our series are aging naturally (as opposed to being more or less frozen in time). Of the three of us, I was the only one whose protagonist has been aging in real time. Now, this is a bit confusing because series real time often moves much slower than real time as we experience it. Since 2000, I've written and had published five book in my Lizzie Stuart series. Three books came out between 2000 and 2003, the fourth in 2007, and the fifth in 2011. During that eleven year, only two years passed in the world of the series. The calendar for those years is identical to that of the calendar in the real world. But because only two years of series time has passed, the books that began in the present are now set in the recent past. The fifth in the series is set in 2004.

In two years of series time, my protagonist, crime historian Lizzie Stuart, has aged from 38 to almost 40. It never occurred to me that she wouldn't grow older. Lizzie set out on a personal journey as she left her small town in Kentucky after her grandmother's death, vacationed in Cornwall, England with her best friend, became involved in a murder, met a Philadelphia homicide cop, went home to Kentucky, moved to Gallagher, Virginia as a visiting faculty member, found, John Quinn, the cop, had taken a position there, and began a relationship with him as homicides (past and present) occupied more of her time than she would have liked. In the fourth book, she went in search of her long-lost mother, in the fifth, she met her cop's best friends and begin to think about the life they might have together. In this fifth book, she found herself brought up short by a conversation in the kitchen between the women at the gathering about motherhood. Coming up fast on her 40th birthday, Lizzie wondered about the children she might -- or might not -- be able to have.

I like having my protagonist face the sometimes painful questions that go along with getting older and realizing that choices have to be made, that both the opportunities and the options available change. But I can understand why aging is not always a desirable choice. I have put Lizzie in a position that requires she either start having those children she and John Quinn talked about or decide maybe not. If she gets pregnant and has a baby, I'm going to be faced with some issues that I didn't foresee. If she doesn't have children, then she and Quinn will have to work out that aspect of their relationship. Of course, this question would come up sooner or later, but if Lizzie were not aging, I might be able to leave it in limbo much longer.

Thinking about this subject of aging characters has made me aware of the fact that my new series protagonist, Hannah McCabe, is thirty-four in The Red Queen Dies, the first book in the series. She's a police detective and she is age-appropriate for where she is in her career. But she is beginning to worry a bit -- not too much, but just a bit -- that she is not as agile as she used to be. She is pleased when she outruns her 29 year old, male rookie partner when they are pursuing a suspect. But she is annoyed that she is out of breath after tackling and apprehending the suspect. Of course, this is 2019 and the air quality is bad on that particular day, but McCabe is unwilling to allow herself that excuse.  

McCabe has yet to experience the aches and pains of aging that she'll encounter in her forties and fifties. In series time -- the next book begins three months later -- it could be many years before she enters her next decade. But along the way she will be having birthdays that will make her think about the impact of her career choice on her personal life.

I can understand why many authors don't keep a calendar with their protagonist's age circled in red. In a long-running series, a character who is aging naturally could reach an age when he or she should find it more difficult to engage in physically-demanding crime solving (e.g., being beaten up and bouncing back gets a lot harder). Aging also can be a problem with minor characters. In my Lizzie Stuart series, I have a character named Miss Alice, the owner of a restaurant in Gallagher. Miss Alice knew Lizzie's now deceased grandmother when they were both children. Miss Alice is aging at a snail's pace because I want her to keep holding court at her table in the Orleans Cafe. I want her available as a resource about Gallagher's past for Lizzie, my crime historian. In fact, Miss Alice plays a crucial role in a recent short story.

To age or not to age, that is the question. I think it depends on the subgenre and the demands of the series. An author might have a character that readers love returning to book after book and finding him or her unchanged. The magic of fiction -- writers can turn back the clock (prequels), slow it down, or stop it as needed.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I've been working on a series arc and asking myself the same questions, especially for the background cast of the protagonists families. You've given me some good stuff to think about and I might just have the whole series happen within, say, a five-year span.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

I'm glad this post came at a time when you were trying to work through the aging issues. Intriguing to have a series happen within a five-year span.