Thoughts on Writing – Aging Up Characters

I’ve been getting feedback from beta readers for Magic’s Stealing, and one of the comments that has been fairly consistent is that the characters (which I intended to be around twenty years old) feel like they’re twelve- to sixteen years old, effectively making the story sound like it’s aimed at a middle grade or the lower end of the YA audience. Which isn’t a bad thing… if I meant for my characters to be younger. However, I’m hoping to get them to sound like they’re at least eighteen, so it’s time to consider what’s making them sound younger, and what can be done to make them sound older. ūüôā

To start with, once I knew that their age was an issue, I sought feedback from the beta readers. I needed to know why these characters were sounding younger.

1. Their actual age isn’t mentioned until later in the story. This leaves their age¬†open for interpretation, and by the time a reader gets to the¬†point where their age is mentioned, readers¬†already have a solid idea of the¬†characters’¬†ages in mind. (As a side note, there’s a book I read recently,¬†Renegade by J.A. Souders, in which a certain intimidating character is revealed to be a child. The story is told in first person by a character who is brainwashed into thinking nothing of this, so¬†she’s not surprised, but it is a twist for the reader. As a reader, I personally loved that twist. However,¬†it did take me a little while to hold the image of a child in my head, rather than that of an older teenager. In ¬†my current manuscript, I don’t want this kind of surprise for the age of my main characters, so I may need to bring up their ages sooner).

2. The characters¬†act¬†younger.¬†In the opening scene, my main character, Toranih, is nervous because she’s been hearing footsteps and thinks she’s being watched. As soon as she ‘turns out the light,’ she dives under the covers of her bed. Personally, I love the image. However… this isn’t what we typically picture an older person doing. Therefore, the first impression is that Toranih¬†must be younger. An option to fix this may be to have her consider diving under the covers, but she forces¬†herself to walk calmly to bed. Or she may walk calmly to bed but reference that she’s going to bed with a knife at her side. Or… some combination thereof. Haven’t decided yet.

Darkness flooded Toranih Covonilayno’s sleeping chambers as she mentally extinguished her magic crystal’s light. She dropped the crystal on her dresser and rushed to her bed, then dove under the covers.

Silly, she knew, but the last few nights had brought strange creaking noises from the attic, soft footsteps and the brushing of rough wool on the edges of the wooden floorboard above. She listened now, waiting to see if the footsteps returned.

3. Lack of romance. The current draft doesn’t show much in the way of a romantic interest between the main characters. Now, that’s not to say you must have romance in a story to make it YA or adult, but without romance, this story seems like a more likely candidate for an MG novella. When I go to edit, I plan to hint a little more at the (lack of) romance between the main characters. I’m toying with the idea of having Toranih and Daernan ‘technically’ courting (mostly so Toranih can keep her father from trying to point other suitors in her direction, since she’s not necessarily interested in Daernan romantically), while Daernan actually does like her. Increases tension in the story, and gives a better clue about their age.

4. Expectations for¬†the type of fantasy. Especially in YA, we seem to get a lot of hints that the teenage main characters are either actively seeking (or avoiding) marriage. These worlds have their characters finding partners at a younger age. In Magic’s Stealing, I’m going with the idea that the characters live longer and have a tiny bit more ‘modern’ of a society (with magic taking the place of electricity, but in an older setting with kingdoms and lords and ladies). However, to pull this off, I’m going to have to show more of their world. We need to see older characters walking in the streets. Maybe a reference to food spoiling when their ‘magic refrigerator’ no longer has magic to keep food cold. Maybe a reference that going to an academy for magic, versus sticking around and getting married, is¬†a common occurrence. I’m considering having Toranih’s sister, Siklana, already be accepted into an academy (think college), rather than expecting to be accepted at the end of the month. Maybe she’s back at the manor because she’s visiting, and she’s¬†planning to oversee the festival that takes place at the beginning of the book. And maybe Toranih actually is studying swordsmanship, rather than dreaming about it, but her lessons are private since she can’t convince her father that being a guardsman is fitting for a lady of her status (but she can’t pass her magic exams, so… what else is she going to do?). There’s a lot of world building opportunities here, and the great thing is that these changes¬†don’t have to¬†be¬†major alterations.

5. Lack of (graphic) violence. Though there are a couple battle scenes, we don’t really see much blood spilled, and nor do we get graphic depictions of the shadows who are burned. Now, this doesn’t mean it isn’t for older readers, but it makes it more open to an MG audience. That being said, I’m ¬†considering adding a bit more detail to these scenes, partially for the impact they have on the main characters, and partially so that once we get to the second book, it doesn’t come as a surprise when we actually start seeing more violence coming into play. Doesn’t mean it’s going to be gratuitous. Just means that the MC is going to be distinctly aware of what’s going on around them.

Her friend had backed into a rocky cove, but he was using that to focus his attention on the growing force of shadows in front. He shifted back and forth, thrusting each hand separately and delivering a blast of air or a blast of fire, to which they ducked and dived away.

The shadows shied from the wind, but they hated fire. They scuttled aside when his magic seared their hands and scalded their weapons. They sent new shadows to fight while they nursed their burns. Those burns healed, but slowly. And one shadow lay dead on the floor, burned beyond recognition, and did not appear to be healing at all.

Toranih shuddered. If these were mortal men, Daernan wouldn’t be using fire like this.

But fire did hurt them, and they weren’t mortal men.

6. How other characters perceive them. The antagonist refers to the main characters as the ‘boy’ and the ‘girl.’ Granted, from a god-like character who can’t die, it makes sense that she’d view these characters as being childlike. But with this scene placed early in the novel, it doesn’t help the perception of the main characters’¬†ages as being younger. I’ll probably keep these kinds of references for the actual¬†deities, but at that point, the actual ages for the MCs should be established, so the reference should hint more at the internal thoughts of the deities in question.

A cloaked figure knelt beside a sprawling sycamore near the girl’s window, her eyes trained on the two owls.

Finally, they’re gone, the figure thought to herself. She climbed up the tree, bark catching on the tips of her leather boots, then slipped inside the open window. The room was dark, but the light crystal glowed with residual energy and lit the bare essentials.

The girl had rearranged the furniture since the night before. No night table or pile of books, and her usual set of sparring knives didn’t hang from the wall. Probably locked in the chest at the foot of the bed, or buried under the mattress.

There’s a lot of little things that could affect the perceived age of the main characters, and with a few tweaks here and there, I think I can have¬†them sounding like they’re at least eighteen. And it’s worth noting that I do read a lot of YA and the occasional MG book. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that my narrative voice would lean that direction.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and now it’s your turn. Have you had any experiences with your writing or reading where characters don’t sound like the age that they’re supposed to?


Filed under Personal Work, Writing

6 responses to “Thoughts on Writing – Aging Up Characters

  1. Yes, I’ve had this problem too – in both directions! In my new WIP, people say my MC sounds too old for MG. But I reeeeaaally want it to be MG!!

    I do think that you’re spot-on about the “framing” of it : ie the opening scene is crucial in establishing how we perceive of the MC, and we’re not going to shift our opinions/assessments readily once established. So yeah, I agree, if you can make her seem super-mature in that scene, then we’ll have an image of her as YA not MG.

    You also mentioned the romance thing. I do think this is something you could play up more – even in passing – about the guardsman she kinda has a thing for (this was mentioned once, briefly I think).

    One thing I think that’s really hard about writing the proper age is that to be honest I don’t think the vast majority of MG/YA/Adult books write their MCs authentically age-wise. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just the way it seems to be. All the characters are shifted up in maturity level. The MCs always seem to have it way more together and a far larger vocabulary than the average person … with a few “teen” moments and slang thrown in for flavor. But still, uber-mature. Way more mature than I am anyways. :p

    (as evidenced by the tongue-sticky-outie-thing XD)

    • Ugh. Yeah, I hear you. I just seem to have the opposite problem. (I’m sure you remember beta-reading Distant Horizon, and how old those characters sounded in the earlier drafts)…

      I think the framing of the opening scene will have a big impact on the perception of the MC. As much as I like having Toranih dive under the cover, I don’t think it’s portraying her as the right age.

      You like that guard character, don’t you? ūüėČ (And I think there is a hint about Toranih eyeing the guard, or his ability to fight, anyway). I do have a few ideas of how to slip in the romance angle for both Toranih and Daernan.

      I hadn’t thought about the proper age actually not being accurate in books due to the ‘readers reading up’ factor, but that makes sense, given the number of books I read where I think the characters sound older than they should.


  2. Interesting post. I like how you’ve thought this through; it makes sense and seems that just a few minor changes here and there will do it. I’m often amazed how just a few strategically-placed phrases or sentences can alter meaning and impressions as well as plug holes.

    • Indeed. Small changes can have a big impact. Even with foreshadowing, sometimes a single sentence, strategically placed, can change the whole meaning of a story. But I enjoy thinking about those kinds of ramifications. It’s like a puzzle, and it’s fun to see everything finally come together. ūüôā

  3. I might add that the whole “grounded” thing in the first scene also plays into the age impressions. Even if it’s just “I’m on thin ice with the family after the…incident” the word grounded instantly sets up an expectation in my mind.

    • True. One of my other beta readers also mentioned that. I’m thinking of changing the wording or cutting the reference to take care of that particular incident.

      There’s quite a few little things throughout the story that may be contributing to the younger perception, so I’ll be making a number of tweaks.

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