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Jay Lake
Date: 2012-03-12 05:48
Subject: [process] Mature characters with backstory
Security: Public
Tags:books, endurance, escapement, green, kalimpura, madness, mainspring, movies, pinion, process, rocket science, starship, sunspin, trial, writing
Saturday evening I was texting with [info]bravado111 (urban fantasy author J.A. Pitts) about how much we both liked Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moonjlake.com | LiveJournal ]. John observed that the book read like the fourth volume of a series, and compared it to the original Star Wars movie, now known as A New Hope.

This got me on to thinking about mature protagonists, a topic which has already been on my mind somewhat of late. Mature characters come with their own backstories, their own histories. (For that matter, so do infants, but in dramatic narratives, people with fully formed life histories are usually more interesting.)

Among my books, Rocket Science, Mainspring, Escapement, Pinion, Green, Endurance and Kalimpura all center around young protagonists. Death of a Starship and the Flowers books deal with people in middle age. (The Before Michaela Cannon, core protagonist of Sunspin's ensemble cast, is 2,000 years old, so she's a bit of an outlier.) With those younger protagonists, a major aspect of the story being told is their own journey to maturation and discovery of their life path. The older protagonists have a lot of backstory and implied action embedded in their preferences, desires, choices and reactions to the unfolding of the plot.

Certainly that latter effect is what Saladin achieved in Throne of the Crescent Moon. Hence [info]bravado111's reaction. Those characters had been around a long time, had experienced many prior adventures, had lived.

What I'm now chewing on is whether I think it's a bigger challenge to write a youthful protagonist or to write an older protagonist. How does this affect the reading experience? Green and its subsequent volumes would be very different books if she were middle aged at the time of the action. Some of the key underlying themes of Sunspin would be null and void if Cannon weren't literally the oldest human being who had ever lived. And Ahmed's Doctor Adoulla Makhslood wouldn't be anything like he is if he were still living in the bloom of youth.

Food for thought, indeed. What's your take, as either a reader or a writer, on the age of protagonists?

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User: cathshaffer
Date: 2012-03-12 13:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think it's always a challenge to write a protagonist significantly older than oneself. Saladin did a great job of it, but most people seriously lack insight on the lived experiences of older people. Not to mention the fact that our culture glorifies youth, so you are starting out with a handicap in terms of sympathy (or a perceived handicap) for many readers. Old age is the condition no one wants to be in, and it's something that many middle-aged and young people have convinced themselves can't happen to them because they eat right/live a healthy lifestyle/don't eat meat/run marathons/whatever.

The older I get, the more I realize that old age is another country, one I have not worked very hard to understand. And I believe many of our elders deliberately hide/shield us from what it's like to be old.

On the contrary, everyone understands what it is like to be young. (So ironic, because young people generally don't believe this. Ha.) And in fact many of us are stuck in some behavior compensatory and defensive behavior patterns that we developed while young--OR, are still, decades later, trying to impress high school peers that were important to us at the time.
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User: jordan179
Date: 2012-03-12 13:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Older ones -- if done well. Older people realistically have not ony more backstory but also more of the baggage with goes with it. They've loved, hated, and felt all the other emotions one would expect, and they have long lists of old friends, enemies, political passions, etc. etc. Too often, however, writers just write them to fit a role, and assume that because they are old they are inactive in every way other than being a mentor or obstacle or whatever they are in relation to the hero.

Mind you, from a young hero's POV this may be realistic, because the young often see the old one-dimensionally.
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User: a_cubed
Date: 2012-03-12 14:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Tamara Siler Jones did an excellent job with her fantasy detective trilogy which starts with Ghosts in the Snow (if you like detective fantasy they're well worth a look - there's only three plus a short story somewhere, I think she got caught up in the shift to "urban" i.e. modern settings for this kind of work and got dropped by her publisher which was a pity). The main character is pretty old when the trilogy starts and has all sorts of personal and political backstory which gradually emerges (I won't spoil, but there's a great scene in the third book between him and the local feudal lord).
Based purely on my own experiences I found it difficult to relate to old characters as a teen and very early twenties but by the time I hit my late twenties I was happy with well-drawn characters of any age so long as they made sense and didn't have too much history for their current age or too little).
Glen Cook's Black Company is also quite good with the main viewpoint character for many though not all of the books going from middle age to old through the series.
Here's a somewhat related question. How do you feel about very long-lived characters. I find immortals like vampires or serious sorcerors to often be hard to swallow. Some authors do well with this, including Heinlein with Lazarus Long, Cook with Lady, Alastair Reynolds with oh so many. Lots of others simply have them be behind the times and failing to grasp the modern age being their downfall, but missing the point that they'd likely have already fallen if they were THAT old-fashioned, or too up to date and without any of the baggage of having grown up centuries ago.
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User: msconduct
Date: 2012-03-12 21:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Something I'd say about particularly young protagonists: while I enjoy reading YA and there are a lot of fantastic YA novels out there, they are inevitably about the protagonists Learning, Growing And Changing in a way that's a little predictable. Older protagonists learn/grow/change as well, but in more varied ways.
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User: ulfhirtha
Date: 2012-03-13 12:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Naturally I expect an author to choose whichever best fits the story they wish to tell. :-)

Certainly a young protagonist appears to be very helpful for stories where the author is introducing the setting to us as the youth experiences them (ala Luke Skywalker) and we get to experience it with them and see them grow. This facet also seems to fit with more mature protagonists as well so long as the "world" of the story is new to them (Bilbo, Arronax, etc).
Sometimes an older but inexperienced protagonist has a lot of unlearning to do as well, which can also be interesting to follow.

On the other side - currently I am reading Manly Wade Wellman's stories of Silver John & C.L.Moore's of Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry and it is clear that each features more mature and accomplished protagonists (if not especially older). They seem to fit into their worlds better than the younger ones, having already found their way in them and the characters themselves seem the richer for having those hints of backstory and yet further adventures beyond those described. Very suitable for a recurring character such as Solomon Kane, Silver John or Sherlock Holmes.

In this sense, it seems that with a young protagonist, the world has greater depth and they acquire it with moving into and experiencing it. With an older one they have greater depth of their own already and from the outset invite us to explore them as well as the setting.
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