Is it OK to write characters who are older than you are? More mature? Characters who’ve gone through life experiences you haven’t?
Monica posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hello, Randy- I happened across your blog about three weeks ago, and it has really encouraged and challenged me- so thank you!
I read your blog yesterday about 15 year-old Colby, and in reading your response I happened across the dilemma that had been growing in my mind.
You see, I’ve been working on and writing a novel for about eight months, and I’ve nearly finished the first draft and have been going back giving everything more detail, more background, etc. As I’ve gone back and read it, I realized that my characters lacked “pop”. Part of this problem was the fact that I wrote most of the novel for the NaNoWriMo challenge in November, and planning/writing at high speed is not conducive to fleshing out characters. I am 17, and I am writing about adult characters in their late-twenties and on, and I’m worried that my lack of experience of being that old is inhibiting my ability to portray characters of that age.
Should I hold off for a few years on this novel, and work on something that has younger characters? Or should I just continue working on and rewriting this novel, and at the worst treat it as a cringe-worthy, but necessary part of my journey as writer?
Randy sez: A lot depends on where your heart is. If your heart is in writing this story, then write the story, whether or not you’ve got the life experience to write the characters credibly.
As I’ve said in previous posts on this blog, you don’t have to be like your characters to write them. You don’t have to be a man to write male characters; you don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish characters; you don’t have to be a Martian to write Martian characters.
The more unlike yourself your characters are, the more research you need to do. Monica, your characters are about ten years older than you. If you know a lot of twenty-somethings, then you might very well do just fine with writing people that age. Or not.
The easy way to find out is to get a critique from a few people in that age group. If they think you nailed your characters, then you probably did. If they don’t, then you probably didn’t.
One advantage that any outsider has in writing about characters is that the outsider sees things that the insiders take for granted. So you may be able to put some new insights into your characters. Or you might end up, as you suggested, with a piece of cringe-worthy shlock. There’s no way to know until you try.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. There’s no way to be a great writer unless you’re first ready to be a horrible, wretched, shlocky, cliche-ridden, miserably bad writer. You get good by starting out bad. Some people can’t handle that. Some people can.
There’s a word for people who can: “Authors.”
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.