Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Pondering the age old question

Pythagoras just had a birthday.

Since I was en route home from a writers’ conference and not there to wake him with cake and a pony, he didn’t realize it was the anniversary of his birth until he got to work.

I suppose it’s like this after a certain age. Unless it’s a milestone birthday like 21 or 50, you stop caring about waking to find a banana-seat Schwinn at the foot of your bed.

For me, the most important aspect of my husband’s birthday is the chance to remind him he’s five years older than me.

There’s a window between August and October when this isn’t the case, and for two months he can claim a four-year gap. I like having him restored to his rightful place as five years my elder. I am 36 and he is 41 and that is as it should be.

We met when I was barely 19, and one of our first conversations kicked off with Pythagoras informing me it was his birthday. When he told me his age, I was dumbfounded. 24? That seemed ancient. I wondered if we’d be eligible for the senior discount if I accepted his dinner invitation.

In all seriousness, the age difference has never mattered much, except to provide entertainment when pondering what the age gap would have meant when we were younger.

When he was 16, I was 11. Though we didn’t know each other, I suspect a relationship would not have been satisfying for either party.

When he was 20, I was 15. I’m sure that arrangement is acceptable in some cultures and jail cells, but there’s an ick-factor I’d prefer not to contemplate.

When it comes to writing, I don’t give a lot of thought to the ages of the characters. The hero in MAKING WAVES is 42, while the heroine is 37 – both a bit older than in many romance novels. It was a deliberate choice based on the setup for that story, but I tend to do that in most of my romances. I’d much rather write a 35-year-old heroine than a 25-year-old one, and it’s what I prefer to read as well.

I deviated from this in a mystery we shopped several months ago with a cast of 20-somethings, and an editor flagged it immediately. She felt my books were more likely to appeal to readers in their 30s and 40s and suggested I pad everyone’s résumés to add a few years. It was an easy fix, but certainly gave me something to ponder.

As a reader, do you prefer stories about characters in your age range? What do you tend to do as a writer? Where’s the oogie-threshold when you’re considering a large age gap between a hero and a heroine, and does it matter which one is older?

Please share, I’m curious.

Oh, and for the record, I think I’ll just keep aging my characters as my career progresses. I’m looking forward to the day I get to write a 78-year-old heroine being thoroughly ravaged by her 72-year-old lover.


Jennifer Foushee said...

Speaking of 78yo love, Tawna, you should check out this piece by Steve Helling in People Mag - "Betty White: You're Never Too Old for Sexual Desire" - http://bit.ly/c8lic5.

To answer your question, I like MCs in the YA and new adult stages (teens and 20s), but I don't know if that's because I'm in my 20s (and will grow out of it) or if, as I suspect, I'm actually a 16yo trapped in a body that's going to keep getting older. That said, I'm willing to read characters at just about any age if I enjoy them.


Penelope said...

Great question. I like to read about a character that is at a similar point in life to me. It's not so much an age as it is a stage. Like, a mid-twenties girl (my age) who takes no responsibility for her life is far less appealing to me than a 40-year-old struggling with love, job, family, etc.

I will look forward to reading your books in my 60's for sure!

Eleanor said...

I have never understood the tendency for romance novels to feature twenty-somethings. They don't read like twenty-somethings and I can't say I find them believable - I couldn't find my ass with both hands when I was in my 20s.

I do tend to find I seek characters who are near to my own age, mostly because they're going through similar things to me. Like ending up on pirate ships and whatnot.

I cannot wait to read it!

Jeannie Moon said...
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Jeannie Moon said...

My completed book has a 40 year old heroine and a 29/30 year old hero (He turns thirty in the book). I had a lot of fun writing it, to be sure.

As for me? Hubby and I are the same age, except for four months when he's the older one. He hits those milestone birthdays before me and I have some fun with it. In my new WIP hero and heroine are just about a year apart. It gives the characters some common ground, some common experiences, which I like.

I think each book creates it's own situation, I'd don't think I'd have an age difference of more than 10 years, but anything could happen.

Katherine C said...

I like to read books with responsible teens as MCs, probably because I still relate to that age group pretty strongly. I generally DON'T like books about ppl in their 20s as much because they come across as totally childish. I'm in my mid 20s and I don't relate well to the grownup children you tend to see in books.

But ultimately I guess age doesn't matter too much to me as a reader. I really like historical, fantasy, and sci fi stuff, and generally the cultural difference affects maturity in a good way.

BTW, I was 19 and my husband was 24 when we met too, and yes, he seemed impossibly old at the time. :-D

Nicole Zoltack said...

I prefer teens to 20 somethings, but I'm 20 something so that may play a role.

Kari Lynn Dell said...

Three of the four main characters in my current book are mid-twenties because it's the only plausible way for the story to work. They are at that break point when they can no longer postpone big decisions about their futures. Granted, they are also 'older' than most of their peers because of life experiences. But I find I write a lot of late twenties characters for the same reason...because that is a pivotal point for many people, when they make decisions that will determine where they end up

Alexa O said...

I love YA, partly because there's no pressure on the part of the author to end the story with a marriage. Also, there are such strong, funny, bright female characters to be found in YA.

But I also love to read about other age groups, including my own and older. I'd love to see MORE romance novels with older characters--50s and up--and there are very few of those.

But what do I know? I'm 29 and my boyfriend is 42. So when I was 16, he was like... 73 or something.

I dunno. I leave the math up to him. I'm too busy being the cute one. :)

Pamala Knight said...

My hero/heroine in my first ms is a late twentysomething girl paired an early thirty something guy.

I like to read about older hero/heroines too because I can relate but a well-done YA always works when it can take me back to those terrible teen days.

I think the succinct answer here is I like 'em all.

Glad you had fun at the conference and happy belated to Pythagoras.

Simon C. Larter said...

This reminds me of a friend's oft-repeated, very tired joke about wanting to die at age 90, at the hands of a 20-year old jealous husband.

I guess the 20-year old could be married to a 93-year old sugar mama, but hey.

Deborah said...
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Deborah said...

Age is relative. For me it's not the age of the character, but the journey.

I love Harry Potter books - he's a couple years younger than me.

I love Kay Scarpetta in Patricia Cornwell's novels - she's a tad older than me.

I love the way Diana Gabaldon aged Jamie and Claire through her series.

The only books I cannot stomach are any depicting immoral acts, or graphic sexual abuse against children (I'm not talking ones where the victim grows up and hunts her abuser - or where it's implied and the hero's targeting the bad person - but where it's actually described. YUCK!).

As to 78 yr/old lust...I plan to be around to read that. Of course, I'll be a smidgen older, and hopefully, still game. *g*

Stephanie said...

LOL! That last line had me giggling!!! I'm sure there is tons of love drama at the retirement complex!

I enjoy reading YA, so I have no trouble reading about characters younger than me...maybe it's my try at holding on to my youth. :) But I rarely enjoy reads of women older than me. Maybe I just can't identify yet????

Nate Wilson said...

13, 23, 43, 83, 403... if the story is compelling enough, it doesn't matter how old the characters are.

As for the age gap, it's a sliding scale. No more than a couple years' difference for protagonists in their mid-teens, up to hundreds of years for those in their mid-hundreds. I'm flexible. (Though not as flexible as that 400-year-old guy with his 200-year-old mistress. Whoa.)

Gabriela Lessa said...

As a reader, I enjoy characters of all ages. I'm in my mid twenties, and still I read books about women in their 30s and 40s, and I read YA novels. As a writerm though, I think it is easier to write within your age group, at least in the beginning. I guess debut authors just tend to take a lot from what's familiar to them, and that is particularly true to age group.

Oh, and I don't think 5 years is a big gap at all! Maybe because my dad is 5 years older than my mom and I always considered that just so normal. To me, a big gap is over 12 years. Less than that doesn't shock me.

kd easley said...

I read all over the map from YA to retirement aged sleuths. For me the story is all and the age of the characters isn't a factor unless they do something totally out of character.

My dad was nine years older than my mom, so I don't see a problem with age difference, but oddly enough I've never dated men that much older than me.

Patty Blount said...

I'm all over the range... I like reading YA. Sometimes, I think YA means Young Again, because that's how I feel when I read incredible stories, like Twenty Boy Summer.

I like reading about characters my age, too, which is FREAKIN' old enough to be Matt Delman's mom. Sigh. Seriously, I'm 44 for a few more weeks, at least.

My husband and I are almost exactly three years apart. November is a big month for us. We hit our 25th anniversary and then have our birthdays, 16 days apart. For those 16 days, he gets to claim only two years older. We met when I was 14 years old, skating in a school yard. I fell flat on my ass and he offered me lessons. He believes I "fell" for him that day, literally.

He also loves to remind me that his IQ is 2 points higher than mine. I keep demanding the proof, but nothing so far...

Liz Hayes said...

I never really thought about it, but I guess I tend to read books about characters near my age range (mid-20s to mid-30s). That's probably changed as I've aged -- when I was in my early 20s, reading about a 30-something women was vaguely off-putting. Now that I AM a 30-something woman, seems completely normal! I think the biggest exception is historical romance -- female characters tend to skew young.

One thing I've noticed about a series I read: The main character is in her mid- to late 20s. I think the series started 15ish books ago with her in her early 20s, maybe 23. She hasn't aged much chronologically, but maturity-wise, she's definitely older and wiser. Not sure if that's because of her job (lots of horror), or partly because the author is now in her 40s. So I think the characters' ... character plays a big role in how age is perceived by a reader.

I'm writing a romance about a late 20s woman and an early 30s guy. Both are surrounded by people much younger, so they probably come across as a little more mature than their ages...

Danica Avet said...

I don't know if I even really notice age in most of the books I read. Of course, um...most of them are like hundreds, if not thousands, of years old, sooo the age thing isn't really a factor. Well, unless they're hooking up with someone from the future because then that's like...negative years? I don't know, I'm not very good with math.

Anyway, I don't really pay attention to a character's age unless it's vital to the story. For the most part, I just picture Gerard Butler in every hero role and myself as the heroine, so I'm cool with that.

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Libras rock! (My b-day was a couple days ago, too :D) Personally, I like to read about characters of any age, but when it comes to romance stories I have to say I prefer heroes and heroines in their 30s and 40s. Bodies are still tight and the people living in them are (generally) more grounded then they were in their teens and twenties.

Suzi McGowen said...

It depends on who the story is for. If I'm writing for me, I write the story about a middle aged person who's really 19 or 20.

When I write for my son, the character is my son's age. (Of course, my son is anywhere from 3 to 40, so that gives me a wide range of characters.)

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I do like reading stories about people my age (29), because they're usually going through the same things that I am. But most of the stories about people in their twenties are when they're in their early twenties, and somehow I think people in their early twenties are typically in a different situation than people who are almost 30.

Linda G. said...

Happy Birthday, Pythagoras!

Since I'm 4 months older than TG, I know what it feels like to hit the milestone birthdays before one's spouse. Pythag, I feel your pain.

OTOH, it's kind of fun to be a cougar. ;)

As far as character ages...I read and enjoy a pretty wide range. Same with my writing.

Christi Goddard said...

I'm roughly one month older than you.

Now that we've come to the understanding I am your elder, you now have to do what I say and be all respectful and stuff, right?

I tend to write male characters in their teens, though sometimes up to their 40s. Either way, I've definitely got inner-maleness happening.

Sydnee said...

Most romance novels I read deal with characters in their late twenties or early thirties. Honestly, when they start to get up to 37-ish I get twitchy, because then I start to think of my dad. And that is the exact opposite effect a romance novel should have.

As for age gaps... anything over seven years is too much. Even seven years is pushing it for me, but as long as he's hot, meh, he passes (I've also noticed that it's always the GUY that's older... what, are men too superficial to date older women or something? Or are older men just better because they're more experienced?).

I'm eighteen, by the way - I've always enjoyed romances dealing with people older than myself because guys my age tend to be idiots (well, moreso than they are later on). ;)

Dominique said...

I tend to write about characters in my age range. The heroines I read about are usually +or- five years on me. The heroes, that's a different story, because in most books I read, the hero's got some years (up to 7+) on his girl. That's okay with me, so long as they're mature adults.

In my current WIP, the hero has about three years on the heroine, and that's my line, because they're both rather young for a large age gap.

Anonymous said...

Now that I am officially not in my 30's anymore, I do have to say it's nice to read the occassional book with a mc that I couldn't have babysat.

By the way, there was a 20 year difference in my last relationship. I did the "you could have toasted me at my first birthday." etc thing but the age difference really didn't show itself until he'd start talking about something and I'd have to remind him I was 5 when it happened.

Malin said...

I'm 24 but I don't have a preferrence to characters in my own age when I read. However, the character must act their age (or have a reasonable explanation why they aren't). It won't work changing the age to 35 from 25 and not the maturity state of the character (face it, we go different dreams and ways of thinking depending on what age we have).

About the age gap - I have a sci-fi manuscript in which includes not only a gay romance, but an age difference in it as well. One is 29 and the other in their forties. Age is not about a number on a page, but about which stage of life you're at. People need to stop judging what is proper love from meaningless facts such as age, gender, colour of our skin and religion.

Tawna Fenske said...

Jennifer, I like that Betty White article, thanks!

Penelope, great point about it being less about the number and more about where the character is in his/her life!

Eleanor, well the important question is can you find your ass with both hands now? Because that would be kinda inconvenient.

Jeannie, good point, I've found when there's more than a 10yr age gap, it seems to become THE CENTRAL ISSUE in the story.

Katherine, isn't it funny how you see that 19 vs. 24 age difference at the time versus 10 or 15 years later?

Nicole, making a note to myself to add some teens to my next book :)

Kari Lynn, good point about late 20s being a pivotal point for most people. I honestly don't notice a huge difference in characters ranging between 27 and 35, but I know some editors seem to.

Alexa, that's so funny, I'd never thought about the fact that YA doesn't have to end with marriage. Well, neither does romance these days, but it's always a "will they or won't they?" issue.

Pamala, should we sing the "it's all in the execution" chorus now? :)

Simon, I've never head that expression before, but I think I'll tattoo it on my arm.

Deborah, I just swooned a little at the thought of Jamie & Claire. Sigh.

Stephanie, I don't mind stories of women older than me unless that becomes the central issue and it's this big angsty, menopausal thing. That gets old.

Nate, flexibility would indeed be key with a 200-year age difference!

Gabriela, my great grandmother was 11 years older than my great grandpa, so they barely made that cutoff! :)

KD Easley, Pythag is definitely the biggest age gap with anyone I've dated, though obviously we met when we were so young that any bigger gap would have been creepy!

Patty, I'm cracking up over the "old enough to be Matt Delman's mom" comment. Way to put it in perspective!

Liz, which series is that? I love Sue Grafton's alphabet series because she chose never to age her character, and also to keep her stuck in the early 80s.

Danica, I can see how age would be irrelevant once you reach 1000, LOL!!

Nicole, I always forget Pythag's sign. Libra, huh? Does that mean he's nuts?

Suzi, wait, your son is between 3 and 40? Does he time travel?

Neurotic Workaholic, agreed, early 20s is waaaaay different than early 30s in terms of life experience!

Linda G, I love the idea of you being a cougar 4 months each year!

Christi, are you going to boss me on the playground now?

Sydnee, well Alex in MAKING WAVES is 42, but I promise he won't make you think of your dad! :)

Dominique, isn't it funny how a 7 year age gap isn't a big deal when the hero is older, but it would give us pause if the woman were the older one?

writermomof5, LOL, Pythagoras actually has a co-worker who used to be his babysitter. It's weird for both of them!

Malin, amen to this! "ge is not about a number on a page, but about which stage of life you're at."

Thanks for reading, guys!

Liz Hayes said...

The series I referred to was Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake Vampire Hunter. Good stuff, but it's not for everyone -- it's a mashup of horror, paranormal, erotica, mystery, etc. As the series progresses, the sex definitely gets intense and hard-core.

Claire Dawn said...

I like early 20's, but apparently that's not a lucrative enough markets and those books are few and far between. So I read YA.

LadyGenette said...

I have a couple planned for my series that is about 5 years apart. The series begins when she's 11 and he's 16, which is a little weird. I've played around with their ages enough to figure out when I'm finally going to have them start dating (17 & 22), but it's a challenge. Sometimes people get really skivved by the age difference. I think it's cute.

I think I've finally caught up on my commenting.