How old is your favorite series character? What year does she/he live in?
I won’t be surprised if those questions have you stumped.
Sometimes I think even the authors are a little vague about these details. The question of how to – or whether to – age a protagonist over the course of a series is one that a lot of writers wrestle with. That problem goes hand in hand with the dilemma of passing time.
A year or more usually goes by between publication of books in a series. A year has passed in the lives of writer and readers. But has a year passed in the characters’ lives? Or have they cruised out of one dangerous mess and right into the next? Sue Grafton took the latter route, with the result that her Kinsey Milhone is still living in the 1980s, when the first books in the series were published.
If we want our characters to move ahead in real time, that means we have to address their ages. Or do we? Janet Evanovich thinks not. She has declared that Stephanie Plum will be 31 forever. Ed McBain published his first 87th Precinct novel in 1956 and the last one in 2005, but although the times changed in the stories, Carella, Hawes, Meyer, Kling and the rest of the gang stayed on the job at pretty much the same ages. If sales are the best indication, I’d say readers didn’t mind at all.
It’s easy enough to pin down the year if the books are historical and make use of actual events, but those of us who set our stories in “the present” often avoid naming a specific year because we’re afraid future readers will feel they’re reading old news. So the actual year may be kept vague, and we walk a fine line between sounding current and sounding dated. Slang and technology are our banes. In this fickle society, what’s in today may be out and forgotten by the time the book is published.
We also have to be careful about dropping real national and international events into our stories. Many series characters live in a little bubble, as if the outside world doesn’t exist. Sometimes, though, an event changes the world so profoundly that we can’t entirely ignore it in fiction. The multiple-front terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, doesn’t have to be mentioned by name, but we must acknowledge the hassle our characters now face when they travel – no last-minute dashes to airline counters for tickets, followed by quick boardings – and the security cameras and metal detectors in many public buildings.
If the development of a romantic relationship is a major part of a series, the writer has no choice but to slow things down. Readers want the details, they want to share the experience. They don’t want to suddenly jump ahead a year and discover the hero and heroine are now an old married couple with a baby. Deborah Crombie has handled her characters especially well, letting Duncan and Gemma fall in love and create a life together in more or less real time. Their constant involvement in crime is believable because they're police detectives. With amateur detectives, slowing down the personal life leads to a variation of Cabot Cove Syndrome on the crime front: why is this woman falling over a dead body every three weeks?
I’ve faced all these problems (except the marriage and baby) in my Rachel Goddard books.
I didn’t write The Heat of the Moon with the thought that it would be first in a series. The story took possession of my heart and imagination, and all I thought about was following Rachel through her journey of discovery. Selling it took several years. Then I discovered that, whether I had intended to or not, I was writing a series. The Heat of the Moon has one reference in it that firmly sets the story in a particular year, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I’d killed that darling. I’ve had to be vague about years and ages in the subsequent books, although when people ask how much fictional time passed between the first and second, I always say about three years. Then they ask why I didn’t write a book (or two) about those years in Rachel’s life. You can see the kind of trouble writers create for themselves when they’re too specific.
Do you think about the passage of time when you read a series? Does it bother you if you don’t know a character’s exact age? Which writers do you think have handled these issues especially well?
And all of you writers out there -- How are you handling your characters' ages and the passage of time in your books? Why did you decide to do it that way?