Should Series Characters Age?

Please help me welcome Judy Alter to the blog as today’s Wednesday’s Guest. She is the author of numerous mysteries, including her latest, Contract For Chaos, that I previewed here on Sunday.

Today she is sharing some interesting thoughts on writing books in a series and dealing with characters and how they age as the series progresses. 

Iced mint tea

Judy is a fellow Texan, and down here it is still sizzling with summer heat, so perhaps we can all have a refreshing glass of sweet, mint tea as we read on. Enjoy…

Thanks so much for having me as your guest, Maryann. It is a real pleasure to be here, and I hope your readers will be able to help as I consider how to age the young people in my next Kelly O’Connell story.

The minute you write the first words of the second book in your mysteries series, you face a dilemma: will the characters age or will they remain frozen in time through perpetuity, or at least the life of the series? There are advantages to either choice.

If they never age, the people of your fictional world remain comfortably where you created them, probably behaving in predictable ways. You become quite accustomed to their way of life, their daily habits. You can rely on them, and so can your readers. They move in a familiar world.

But is a static, unchanging world the best setting for a dynamic mystery, be it of the thriller or cozy variety? Is it possible your readers will get bored with these characters? We’re often told that in each book, a character has to grow a little, mature a little, add to their life experiences. Hard to do if they never age.

On the other hand, deciding how much characters age between books and keeping up with the effects of aging, at any point in life, can get tangled and difficult. What if your characters ages into a wheelchair? Can he or she still solve mysteries? Do you lose the edge to your series?

I faced this dilemma with my Kelly O’Connell Mysteries. In the first book, Skeleton in a Dead Space, Kelly is a single mom to two daughters ages about four and six. The girls were modeled, all those years ago, on my two oldest granddaughters. I chose to have them age naturally, though I never kept rigid track of how much time passed between books. I tried to parallel the lives of the actual girls, but even that was difficult. I was forever figuring, “If Maggie twelve, how old is Em?” “If Maggie is driving, is she old enough to let Em ride in the car?” “When do they start dating?”

Somewhere along the line, I got behind—the granddaughters aged faster than my fictional characters. (Isn’t that what we always say about grandchildren: How did they grow up so fast?)

Now, in the eighth book, Maggie is facing the end of her high school career. What do I do with her then? Send her off to college and essentially remove her from the story? I certainly don’t want her to be one of those kids who never leaves the nest. Perhaps part of my problem is the real sisters I used as modes. My oldest granddaughter went off to college a year ago, while Maggie is just going into her senior high school year. Is she slow, or have I held them back? Or should I have written another book in there?

Readers probably don’t grapple with these problems, but they are very real to me. The eighth Kelly O’Connell Mystery, due out September 20, is Contract for Chaos, and the girls are nearly grown, responsible citizens. Yet Em, the younger one, is still excited by some things—a trip to a farm—that Maggie finds herself too sophisticated to enjoy. I hope, through eight books, both girls have grown emotionally and spiritually—as they would in real life and as my granddaughters have.

Meanwhile, Kelly, her husband Mike, and Keisha, her office manager, have aged but much more slowly. They’re still in their thirties, having gone from early in the decade to late in it. Kelly admits somewhere to looking forty in the face. I don’t think aging makes a much difference in behavior or judgement at that point, but maybe I should have hustled them on through the years a bit faster. Mike, of all of them, has advanced in his career, going from neighborhood police officer to district chief and, now, interim chief of police.

The girls are still comfortably in Kelly’s world for this book, but where will I take them in the ninth book? I don’t know, but I’m not rethinking my decision to let them age. I think they are more interesting. Would love reader comments.

This is a great post, Judy, and I do hope readers will weigh in on the topic. It is easier to let the adults in a story age at whatever pace you as author want them to, but once you set kids on a trajectory of growing up, it is hard to stop them. I think that’s why I have no young kids in my mystery series. 🙂

Judy Alter is the award-winning author of three mysteries series. Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and the WWA Hall of Fame.

Judy is retired as director of TCU Press, the mother of four grown children, and the grandmother of seven. She and her dog, Sophie, live in Fort Worth, Texas.

Follow her on her Amazon Author Page * Read her Blog * And visit her on Facebook

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