Can your protagonist be too old to be interesting?
Never browse Facebook, unless you’re proof against remarks that cause fits of anger.
Here’s one from an author last week:
“There’s been some chatter on other boards about seasoned romances—stories that feature heroes and heroines that are older; late 30s, 40s, even 50s+. ”
It was that “even 50s+” that got me, aged 59. And one response:
“I wouldn’t just read a book with an older hero or heroine, I wrote one… The hero in my first book is 38 years old, almost 39!” Well, jeez, that must make your readers sweat.
Reading on, I found many others thought 40+ was “old” for a main character, especially if she(!) was romantically intended. Some claimed most main characters in “contemporary fiction” were 20-30; there’d be no interest in anyone older. (I don’t know if they meant only in romantic fiction.) To feel the hurt I experienced, replace “...older; late 30s, 40’s or even 50+” with “...handicapped; mad, blind or even crippled” (I’m deliberately using discredited terms here). Not great, is it? Any better if we say: “disabled; mentally ill, visually impaired or even paraplegic” / “…gendered; trans, bisexual or even gay…” / “…minority ethnic; black, Asian, or even Jewish“? Cringing? But published fiction with minority characters doesn’t yet reflect the numbers in reality, despite exciting initiatives. Drawing attention to it is risky – (hello, trolls).
So I’ll stick to age prejudice, apparently also rife among authors. I went looking for positives: main characters in contemporary adult fiction who represent the “Seven Ages of Man” – “Ten Ages of People” works better nowadays. Obviously, some are too young for romance unless it’s illegal, but I’d argue that none are too old.
Narrator aged 0-10: Nutshell, by Ian McKewan. This narrator is under nought, he’s been in the womb for 8½ months, overhearing his mother’s dastardly plots and adoring her despite them (fuller review here.) Parts of my own second novel, currently touring the publishers, have a 7 year old narrator. I toyed with narrating it all by children, but limited vocabulary, references and understanding pose the problem that the range, however bright the child, could bore the reader. Dickens and Brontë manage it but they’re not contemporary and within their stories, their characters grow up.
Narrator and main characters aged 10-20: In The Dark Circle teenage twins from Jewish London are sent to a 1950s TB sanatorium, author Linda Grant showing contemporary pop culture through their eyes against the momentous social change caused by the establishment of the NHS. In Joanna Cannon’s much lighter The Trouble with Goats and Sheep her young heroines discover more about the adults in their small suburban close. There’s humour, wonder, and just enough fear to keep things interesting. For a teenage story from present day London, read the cheerful, haunting narration of 11 year old Harrison Opoku in Stephen Kelman’s Pidgeon English. You may need to get used to the idiom but stay with it – we ‘re right inside this naive, curious, endangered head as he lives his surroundings to the full. Romance? Oozing from the pores of Linda Grant’s characters, more in the form of pin ups for Cannon and Kelman.
Main characters aged 20-35: Need no further advocacy.
Main characters aged 35-50: To my surprise, Facebook was partly vindicated: there weren’t many on my shelves. Elizabeth Strout rescued me, with My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is looking back through her life. She married young, her parents are old enough to die of natural causes and she has two just grown up daughters, so I’m assuming she’s in this age bracket. Small town Australia provided The Dressmaker, and again, circumstances suggest this heroine is between 35 and 50 years old. But clearly a lady never tells. Both books contain loving relationships (romance?) and much besides – social and economic points, parenting, travel, independence, memory, fear, survival, managing. Rachel Cusk’s present age – 51 – puts her recent semi autobiographical fiction “Aftermath”, “Transit” and “Outline” here too. These intense, unnerving, truthful books cover the period after a woman with two young children leaves her husband. There’s loneliness, independence, grief, establishing a new home, family and other relationships.
Narrator aged 50-60 I haven’t yet read The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy but it’s been reviewed everywhere. Like Cusk’s work, it’s variously described as semi-autobiographical, fiction, near fiction, memoir…but Levy’s ten years older. Will that make matters (even) harder, or does added experience help? Definitely fictional – fortunately – is Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, the narrator a bitter older teacher spying on a glamorous colleague.
As a teacher, I disliked the poor research of how schools function, but the characters certainly stay in the memory. It was a bestselling book and film. Heller was 38 when it was published in 2003; I wonder if she’d be more compassionate to the lonely older teacher now, perhaps allow her a meaningful love life?
Main characters aged 60-70 Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam follows the story of Shamas, his wife Kaukab and their extended family in Britain and Pakistan. These rounded characters disagree, love each other and find it hard to express, are shaped by their beliefs and experiences and try unsuccessfully to influence others. It’s all imbued with colonial India, partition, life for new and established immigrant groups, generational change and misunderstanding. These complex characters destroy stereotypes, in poetic language that, if you savour it, always tells you more. Less complex but equally moving is Rachel Joyce’s narrator in The Unlikely Pilgramage of Harold Fry. Recently retired Harold is a bit lost, until a call comes from his past and he tries to reconcile past and present loves.
Main characters aged 70-80 The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell looks back through Esme’s life, sixty years of it spent in a psychiatric hospital which is now closing. Within living memory, real women were incarcerated for the reason Esme was, but this book is not wholly bleak, oscillating between past and present, treasuring small moments of beauty and strangely full of love. I was going to suggest checking in at Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (“These Foolish Things” renamed after the 2011 film). But the furious first Goodreads review reminded me of Sarah Payne’s advice: “the authors job is not to make readers know what is a narrative voice and not the private view of the author.” The characters’ upsetting views are products of their time (memory tells me the film tones them down), but the reviewer’s right to be offended by Moggach’s cartoonish descriptions of India.
Main characters aged 80-90 In Etta and Otto and Russell and James , Etta sets off on a long walk. Unlike Harold Fry, she’s not visiting a person, but aiming to see the sea for the first time. It’s over 3000 miles away, so the reader must suspend disbelief, but the poetic cadences lull you, the interdependencies and relationships cradle you, and the effect is deeply moving. Is there romance? Read and find out.
Main characters aged 90-100 Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Is this still contemporary fiction, published in 1984? It’s very long, and views are divided over whether the male author can write the female voice. But those who love it, really do.
Main characters aged 100+ I didn’t love The 100 year old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared – the premise and beginning were great, but then it was yet another implausible walk, including historical figures and an elephant. All the rest is absurd, so why not an elephant too? Nonetheless, I welcome any bestseller about a healthy centenarian.
As a Facebook responder I’d like to hug said: I’d like to think I’m still in with a chance for my heroism to be exposed!! I wouldn’t want to stretch the bounds of reality too far, but I haven’t closed the door on chances for romance, either!
I’d love more suggestions for these categories so we can keep his hopes alive.
©Jessica Norrie 2018
My thanks to Jessica for demonstrating that those of us of a certain maturity are not to be discarded as protaganists in novels, or as writers of books, that might feature spirited individuals enjoying life to the full.
The Magic Carpet – Jessica’s new release.
Outer London, September 2016, and neighbouring eight-year-olds have homework: prepare a traditional story to perform with their families at a school festival. But Nathan’s father thinks his son would be better off doing sums; Sky’s mother’s enthusiasm is as fleeting as her bank balance, and there’s a threatening shadow hanging over poor Alka’s family. Only Mandeep’s fragile grandmother and new girl Xoriyo really understand the magical powers of storytelling. As national events and individual challenges jostle for the adults’ attention, can these two bring everyone together to ensure the show will go on?
One of the reviews for The Magic Carpet
East London residents, from three generations and different backgrounds, help their children retell a traditional story in an original way. But this isn’t the cosy novel you might expect, as it deals with issues including racism, isolation, depression, FGM and domestic violence, described through interlocking first-hand accounts. In the end though, the book paints a positive, heart-warming novel of hope and the good that can be achieved through kindness, understanding and creativity. It is a lovely novel and will resonate with all parents and teachers. Recommended.
Head over and buy the book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Magic-Carpet-Jessica-Norrie-ebook/dp/B07TXZP2S2
And on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Magic-Carpet-Jessica-Norrie-ebook/dp/B07TXZP2S2
Also by Jessica Norrie in English and German
Read the reviews buy the books: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jessica-Norrie/e/B01CEUZF26
and on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Infinity-Pool-Jessica-Norrie-ebook/dp/B011RA8QZW
Find more reviews on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3270629.Jessica_Norrie
About Jessica Norrie
Jessica Norrie studied French literature at Sussex University, and trained as a teacher at Sheffield. Then she wandered into parenthood, told her now grown up children stories, and heard theirs. A qualified translator, she worked on an eclectic mix of material, from health reports on racehorses to harrowing refugee tales. She taught adults and children, co-authored a textbook and ran teacher training. In 2008 came the idea for “The Infinity Pool”, which appeared in 2015 (and in German in 2018). Her second novel “The Magic Carpet”, inspired by teaching language and creativity in multicultural schools, is published on July 22nd, and she is working on a third. She also spends time blogging, singing soprano, walking in the forest and trying to move out of London.
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I know Jessica would love your feedback on the post and it would be great if you could share. thanks Sally