Friday, August 28, 2015

Writing the Older Character

My grandmother recently made the decision to move into assisted living, a move that will be helpful to her in many ways and puts her into close contact with her friends (who also live there) on a daily basis. What I have noticed about my grandmother’s transition into this new phase of life is that even though she is experiencing anxiety about the physical aspects of moving and making a change, her zest for life has returned. She is more energetic and enthusiastic, knowing that she will be able to live around her friends and have daily activities to look forward to in her new life.

Grandma and I. :)
Last weekend, we began the “packing up” and “cleaning out” process, and we came across about three large boxes in the back of her closet. I brought them out and opened them in front of grandma, and it turns out that the boxes were full of her old diaries—diaries she still doesn’t want anyone to read. (By the way, I totally get that and we are in the process of burning them without reading anything, per her wishes.)

But this isn’t a post about longing to take a voyeuristic look into my grandmother’s past! Instead, the experience of finding these diaries made me look at my grandmother in an entirely new way. As happens with children and parents, and grandchildren and grandparents, the younger generation only has limited experience with the generations that come before them—and this often causes us to pigeon hole the  previous generations into limited roles. Grandma is my grandma. I never think of her as teenager, lover, worker, etc. But seeing all of these diaries reminded me that I should, and it also made me think about how I write about elderly characters.

Writing about people who are older than ourselves is challenging, because in some ways we feel like a fraud trying to describe a life stage we haven’t yet experienced. (At least, that is the way I sometimes feel!) When I taught freshman composition courses and had to instruct students on writing personal narratives, the first exercise I had them do was to bring in a photo of themselves where they remember having specific thoughts as the photo was taken. For example, perhaps they had just broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend but they still put on a smile for the camera even though they were dying inside. This exercise they found simple, because it was about them. But during the next class, they had to bring in a photo of an older family member or friend and approach the assignment from a different perspective. In other words, they had to really think about another person as an individual with life experiences they didn’t consider most of the time.

At first, they thought the exercise was kind of silly, but most of them said that it ended up being one of the most insightful experiences they had in the class when it came to thinking about character and narrative. Humanizing our older relatives and friends, and really thinking about all of the experiences that made those people into who they are, can make our lives richer, but I also think it can make our writing more complete as well.

I know that older characters are sometimes harder to find in romance, and we usually gloss over them as secondary to the hero and heroine, but if an older character appears, that person should be as authentically drawn as possible and play a real role in the story. It might seem intimidating to write about an older person at first, perhaps because of lack of experience or because you don’t want to jump into a stereotype. But remember: An older character gives you a whole life story to work with in really fun ways!

Do you write about older characters often? What are your strategies?

Susan Sierra is a historical and contemporary romance writer. She loves books and old letters, adores her dog and family, and has a deep and committed love affair with coffee. She spent time as an undergraduate studying (having fun) in Mexico, went on to work for a large regional magazine as a copy editor, and then decided that she hadn’t tortured herself enough in she went to graduate school. After many years, she walked away with a PhD and an unhealthy relationship with Charles Dickens. She hopes to complete her first full-length novel in 2015. FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER!


Carla Swafford said...

So far in any of my published books, no older characters. But in my unpublished books, I have a couple, and I love making them feisty in all ways. *eyebrows wiggles* Wonderful post.

But you're doomed now. I know that you taught writing.

And I cringed when you said you and your grandmother burned the diaries. So much history going up in ashes. *sigh*

Susan said...

Thanks, Carla! LOL! Yes, I taught college composition! I wish we didn't have to burn the diaries, but that is what she wants. I feel the same way!

Nancee Cain said...

The genealogist/writer in me gasped when you said she burned the diaries!!!!! I love writing older characters and have several in currently unpublished books. They always have an interesting take on whatever the poor hero/heroine are going through!

Susan said...

I know, Nancee! It is killing me that she wants them burned!