Should you define your character’s age?


Is it important for an author to tell the age of his characters? Or should you leave it up to the mind of the reader? Well, there are mixed answers on this, but for the most part I believe some indication of age should be given, especially in longer works such as novels.

A writer emailed me the other day, asking about a comment I had made on their manuscript regarding the ages of his characters. As I was reading, I had thought the character in a certain age group, when at the end of the story I was surprisingly informed I had been completely wrong – off by about twenty years. I had told the author that the age information had been oddly placed, and should have been provided earlier in the story.

Here was his reply:

A creative writing professor in a writers group I attend at ———— University insisted that Sam had to be an older man. I couldn’t see it, but I went along with his suggestion. As for CHARACTER, I never wrote what age he was, but pictured him as being in his late twenties, so, again, you were on the mark.

I purposely did not write actual ages based on having read Stephen King’s book, On Writing. I must have misinterpreted his intent when he wrote that it’s more important to let the reader paint the picture of your character than it is for the writer to force a mental image. That’s why I stayed away from character description, but I’m certainly not opposed to it.

I believe what King meant by not “forcing a mental image” was to not overdo the description. As far as their ages – for the most part, King does have a point. For a majority of stories, you don’t necessarily need to pin an exact age on a character. “Teen” is fine instead of 16 or 17. “Middle aged” will work instead of 37 or 41.

Again, though, for most part. For your some stories, there needs to be a better painting of the characters, and their age, because sometimes it does play a significant role in the background of the character, the story, and ultimately the outcome.

Here’s an example:

Johnny has just lost his job. Now he’s having marital problems with his wife, who’s ready to take their infant son and leave.

Ok, so how would this situation change depending on the age of the character?

Johnny, 24, is a young dad trying to finish to school, when the company he’s worked at for the past three years goes belly up he gets laid off, so he ends up working several part-times jobs to make ends meat.

Johnny, 38, is an older guy with a young baby, gets laid off after 15 years, decides to go back to school and works part time jobs to do what he can for his family.

Both are the same character. Both in the same situations, but you’ve set it up differently. So how does this affect the story?

Johnny at 24: a young couple struggling with marriage, a new baby, and just learning to deal with life in general. Maybe his wife came from a family with a little more money, and so she’s frustrated at with a situation she’s never been in, and the change the stress has put her new husband of two years has gone through (ie he’s not the fun-loving boy she married anymore). Yet at the same time she somewhat sympathizes with his struggles because she knows if it wasn’t for the baby, he would have already finished school, and they’d be on the way to their planned future…

Johnny at 38: their marital problems are deeper as they’ve both been around the block several times. They had a baby late in life because they thought it would help bring back the flame between them. His wife, who is now pulling a double-shift, feels he should have his career set and be earning a steady income – after all, she married him when he had that job, and had planned on him keeping it until he retired – so when he looses his job she sees him as a lazy deadbeat and flips…

The age itself isn’t what’s important. It’s the set up. Regardless of what age you do decide to label your characters with, even without mentioning an exact number you need to play up on the background. The history, experiences (that come with age) and maturity of the character will greatly affect the way the character approaches obstacles, interacts with others, and how they view themselves.

It also helps, when your readers are trying to picture the character, by giving a ballpark estimate of their age. Without mentioning a number, you can put in details that would allude to age: receding hairline, hair color, lines around the eyes or mouth, body build, maybe trouble climbing that hill or squeezing through that tube.

And you need to do it at the beginning of the novel so you don’t have a reader think one thing, only to be corrected at the end.