I mentioned in a recent post that we seem to be seeing more older protagonists and other main characters in crime novels and series than we used to see. Of course, any Agatha Christie fan can tell you that Miss Marple’s been around for a long time. And fans of Patricia Wentworth will point to Maude Silver as an example of an older protagonist too. So elderly characters are not a recent phenomenon.
But they do seem to be more common now. To name just a few, there’s Tarquin Hall’s Mummy-ji, Johan Theorin’s Gerlof Davidsson, Inger Ash Wolfe’s Hazel Micallef and her mother Emily, and Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover. Or at least it was my impression that there are more such characters. So I decided to do a little digging into that question. I choose 247 books, published during different eras. For each book/series, I noted whether the protagonist, antagonist or other main character was older (i.e. 65 or older). Here’s what I found:
As you can see, on the surface of it, it doesn’t look as though there’ve been many ageing protagonists – only 19 (8%) of 247.
But if you dig a little deeper, you see an interesting pattern. For one thing, this data didn’t include novels where older characters play slightly more minor roles (e.g. a witness or a briefly-glimpsed relative). For another, this first look didn’t consider the role of older characters over time. So, I divided those books and series with ageing protagonists or other main characters into eras. Here are the results.
As you can see, up until the 1990’s, there really aren’t very many. The vast majority of those main characters over 65 have been created since 1990.
So what does this all mean? This is admittedly a small data set. It’s limited to books I’ve read, so there are many, many fictional characters I’ve not included. But I’ve drawn a few conclusions from this data. One is that we are, indeed, seeing more older main characters than we used to see. It’s not in other words just an impression. It seems to be happening. Another conclusion I’ve drawn is that this trend is likely to continue. A look at this data shows that we’re seeing more, not fewer, older characters as time goes on. That may level off, but I don’t think it will in the near future.
Why is this? If this data reflects what’s really happening in crime fiction, why are we seeing more ageing characters? These are just my thoughts; feel free to differ with me if you have another view. But I think the biggest reason we’re seeing this trend is that the ‘baby boomers’ – those born between 1945 and 1964 (more or less) – are, well, getting older. That fact has an awful lot of impact on society, mainly because there were so many children born during that time.
Because the population is getting older in a lot of places (certainly not everywhere), we are learning more and more about the 65+ person. They’re more interesting to more people. So it’s easier to create realistic older characters. And as more people fall into that age range, more and more companies want to cater to them, for obvious reasons. So they’re being portrayed more positively in film, advertisements and the like. And there are fewer stereotypical images of what older people ‘should’ do. Little wonder then that writers are exploring that sort of character.
We can also look at this another way. Readers often like characters with whom they can identify in some way. Of course you don’t need to be even roughly the same age as a central character in order to find some connection. That said though, readers enjoy books where ‘people like me’ or ‘people like my relatives/friends/co-workers’ are portrayed. And as the reading population (like the rest of the population) ages, older characters become more appealing. Such characters ‘sell’ better and therefore, publishers and authors who self-publish are more willing to take a risk on them.
I’m speaking here in very broad generalities. There are plenty of people in younger generations (the ‘baby boomers’ had their share of children after all). And we can also point to other trends (such as the growth in YA and New Adult fiction) that may have a lot less to do with older adults. But I think this trend towards more older characters is both realistic and interesting.
What’s your take on all this? Have you noticed this trend? If you have, do you think it’s good for the genre? If you’re a writer who creates older characters, what drew you to that choice?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ When I’m Sixty Four. Seriously, what choice did I have? 😉