When I Get Older, Losing My Hair*

Elderly CharactersI 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:

 

Elderly Characters Chart1
 

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.

 

Elderly Characters Chart2
 

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? 😉

35 Comments

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35 responses to “When I Get Older, Losing My Hair*

  1. I think you’ve definitely outlined a valid trend, Margot. Based solely on my own gut reactions, I suspect you’re right about the aging Boomer generation growing into these new, senior roles in fiction. I think, for example, of Mike Befeler and his “geezer-lit” mysteries; he’s one of only a few writers (are there others?) who present a protagonist struggling with memory issues. I also think more series detectives now age through their mysteries – no more ageless Poirots or Nero Wolfes. Thanks for the research!

    • Les – I agree: we don’t really have the ‘ageless detective’ we once did. And I’m glad you mentioned Mike Befeler’s work. I’ve read other novels featuring characters with memory issues, but he’s done such an expert job at it. That fills in a gap I left. I’d suspect too that as other authors see that older characters sell well and are appealing, there’ll be more of them.

  2. Clarissa Draper

    I have noticed this trend and it’s probably due to the points you mentioned today. I see a lot of older women reading mysteries. I would like to think when I’m 64, I’m still capable of solving a mystery or two. Love Myrtle Clover, she’s a hoot.

    • Clarissa – Oh, that’s an interesting point! It really is important to know who’s reading mysteries, and I would guess that there are plenty of older people reading them, especially with today’s technology that allows for large print and large fonts for those who would like them. And I’m a fan of Myrtle Clover too – such a great character!

  3. Very interesting study! Most stories I read have protagonists in their 40’s. I wonder if that’s because I read more thrillers than mysteries. It’s a fascinating topic, Margot.

    • Thanks, Sue. And you’ve brought up something that definitely deserves to be explored in more detail: what’s the effect of sub-genre on age of protagonist? One would guess that realistically, it would be harder to have an ageing protagonist in a ‘hardboiled’ thriller. And as far as police procedurals go, you might have someone come out of retirement, but other than that sort of consultancy, it would be hard to get around the age factor there too. This is something I need to think about, so thanks.

  4. Really interesting statistics there. I like the idea that older readers are enjoying stories about their contemporaries – and that they expect them to be fit, active, involved members of their communities….

    • I like that too, Moira. It’s good to know that authors and publishers are showing respect for their readers, and that includes portraying people like them in positive ways.

  5. I think it is great in one way -more inclusive and representative of life – it is flat out boring to only hear or read about one age group, but scary in another way. There is a sort of agism which is encouraged by corporate think as it makes for directed marketing. They’ve done it with teens, inviting them to believe that no one understands their special desires but faceless, ageless companies. It is insidious. I like reading about diverse humans who discover they share values and dreams despite their apparent differences. Miss. Marple often had young folks she liked to spar with. The book I’m readying to send out is the story of a friendship between a senior (quirky, opinionated)
    and her step grand-niece of 14 (troubled skater chick).

    • Jan – You’ve brought up something that’s really worth thinking about carefully. It is indeed a very good thing to portray all kinds of characters, including those who are older. But it’s quite true that in corporate-think, it’s a matter of demographics: How can they sell their product or service to a given age group? Part of doing that is, as you say, convincing that group that only that company ‘cares about them.’ As you point out, that’s not the way real life works anyway. And I’m glad your novel bucks that trend.

  6. Maybe some authors feature older characters as a way to make their books different. And then it becomes a trend, and then it is not so different. But the author does need to have a feel for what life is as an older adult, and that would lean toward your theory. I like variety in my reading so I welcome all the diverse sleuths. I am in the middle of the first Hazel Micallef book and enjoying it very, very much.

    • Tracy – So glad you’re enjoying Wolfe’s work. And you make an interesting point about how trends in crime fiction can start and continue. Certainly when a publisher or author sees that a particular character sells, that’s incentive to try it. But I agree with you that the best older characters are drawn by people who show a solid sense of what life is like for those over 65.

  7. I hadn’t specifically noticed but maybe that’s because as I age characters are aging as well and I’m just seeing it as natural progression. Interesting point Margot. You are extremely observant about the books you’re reading! 🙂

    • Rebecca – Oh, that’s interesting! I wonder if we do have a certain kind of ‘blindness’ if you will to characters who are/n’t young based on our age. Hmm….that begs the question of what we all consider to be ‘older.’ Much ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks!

  8. Good to see some confirmation of what I’ve thought has been happening. Partly I suspect in my case it’s because the authors I follow are also getting older, along with me and the protagonist. I don’t mind reading about younger characters on the whole, but do get tired of the ‘romance/sex’ aspect that always seems to creep in with them. And I’m not one who finds YA fiction particularly interesting, I must admit, though there are always exceptions.

    Funnily enough, going off topic slightly, I was talking to someone the other day about how the internet seems to be breaking down the age barriers a bit – I find I’m often unaware of the age of people I’m chatting to online in a way I wouldn’t be face to face. As a result, many of my online buddies are much younger, or older, than my ‘real’ friends and yet I rarely notice a huge difference in attitudes. And I suspect it might make us all listen to each other with a more open mind, free of preconceptions, when we’re not unconsciously categorising people by age. One of the unexpected benefits of online life…

    • FictionFan – I think you have a well-taken point about interacting online. I’ve met a lot of people through social media who are not in the same age group I am, and you’re right; in that context it really doesn’t matter. I think it’s great for communication, and allows us all to interact in a way it’s hard to do in ‘real life.’
       
      It’s true too that authors age, which could be a bit of the reason characters do too. It’s comfortable to write about someone in one’s own generation. And it’s interesting how as I get older, there are so many more people younger than I than there used to be… 😉 – In all seriousness though, I think our tastes and what we enjoy do change as we age.

  9. I think, too, Margot, that when one reaches – well, let’s say a certain age – it is reassuringly to read about protagonists who are even older, but remain engaged and sharp-witted, such as Miss Marple or Dr Siri Calhoun who is already 72 when Colin Cotterill’s series first starts.

    • Christine – That’s quite true I think. As readers grow…more mature, it is comforting to know that there are characters out there who are, as you say, even older, yet still actively alive. It offers an optimistic view of the future.

  10. Great post Margot. I’ve just finished The Black Box by Michael Connelly, and its pretty obvious he’s lining up Maddy, Bosch’s daughter, to carry on as a cop when he finally retires. This has happened in Faye Kellerman’s Peter Decker books too. I’m not too keen – I prefer my older characters. And I’ve got to agree with FF – I can’t be bothered with all the relationship stuff that comes with younger characters. That’s not my kind of book!

    • Crimeworm – Thank you. And I think that Harry Bosch is a really interesting case of a character who’s pushing towards that ‘older character’ time in his life. I agree with you too that it looks as though the series, if it continues, may follow Maddie’s career. It’ll be interesting to see where Connelly goes with that. As to younger/older characters, there certainly is a lot of ‘relationship baggage’ that you often get with younger characters. It’s got to be handled well if it’s going to figure into a crime novel, in my opinion. And it is an advantage of writing older characters that more mature people just seem to handle all of that differently.

  11. Writing about protagonists in their forties, or older, gives you an opportunity to explore stories based in a wider range of life experiences. Generally, the older we are the more things we have lived through, so we live our lives in a richer context.
    I want my characters to live in that more textured space, after all I am writing about people who not only fall in love, but people who commit crimes and mess up relationships. The characters need to have lived some for me to pull that off.
    One other thing you can do with an older character in a detective series is present your protagonist as a real person, with the behaviour quirks older readers can identify with, and not some super action hero.

    • Peter – You’re quite right about the textures you can add to an older character. They’ve made mistakes, have their own ways of looking at life, and their own stories. So there’s plenty there for the author to explore. And for readers, there’s lots of opportunity there to get to know characters with whom, as you say, they can identify.

  12. You won me over with your charts Margot, I do love data. It is good to see that your data set matched my perceptions and I think you are right, the baby boomers need to be catered for – how many of the writers fall into this category I wonder? My thinking goes that if the writer is older maybe they are keener to write about characters who could be in their peer group, which in turn are read by people who identify with these characters, perhaps? Of course as you state we don’t need to be in exactly the same group but I’m sure I’m not alone in having a friendship group that spans a few decades. Older people don’t behave in the same way as my mother’s generation, they tend to engage with a wider group of people too and don’t seem to get ‘old’ as early either.

    • Cleo – You’re quite right about today’s older people. They no longer spend all their days rocking on porches and so on. They’re more active than ever and even after retirement, they are very often still very busy with life. So it’s good (and I think, realistic) to portray them that way in fiction.
       
      You also make an interesting point about writers. I know I’m certainly getting older, and as I do, I’m sure that will affect what I write. As you point out, it’s not necessary to be in the same age group as a protagonist (or a real-life friend). But including older characters does, I think, offer the chance for older readers to ‘meet’ fictional people who embody today’s more active and engaged older adult.

  13. Col

    I have enjoyed growing older with a few series characters during the past 20 years reading….Bosch for one, Robicheaux – another though we have parted company now!

  14. Kathy D.

    Very enjoyable post, and excellent charts. I like to read about characters who are actually aging and not staying in their thirties forever. The authors certainly are aging.
    I think the reason that older characters are in more crime fiction now than decades ago (Miss Marple an exception) is not only that the “baby boomers” are older, but it’s because our life expectancies have improved over the years, so now people here often live into their eighties. Many people work well into their late sixties and longer. And people are socially productive into later ages than was the case in past decades. And news reports frequently show seniors being quite productive.
    I like V.I. Warshawski who is now in her early fifties, and Sara Paretsky, her creator, plans to keep her protagonist aging as in real time. But V.I. can still run, jump, fight, get into scrapes and survive as she did 20 years ago! And she still has affairs, too!

    • Kathy – You really have a well-taken point. Because our life expectancies aer longer, we’re staying more active and in better health for a longer time. And that means we can indeed be more productive. It’s true in real life, and it’s true in crime fiction.

  15. Patti Abbott

    When I was trying to find an agent for my first stab at a novel, one told me, she’s too old and her name is an old person’s.. She was forty and making her thirty didn’t help at all. And her name is very popular now. So he knew nothing.

  16. Kathy D.

    Still, these observations don’t seem to help women actresses who hit 40.
    But since our society overall is productive into later years, and this is touted on TV and in the newspapers, especially their accomplishments. When I read the New York Times obituary page, I am astonished at the longevity but also the accomplishments of many, especially women, whose achievements may not have been known in real life. I’m yet to find a sleuth on that page I must say!

    • Kathy – It’s true that we’re seeing more and more people who a) live to older ages; and b) are productive and active until late in their lives. I think it’s becoming more coming. As for female actors, I think you have a point. That said though, I do believe there are more roles for them than there were, that don’t involve either being ‘someone’s granny,’ rocking on the porch, or in some other way typecast. It’ll be interesting to see if Hollywood acknowledges the new reality of women over 40.

  17. Interestingly, in Agatha Christie’s autobiography, she said that although she first envisaged Poirot as a mature-aged person, she wished she’d made him younger when she started, because her readers demanded she continue the series for so long, that in reality he would have been very old indeed.

    • Caron – That’s a good point! Thanks for reminding of that. I have the idea that Christie had no sense that Poirot would be as enduring and popular a character as he has become. I actually rather like him being mature. It gives him a certain wisdom that makes more sense in a mature person than in young one, if that, well, makes sense.

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