I recently finished an urban fantasy called Curve Appeal by Mary E. Merrell, starring a real estate agent, ghost talking, vampire servant named Rosemary Fernandez. However, unlike most fiction, Rosemary isn’t in her twenties and at the prime of life. She’s middle aged, has an adult son, is recently divorced, and faces the fact that she has to compete with hot youngsters for dates. She’s certainly far from a typical protagonist, especially these days, but that also makes her more interesting.
There’s a major emphasis on young protagonists in most, if not all, fiction genres. Most protagonists fall somewhere between their late teens and early thirties, and that’s not even touching the age requirements for YA. The simple truth is that, as a culture, we have an obsession with youth. We want to capture and remain in that supposedly glorious age near and in our twenties where life seems its best. At least, it certainly appears best if you look at popular media.
However, this perception is not universal. In other cultures, youth is impulsive and the wisdom of age is considered far more enviable. For example, when my husband took a Shakespeare course in college and they studied alternate versions of the plays, he learned that, in tribal Africa, Hamlet is considered the villain of Hamlet because he disrespected and disobeyed his elders. The tribal elders, in fact, corrected the man sharing the play with them, informing him of the Shakespeare’s “actual meaning.”
Youth offers many favorable qualities to the protagonist’s role. It includes energy, vitality, and usually a proactive, open view of the world. These traits make it easy to get a dynamic character to traipse through a story. But what we forget is that not all twenty-somethings fit this description, and turning thirty-five doesn’t automatically rob one of energy, vitality, or anything else. Regardless, our culture’s perceptions, expectations, and desires form stereotypes of various age groups in fiction, and in life for that matter. Teens desperately want the freedom of their twenties, and people older long for the pleasures of a life without so much responsibility or recall the glory days of college or the newness of starting out their own lives. There’s the perception of greater beauty, health, and the hope of dreams fulfilled. This type of hero is indeed appealing.
But there is also a place for the older protagonist. In fact, this protagonist can add depth to a character that is often lacking in a younger hero. There’s often a certain stability found in older protagonists that give stories entirely new worlds, themes, and plots to explore.
Consider Dalinar from Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive series, which we covered in this blog. Dalinar too has adult sons and many years experience. He is starting to draw a label of being diminished and weak. This is something most people are terrified of, and that, perhaps more than most things, is why middle aged protagonists are less popular. But when done well, they’re dynamic and fascinating. Dalinar is, after all, a very popular character in current fantasy circles.
But middle aged protagonists don’t have to be great warriors of times past. They can be recently divorced real estate agents who talk to ghosts and draw the unwanted attentions of vampires. In Rosemary Fernandez’s case, they can be everymen with a wide appeal to audiences. Rosemary faces the same fears we average humans face, yet she overcomes them with the determination we hope we’ll muster. For all twenty-somethings are popular, there are a lot of people who can relate to the middle aged protagonist. They should, for this reason, not be too easily dismissed.
Picking a middle aged protagonist in certain genres, especially romance, is a risk, but it can be a rewarding one. Some of the most interesting characters can come from this age group. After all, one of the most classic characters of speculative fiction, Bilbo Baggins, was middle aged.
What stories do you know that include middle aged heroes? How much, if at all, does their age effect the story for you?