Yesterday’s Writer’s Almanac had a lovely poem by Sharon Bryan, which starts “Middle age refers more to landscape than to time,” and I’ll let you go read it… there. I was bound to love it because of the landscape imagery and because of the personal relevance, and it got me thinking again about why I choose to create characters of certain ages, including middle-aged ones – especially middle-aged ones, I think. (For reference, I’m 53 at the moment (I may be 42 later in the day, but it’s morning), and I was 39 when I started writing Time for Tea.)
Now, my main characters in the earlier books are noticeably not middle-aged, and there’s a reason for that too. Olivia is 28 when the story starts; George is 30 plus time-traveling additions, but since Olivia is somewhat more emotionally mature we’ll call it even. Thirty is a fascinating age, an age of shifts and changes: in the modern paradigm at least it’s when you can’t really claim outright youth any longer, when you’re supposed to be settled and responsible (though often are not), when (as the poem would have it) you become aware of that swelling hill of life in front of you and know that it will have a crest and a downward slope and an end, though you can’t see it all yet. It’s an age when you can still have adventures, can still create new beginnings, but you can also use the experience you’ve gained to help in making wise choices. Realistically speaking, thirty-year-olds don’t always have much in common – some are professionally well-launched, others just starting; some are married and/or parents, some unattached; some have had considerable trauma in their lives and some are untouched by pain. But there’s a certain spirit of “and NOW what?” that they share, and that makes them good fictional protagonists.
But thirty-year-olds don’t exist in isolation, and especially in a story set in a work context (with a lot of travel into foreign climes), they will interact with those younger and older. Since my books have a vast number of characters, it’s natural that they’d span all ages, from babies to the elderly, but many of the most significant are in the 40 to 65 age range: Janet (who turns 40 during Not Time’s Fool), Charles, Beatrice, Bernard, Rinaldo, Friedman/Wilfrid/etc., Sam, Halsey, Simone, Gerrit and Lena, Hector Armitage, Philippe Dumesnil, and others. They perform a multitude of functions, including lending gravitas to the proceedings (when they aren’t following their own passionate impulses), serving as wise counselors (again, except when not), and offering perspective to the younger characters, along with humor (Beatrice’s “George, it’s not that bad” on Janet’s upcoming birthday, in NTF). But mostly they’re just themselves, just people who’ve put a bit more life behind them, not adjuncts to younger characters who are natural protagonists by virtue of age, but protagonists (or supporting characters) in their own right. I think my decision to start the series with the thirtyish front-and-center was a good one, since that’s what readers are used to, but I’m also defending the shift toward the older set, and not just because I’m part of it now. Certainly middle-aged readers deserve to read about middle-aged characters, but it’s also important for young readers to learn that life doesn’t stop at thirty.
Middle age is when you recognize that choices as well as joints have hardened up a bit: you may be past the age of childbearing, of easily starting a new career or building muscle or losing weight, of a conventionally-attractive exterior. But just because you have to try harder doesn’t mean you can’t start something new – and sometimes change is in fact easier, because you care less about what other people think, or you don’t feel that you have as much at stake. My middle-aged characters find new and satisfying work, love, children, entire different worlds to explore. They also experience loss – death and disappointment and that view of the distance that shows life ending – but that’s part of the package. You can still say “and NOW what?” when you’re sixty – or much older – but looking forward or back is going to make you close your eyes in sorrow too. The more choices you’ve made over time, the more you have to regret. And as a writer as well as a middle-aged human being, exploring the choices and the regret is both painful and satisfying. There’s a lot to be said for standing at the crest of the hill.