Should recurring characters get older?

Swedish novelist Henning Mankell recently called a halt to his mega-bestselling Inspector Wallander series with the novel The Troubled Man.  According to an interview that Mankell gave to the BBC, Wallander is now aged over 60 and is brooding over his life. "I let Wallander look backwards to see 'What did I do with my life?',  and for him it is a bit difficult. But then he remembers certain things that had an enormous impact on him, and one of them is what I spoke about in the first novel."  That first novel was Faceless Killers, published in 1991.

It seems to make sense that Wallender, like his creator, should have aged as the series progresses - novels are supposed to be about characters who develop, and readers who follow the whole series have the pleasure of seeing the inspector gradually mature as the result of his experiences. But it's not always the case that popular fictional characters get older from book to book. Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot, for example, first appeared in 1926 in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which he was described as a retired police detective. The final Poirot novel that Christie wrote was Elephants Can Remember, published in 1972. If Poirot had aged during the intervening five decades, he would presumably have been over 100 years old by this time. In fact he seems to get no older from one book to the next.

Characters who remain the same age throughout their adventures are not only in defiance of the laws of time and space, they also flout the convention that fictional characters are supposed to develop and learn from their experiences.

J.K. Rowling, in contrast, allowed Harry Potter to grow up from the age of the age of 11 in the first book  to 17 in the last, ageing by one year every book. The fact that Harry grows up during the series, learning and developing new qualities along the way, is part of the appeal of the series and an essential part of its narrative drive, as without the powers he has developed Harry would be unable to take part in the final battle with Voldemort.

The decision about whether to allow a recurring character to grow older or not is a tricky one for authors. If the character stays the same, the readers are required to suspend their disbelief as a character maintains imperviousness to time, and any references to real historical events are fraught with danger, as they are almost certain to expose chronological inconsistencies.

On the other hand, if the character does get older, the writer has to decide how quickly they will age. Will the character age roughly in accordance with real time, as Wallander has done? If your second book is published ten years after the first and has the same protagonist, must the character be ten years older? In that case, the writer only has a certain window in which the books can be written - if Mankell decides to write more Wallander in ten years' time, the inspector will have to be 70 years old, or the novel will have to be set in the past, or Mankell will have to change the rules.

This is a real dilemma for writers. If your first novel contained references to actual historical events and specific years, and then a number of years later you are writing another novel featuring the same character, you have to decide how consistent you are going to be.  If  you'd prefer to avoid constantly cross-checking from book to book, perhaps it's better to include as few time- specific events as possible. But that means expunging references to events in the real world, which makes for a loss of realism.

It's not just a problem of continuity and story logic. It's tempting to take the Christie route of allowing characters to ignore the passing of time. However, it's much richer from a narrative point of view to have characters like Wallander who grow wiser and develop as a result of their adventures. If they are wiser, then presumably they are also older, ergo ...

Perhaps the most pragmatic course is to shut up about your character's age, avoid any time-specific markers, and hope no one is paying attention too closely to these matters?

What do other crimespace writers think about this dilemma?

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Comment by I. J. Parker on September 25, 2011 at 7:16am
Akitada ages.  I'm positively looking forward to him in old age.  How quickly he ages depends, as Lee says, on the plot.  The personality also changes somewhat.  People may become wiser, but they can also become more arrogant and peevish.  I really like this aspect of writing.  Note that the static characters in crime fiction belong to the older generation of authors.  New novels are far more complex and lean more towards literary fiction than the rather narrow detective story.
Comment by David DeLee on September 25, 2011 at 2:05am

This is an interesting question, and one I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about. For my first series characters I've decided to have them age based on the events as they occur in the stories, which will generally coincide with when they are written. Rather than say a year passes between books, I am planning to have about six months pass between the first book and the second, because events from the first book will impact certain aspects of the second book (though both will be able to be read independently). Conversely, I have a story line where I've thought up the ending of one novel that will catapult the characters into the next adventure, thus, necessitating the second novel begin exactly where the last novel stops.

For me, I believe it depends on the demands of the story.

David DeLee

Fatal Destiny - a Grace deHaviland novel

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