Time Will Tell

by Chantal Boudreau

I had a reader thank me the other day for including my gnomish character Cerissa June, or “Reeree” as she is better known, as a heroine in my Masters & Renegade fantasy series. “Finally, someone like me,” she said. “Someone my age – someone who thinks like I do.”

Cerissa June, you see, is a plump, middle-aged woman who prefers to think things through rather than act on impulse. She is intelligent and educated, having spent the better part of her life working as a schoolteacher, but she also has the experience and wisdom as a result of her advanced years, an advantage not shared by her younger wizard cohorts.

While you may see a grizzled veteran sidekick or mentor on occasion, the main characters in speculative fiction are rarely the very young, unless a story is intended for children, or older people. Perhaps because of a perceived need of a certain level of physical fitness, fantasy heroes don’t tend to be portly, disabled or anyone old enough to have grown children. This assumes that a story is always the result of an able-bodied younger adult going out to meet whatever trouble has arisen to cause the tale’s conflict. Realistically, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes trouble comes to the hero, landing in his or her path unexpectedly. Those who rise to the occasion may not be a strong, beautiful, twenty-something individual. It could just as easily be an awkward acne-afflicted teen or a fleshy and wrinkled elder who sees the need to act.

The other reason why the focus of fantasy stories may offer up younger adult protagonists is the belief that this is the type of character with whom the reader would identify. This isn’t necessarily so with adult fantasy, which appeals to a range of ages. My readers have included those as young as fifteen to people in their seventies. It would make sense for my fiction to reflect that variety.

And you also have to look at the span of a work. If your story takes place over decades, your protagonist will age and suffer the afflictions that accompany the loss of youth. My Snowy Barren Trilogy takes place over more than three decades and while some of the protagonists begin as youths who are just becoming adults, others are more mature initially. This means that those who survive to the end of the trilogy, in the violent, low-tech setting for the story, have grown old. Their hair has grayed, they aren’t as spry as they had been and some characters even die from old age rather than injury or illness. It makes sense considering the amount of time that passes.

That being said, the heroes in the tale don’t just stop being heroes because they get older. They may have to retire from participating in some of the physical aspects of the fight, because of new limitations, but that doesn’t stop them altogether. At one point in the tale, one of my heroes purposefully goes out recruiting the assistance of veteran warriors who have been discarded by another tribe because of their age. The protagonist, who is also older, recognizes their value in the conflict, even if their own people do not.

And I recognize the value of these characters as well. Including them adds dimension to your stories and allows for advantages and obstacles a younger adult character would be less likely to encounter. They have greater history to be explored and a different perspective than the one you would find in a younger generation – more life lessons learned to apply to the problem at hand. I think fantasy stories can benefit from age diversity just as much as non-speculative fiction can, and I’d like to see more of it myself.

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7 comments on “Time Will Tell

  1. Reblogged this on Vilu Nilenad and commented:
    A great post about diversity in fantasy. We need more people thinking like this within the genre – or any genre.

    I know I’m guilty of not including enough proper female characters, and this is something I’m trying to put right.

    How do you feel about diversity in fantasy, especially about disability? Do you feel all different groups could be represented better?

  2. This is a great topic of discussion. I agree that all ages read fantasy. It’s not just for the 20-30 year olds.

    I’ve included several older characters in my fantasy novel. Some fight but are slowed by age. Still, they bring to the fight wisdom the younger characters don’t have.

    Most of my characters are fit simply because that is the lifestyle of the world I’ve built. You’re more likely to find an overweight, out of shape person today than you would four hundred years ago (similar to the world I’ve built). It would not make a lot of sense to populate scenes with people from a snapshot of today’s time. This is true even if you were writing a novel that took place in the 1970s. People were thinner and fitter than today.

    I think this also applies to illnesses. A hundred years ago there were far less people suffering from heart disease, diabetes and bowel disorders. Today I know many people with these ailments. That’s not to say you can’t write them into a story, but I think it must be done based on facts and not emotion of ‘including everyone’.

    I think all the problems our food supply are causing must be considered. Take away processed food and the population of a world (either two hundred years ago or on another realm) would not suffer with the ailments we do today. Take away modern conveniences and the population would have to do physically demanding work to survive which makes them thinner and fitter than today’s average person.

    If you were writing a story that took place in today’s world then it would be strange to not include older people (baby boomers are getting up there), people with illnesses and handicaps and an overweight population.

  3. It really is a matter of circumstance. I don’t have any characters in my tribal trilogy who could be described as overweight because life is harsh and resources are scarce, so it wouldn’t make sense, and older people are not as plentiful, for the same reasons – they just don’t tend to live as long. But if your character in a fantasy story works a desk job (a librarian or a schoolteacher for example) in a more developed culture and resources are reasonably plentiful, you may find have an overweight character included in your tale, or someone who is older or disabled.

    One of my protagonists in my yet-to-be-published “Sleep Escapes Us” lives in a catacomb lair but has access to plenty of food (although not necessarily the healthiest options), doesn’t have much opportunity for exercize and is ostracized by the other denizens of the lair so she eats for comfort. When she is called upon to help her half-sister, she leaves the lair, and participates in the quest, but she doesn’t instantly become thin and fit. I don’t think I should exclude the character or change her to fit people’s prejudices just because “overweight people wouldn’t be likely to involve themselves in this kind of situation”.

    Contrary to popular belief, overweight people don’t spend their lives holed up in their homes and aren’t necessarily lazy or cowardly. This can apply to a fantasy scenario just as much as it can to a modern tale, if the right circumstances apply. The whole point to allowing for diversity in your writing is to help counter unfounded biases. I’d like to see more people doing that rather than adhering to the discriminatoiry ways of thinking that exist in our society.

  4. Great post, Chantal. Two of the characters in my Small Gods series are older than what you usually see in fantasy…a menopausal woman and a sailor in his mid-fifties. It’s great to be able to write the different points of view age gives them.

  5. Agreed! One of the series I have in mind features mostly older protagonists. It is age that gives them the abilities they need to achieve the end goals. Younger people don’t have it. However, i do have series focused on younger people as well. I really appreciate stories that take the full spectrum of humanity into account, at least as much as is reasonable. It takes all kinds and all ages to make the world go round 🙂

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