“Realistic” Characters of Whatever Age: Maybe We’re Writing Them… Inaccurately.

A post from Luther M. Siler about tattoos, technology, and how the generations view each other made me think of this…

It’s something I saw on television: A man is arguing with his son about music. He doesn’t understand or approve of the chaotic noise his son listens to. On the surface, it’s a cliché: ‘Kids these days don’t know what real music is, grumble, grumble…’ On the other side, you’d expect something along the lines of, ‘Dammit, Dad, you know I love you, but you’ve got a hell of a lot to learn about rock-and-roll!’ (Pseudo-sister Claudia was a Meatloaf fan, and after hearing the spoken part at the beginning of “Wasted Youth” even once, how can one forget it? I don’t remember if the guitar was a Telecaster or a Stratocaster, though. 🙂 )

Part of what makes the scene amusing and also interesting for its commentary on generation gaps is that the son is seventy years old, and he’s arguing with his father about jazz.

In related topics…

I’ve also recently read a blog post in which the writer complains loudly and at great length about various novels in which the young characters ‘don’t act or think like real teenagers — some of the cultural references they make are more appropriate for a middle-aged adult.’ Um… You do know that retro stuff is all the rage with some teenagers and younger adults, right? When I was a teenager in the late 1980s, my pseudo-sister Jeanie was very much into 1950s/1960s things: poodle skirts and Grease and (gods help us!) music by The Monkees. And apparently Millennials are now discovering music, movies, and video games from the 1980s.

‘But there’s a certain way all teenagers talk, a kind of slang they all use, and they’re all obsessed with being popular and wearing the right kinds of clothes, and they always talk back to authority figures, and they think they know everything, and…’ Nope. Those, friends, are tropes that are dangerously close to being clichés: lazy cop-out shortcuts in thinking, used so the writer — or other person — doesn’t have to pay attention to the individual in front of them and see whether or not that person talks or behaves in certain ways.

Let me say it bluntly: The term realistic teenage character is rather ageist. Not all six-year-olds are alike, so why would you expect all sixteen-year-olds to be alike? Would you ever say realistic adult character, as if some authors were “doing it wrong” and writing unrealistic twenty-and-older fictional people? No, because the assumption is that, once a person is an adult, they’re allowed to be whoever they are and not live in a pigeonhole anymore… or at least that the pigeonhole is roomier than the one to which teenagers are expected to confine themselves. *shakes head* Some people are capable of making sound decisions and taking responsibility for their own actions when they’re twelve, and some people can’t/won’t do that at forty. Are either of these unrealistic because they don’t fit into a view of age that has nothing to do with, y’know, actual reality?

To me, saying ‘This teenage character is unrealistic because he quotes movies that were made before he was born’ is as ridiculous (as in, worthy of or deserving ridicule) as saying ‘This female character is unrealistic because she’s sarcastic.’

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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7 Responses to “Realistic” Characters of Whatever Age: Maybe We’re Writing Them… Inaccurately.

  1. J.R. Handley says:

    Now I wanna stand outside shaking my fist, yelling at those kids to get off my lawn!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. M. Oniker says:

    Oooooh. I laughed. This isn’t just in fiction. I’ve mentioned my Canadian bff. I met him online. We didn’t discuss age. We chattered for months. Yeah, friends, but you know, kinda interested in more than that, until one fateful day when he’d been out drinking with friends and he made some comment about his age. And I fell over. I thought he was much older, and he thought I was younger. Turns out, I’m the same age as his mother. (That is still so hard to type.) I literally have a belt that is older than he is. Part of the reason for my guessing wrong is that he quotes books, movies, music, etc. like someone my age. The reason for his error is that I’m just very immature. 🙂 Honestly, though, I know more current music than he does. So, your point is well taken in both fiction and real life. And, yeah, bff and I are just friends, because neither one of us is mature enough to handle that age gap! (Although if you want to imagine a sarcastic female (as if), you could channel me talking about how fair it is that if the age gap were reversed, and he was the older of the two, then he’d be getting high-fived about it.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Immature” is an accusation frequently leveled against people who act like adults but haven’t become stodgy and humorless. Didn’t you know that you’re supposed to lose your sense of fun and develop a phobia of new things as soon as you turn forty? 🙂

      Like

  3. curioushart says:

    A Mexican-American student once interviewed me for the school newspaper. She referred to me as “an elderly woman.” I wasn’t at all offended because in her culture elders are highly respected.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It isn’t the use of the word “teenager” that I think it the problem. The problem is assuming that all teenagers (or any other age group) are alike and that any fictional person who doesn’t behave according to a stereotype for that age group is “unrealistic” and therefor written badly.

      Like

  4. ziresta says:

    Did you read some of the negative reviews of my wife’s teen romance? Because I think you quoted them . . .

    Something she and I have noticed is that while adults criticize her teens as unrealistic, teen reviewers talk about how realistic they seem. It’s almost like real teens aren’t all identical cardboard cutouts! (Though, at my high school, far too many did try to act exactly like the stereotypes said they should, and that was creepy and disturbing, and it looks like those same ones are now all trying to act like stereotypical nearly forty year olds and that’s also creepy and disturbing and one of the many reasons if I never set foot in the area I was grew up in again I won’t mind.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • On the other hand, some people who tried as teenagers to be just like everyone else are now trying to be “the most unique” because they no longer want to be just like everyone else, finally realizing that an identity is a good thing to have.

      Like

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