Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Crafting Characters: Seenagers

A few years ago, my husband retired from pathology and we moved to the land of eternal summer: Florida.

We had scoped out many retirement communities and they were simply, to my much younger self, sad little places. I was not ready to retire to a rocking chair on the porch. Neither was he. We chose an over 55 community with 120,000 people and growing. The goal is 250,000 at the moment, but we may overtake Orlando at some point. It is often referred to as Disneyland for Grownups.

You can do everything here: over 2,000 clubs from Scrabble to scuba, and every sport imaginable in addition to golf. There hundreds of Rec Centers with pools and workout equipment.  Hubs leads bicyclists on 45 mile a day ride and he is in the "slow club." There are eighty-year-olds riding at 20-28 miles per hour. There are rowing clubs, marathoners, triathletes, weightlifters, kayakers, and swimmers. There are many senior Olympians.

There is dancing at the three town squares every evening, or was prior to COVID. A few rebels still go there. There are multiple movie theaters and bowling alleys and a polo club. We are visited by top entertainers: comedians, Broadway plays, musicians, and something I didn't know existed - tribute bands. There are opportunities to learn everything from square dancing, line dancing, ball room dancing, hula, and belly dancing to something new called Kanga dance. And people enjoy showing off their skills at the squares.

There is a learning college where you can take classes from dance, yoga, languages, pottery, computer programming, to discussions of history and literature. There are multiple libraries. There are book clubs and writing clubs. There are travel clubs and travel opportunities and tours. There are myriad opportunities for charity work, community outreach, and mentoring. They have Kiwanis, Shriners, Rotary etc. who raise money and contribute to the local communities. There is a camp for children dealing with illnesses. I make blankets for them. Crafters and artisans of all kinds abound here.

The University of Florida did a study on how this lifestyle improved senior's health and longevity. Too many older people end up isolated and alone.

What I've learned about seniors is they are not the stereotypical "old people" my younger self imagined. They are still vital. They have dreams and ambitions. They have experienced life's joys and tragedies which gives them depth. Everyone has stories. There is a huge brain trust of experience and talent. If our world was knocked sideways on its axis, seniors would take up tools to rebuild it.
Older people are rich characters to draw from. So, here are some things to think about when crafting characters.

1. Age is a number, not a definition. Any plot device you can apply to young and middle aged characters, applies to the over 55.

2. There are conflicts with second marriages, children, and grandchildren. But there is so much more to seenagers than family conflict. Romance feels just as potent at 60 as 20. Seniors don't stop having sex and feeling desire just because they qualify for AARP. Not everyone learns from relationship mistakes.

3. Personality types are the same no matter how old people are. In Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, I take 16 mannequins based on personality types from cradle to grave. Life may have nudged them to the extremes or softened their traits. They all have different likes and dislikes, quirks and wounds.

4. Seniors are just as passionate and idealistic as younger people. They have strong opinions and are willing to fight for their beliefs. There are bigots and rights activists. They clash. Sadly, stupid does not age well. There are many willfully ignorant seniors and some that behave worse than out of control teenagers. Like all adults, they have conflicts with other people. They can be lovely and generous or hostile and vindictive. They form new friendships and make new enemies.

5. Not all seniors are incompetent when it comes to technology or any area of employment. Most of them have decades of experience. Senior citizens have worked in every field at every level, from spies, to generals, and CEOS of large corporations. You can build them however you like, give them expertise in any field. A large portion of over 55s are still working and starting new businesses. They might have "retired" but that doesn't mean they have ended their usefulness. They despise being looked down on or dismissed as incompetent just because they have wrinkles and gray hair.

6. They 100% resent being infantilized. They hate being cooed at and talked down to. They hate being "invisible." Their bodies might have aged, even betrayed them, but they are still vital humans. Don't say anything to a senior you wouldn't say to 30 year old. Don't treat a senior differently either. Do not call them "sweetie" or "old dear." They are not toddlers. They will knife you, or at least want to.
Fiction has a tendency to stereotype or dismiss anyone over 55. A few smart movie makers have tapped into the "boomer market." Sadly, their characters are mostly still predictable.

Whether your story is about older people or not, make sure your senior characters aren't cardboard cutouts. Anything that applies to young characters can apply to older characters.

It is time to change the way people think about aging. It is a gift, not a curse. And you can do that by representing them fairly in fiction.
Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

4 comments :

  1. Sounds like an idyllic place to live. I would wilt from the pressure of being pleasant all the time. :-)

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    1. You don't have to be at all and believe me not everyone is. :) But in general, I think people are happier here. There is so much to enjoy. Maybe people that enjoy life are drawn here more than those that don't.

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  2. As a longtime member of the over-55 gang, I love this post, Diana. It hits the nail on the head from beginning to end. As far as characters go, we writers have a plethora of qualities and personality traits to portray through our senior characters. We also have a large potential reader base that may love the way we depict them and wait eagerly for our next novel. :-)

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  3. I love your descriptions of seenagers. As a 71-year-old woman, I get SO tired of people doing all the demeaning, belittling things you describe. And I also appreciate the encouragement to include more realistic older characters in our writing.

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