On Writing & Roleplaying Older Characters
Many writers and roleplayers, especially those in relatively young age groups, find themselves faced with the challenge of portraying many characters who are quite a bit older than themselves - and with no personal experience to go on, this can sometimes present a challenge. And as it's hardly realistic to just try and wait until you're as old as all of your characters are supposed, here's some advice and tips for those of you having a hard time with this.
Table of Contents
- Some things to know about older people and how they might think and behave.
- Remember that some traits that work fine for younger characters might not work for older ones.
- And a few more tips!
Some things to know about older people and how they might think and behave.
The human brain finishes maturing later than you might think. We all know that the human brain grows and develops throughout childhood and adolescence, but it might surprise you to learn that the brain does not actually finish maturing until around the age of 25. There's actually a pretty significant difference between the brains of 18-year-olds and 25-year-olds. For example, while 18-year-olds are developing the ability to think about the consequences and ramifications of their actions and to view things on a big picture/long-term level, 25-year-olds are on the whole better at it because the part of their brains that handles these tasks is better-developed.
(For the purpose of this article, the term "young adults" will be used to refer to people in the 18-25 age range.)
Older people are usually more cautious and calculate their risks more. Partly thanks to the aforementioned brain development and partly thanks to experiencing and observing how things can go wrong if one isn't careful, they tend to be a bit more cautious and calculating in what they do - possibly to the consternation of younger people, who just can't understand why they don't just do something already.
They've learned at least some of their own limitations the hard way. Where younger people often have grand idealistic notions that they can do anything if they just try hard enough or believe in themselves enough, older people have usually found out that it doesn't work that way. They've learned that there are some limitations that won't go away, and that they've just got to live and deal with them.
They've often come to grips with the fact that some things that a really long time to accomplish. Where younger people often set off in the hopes of making massive world change in years, older ones have often learned the hard way - and have often resigned themselves to the sad fact - that massive change is probably going to take decades, even a lifetime.
Their opinions, tastes, and perspectives will often have been at least partially shaped by events and elements in their teens and young adulthoods. The adolescent and teen years are when people often begin developing passionate opinions about what's going on in the world around them. This means that their political views, as well as many of their ideas of right and wrong, can often be traced back to events they experienced or stories they were exposed to. Similarly, much of what they consider to be the pinnacle of quality (such as in movies, music, etc.) will be what they were exposed to and came to enjoy at this point. So it's very important to stop and think about what all kinds of things an older character would have seen and been exposed to in these critical years.
Their interests and preferences will be different as they get older. For example, while someone might always have a special fondness for a YA book series read way back when, an older person might not be interested in similar stories for the fact that its themes and characters don't resonate like they used to. For the same reason, they probably won't be able to get the same enjoyment out of their old favorite, either. When they do find new interests, it's likely to be in things that resonate with who they are now.
They've usually figured themselves out. Where people in their teens and early twenties often struggle for (and feel frustrated by) a lack of identity or purpose, people past this age usually have developed some sense of identity, or at least have come to terms with the fact that they'll never be epic heroes or chosen ones. They'll have usually developed a better sense of what they can reasonably expect to be able to accomplish and will have come to terms with it.
But on the other hand, they might worry that they've failed to actualize. For example, if they don't realize that they can't be realistically expected to have their lives and finances stabilized by the time they're thirty, they might feel like failures or wonder just where everything went "wrong" when they hit that age.
They aren't as likely to crave approval, nor are they as likely to care whether others disapprove of them. It's normal for teens and young adults to crave a parental or mentor figure in their lives who gives them encouragement and approval, but this usually wanes eventually. (This isn't to say that they stop wanting approval entirely, but usually they stop wanting it from a parent or parental surrogate so much.) They're also less likely to be affected by the disapproval to others, and are more likely to recognize that not all disapproval really matters.
Being older tends to make people perceive younger people in a whole new light. Someone at age age 16 might see another 16-year-old as a potential friend, lover, or rival. But a 26-year-old is more likely to perceive a 16-year-old as someone who might need protection or guidance (parental/big sibling instinct), or as a nuisance to be brushed off. Even a 23-year-old can look like a budding almost-adult who still has a way to go to a 30-year-old.
It is not normal to perceive someone who is significantly younger than oneself as a threat or rival, let alone as someone who needs defeated or destroyed. Real-life versions of Daedalus and Snow White's stepmother certainly do exist, but they are the exception rather than the rule. So if a 27-year-old started behaving competitively, jealously, or with extreme hostility toward a 17-year-old, you'd be right to wonder just what the heck is wrong with the 27-year-old.
Certain things start seeming less impressive to them, or even start looking silly. For example, things that seem like deep wisdom to younger people can sound like statements of the obvious to older people - which might make being told these things feel condescending. And someone who looks like an intimidating badass to a teenager might just look like an edgy tryhard to someone older, might even seem laughably underprepared or unskilled (and they so often are underprepared or underskilled in comparison), or might look arrogant or pretentious.
They become more interested in real, practical things, and less interested in imaginary, theoretical things. This isn't to say that it's a given that they'll lose all interest in imagination, stories, etc. entirely, but as a general rule, things that can't really help them in any real way they can see become at least a touch less interesting - and sometimes even boring. On the other hand, things that they can use somehow? That's going to pique their interest more.
They're usually less competitive with their peers. You've probably noticed how teens and young adults easily get into competition with each other, even over fairly silly or trivial things. This tendency tends to mellow out in time. These little competitions begin to seem more and more pointless, and may even be seen as complete wastes of time or energy.
They're less likely to show off for attention. As people develop and mature, the urge to show off for attention tends to dwindle. Such behavior quickly marks others as immature. It might be seen as tolerable and expected if it's younger people doing it, but might be seen as inconsiderate and inappropriate for older people. When older people want attention, they'll usually just try to start a conversation.
Their empathy is probably more developed than that of a teenager or young adult. Empathy begins developing in childhood, but continues to develop throughout adolescence - even into late adolescence/early young adulthood. Thanks in part to things like this, trying to annoy people just to get a reaction usually seems less humorous, and they're often more motivated to help others.
They're less likely to get freaked out or worked up over things. To teens and young adults, the lack of visible upset an older person can show over something that might be serious can be alarming. After all, they're worked up over this; shouldn't the older people be, too, if they really care?
Fact is, older people have often learned that getting into a tizzy doesn't do anything but waste their energy, so they learn to temper their reactions. (They probably also don't have as much energy to spend on these things, either.) Furthermore, they may have dealt with problems like these enough before that they're somewhat desensitized to it. So rather than getting worked up over it, they try and stay calm and simply deal with it as best as they can. It's not that they don't care. It's just that they're desensitized and/or have better crisis skills.
It also happens sometimes that they get stuck viewing things in "big picture" mode, and don't really appreciate how younger people are feeling in the here and now. What might feel like a crushing blow to a younger person might be perceived as a temporary setback by someone older. At best this can make them come off as cold and uncaring; at worst, this might make them completely fail to appreciate how and why younger people are so upset.
They usually learn to pick their battles. Where teens and young adults are often raring to go after anything they see as a problem however and wherever they can, older people are more selective and cautious. There's usually a number of reasons for it. One is that they usually have other obligations that demand their time and energy. They've probably also learned how to better recognize when and where trying to fight is going to be useless - or worse. And another reason is that they may have learned to recognize the strategic value of staying out of certain things.
They usually have more complicated and nuanced views of trust than younger people. You may have noticed that character profiles written by younger people often state something to the effect of "this character doesn't trust others easily, but if they ever do earn it, then this character will be loyal to them forever... unless this character is betrayed, then you'll have an eternal enemy." All-or-nothing trust is common in younger people, but older ones tend to handle things a bit differently.
Years of experience will usually teach people eventually that all-or-nothing trust doesn't actually work out so well. They'll have probably noticed that the reality is that you can trust most people with some things, a few people with nothing, and very few people with everything. This means that they'll have probably figured out that if they want to get anywhere or get anything done, then they'll have to deal and work with people they don't trust completely whether they like it or not.
Almost nobody past their young adult years plays games like Truth or Dare, Seven Minutes In Heaven, etc. Younger people find these games exciting for the shock or thrill factor, but this eventually wears off. Secrets that might seem juicy to a teen or young adult might seem banal, trivial, or even predictable to someone older. Trying to make people humiliate themselves or get themselves into trouble usually seems less funny. And because the idea of being alone with an attractive person one's own age eventually ceases to be a novelty, Seven Minutes In Heaven loses its appeal.
Sex loses its novelty. Teens and young adults often find sexual topics highly interesting, even exciting - but this is largely because it's still something of a novelty and there's an element of taboo associated with it. But the shock and novelty wears off and people getting together becomes a regular fact of life, so sex and sex-related topics lose their impact. Where a younger person might find rumors that one co-worker is doing it with another to be exciting and juicy, many older people might only find it mildly interesting, or might not really even care at all.
But not everyone is going to progress the same way. No, people aren't going to get hypercompetent as they get older. Some people are always going to be overcompetitive asses. Some people are going to always be a bit short-sighted. And so on and so forth.
And yes, they definitely can get stuck in their ways. For good or ill, the longer someone has believed something, the more likely that person is to keep believing it - especially if that belief goes back to childhood. And when it comes to learning new skills, methods, and technology, it can feel like sticking with the old is less of a hassle than learning the new, especially if there seems to be a steep learning curve involved.
If they get old enough to be "top dog," they may stop playing nice. While some people learn to keep their bad behaviors reigned in so they don't get into too much trouble, they might just let it all out if they get old enough to have enough seniority that they're nigh untouchable. (Age forty or so is a good time for this to happen.)
They might also get a bit more impulsive if they feel their time is running short. As middle age approaches, people might feel like they don't necessarily have a lot of time left - so they might make some rather unwise and rash decisions in an effort to live their dreams before they get too old.
Other things factor into that midlife crisis, as well. By that time, the kids are grown and moving out, and people find themselves in an uncomfortable limbo - they spent the last twenty years or so being primary caregivers, and now that's gone. So they can end up with an emotional void that needs filled, or an identity that needs remade.
And they can definitely overestimate themselves. It happens sometimes that they fall into the illusion of thinking that because they're older, they're wiser and know better than all these younger people... even though they might actually be very out of touch with the world that the younger set interacts with on a daily basis. They might make the mistake of thinking that the life lessons they learned growing up still apply now, even though the world has changed quite a bit.
Remember that some traits that work fine for younger characters might not work for older ones.
The older someone gets, the less endearing and sympathetic certain traits can get - for example, certain forms of awkwardness and social difficulty. What's cute at 16 can look pathetic or even alarming at 30. Likewise, traits and issues that are understandable, even sympathetic in one's childhood or teen years can turn into big waving red flags in adulthood.
There's a simple reason for this: there are certain things that people should have learned or picked up on by certain points in their lives. If they haven't, it can indicate that something is very wrong. For example, it's not particularly strange for children and teens to be somewhat unclear on what constitutes acceptable personal boundaries and what constitutes violating those boundaries. There's still a lot they probably haven't had the chance to learn, after all. However, if someone hasn't figured these things out by the age of 30, then you probably have someone who has probably had plenty of opportunities to learn, but has failed to do so. This can indicate that this person will never learn, and that therefore it would be wise to avoid this person as much as possible.
(And while it's absolutely possible for people to have neurological conditions that can make it difficult for them to immediately grasp some things - which can potentially make some awkwardness more understandable and sympathetic - there does come a point where you have to ask yourself how possible it is that the character made it this far without anyone actually taking the time to explain that some things are inappropriate.)
And while it's easy to accept that a teenage student might not have any friends to speak of because the local students are judgmental and snobbish, it's hard to believe that an adult who has lived and worked in several places by now has met nothing but judgmental snobs everywhere. If an adult has never managed to make or keep any real friends at all, what you most likely have is someone that people have a very good reason for avoiding. If anything, whenever you encounter an adult who complains about having no friends because everyone everywhere is so petty and judgmental, what you're inevitably dealing with is a creep with no self-awareness.
A lack of practical or marketable skills is another one of those things that's reasonably understandable in younger people, but eyebrow-raising in an older person. Unless there's a reasonable explanation behind it, it can make the character come off as selfish and lazy. Afterall, how has this character even gotten by, except by making everyone else do everything? What does this character even have to give back?
A character being uncertain, awkward, and naive where matters of romance and sex are concerned is another one of those things that can get more and more worrisome as a character gets older. It's normal and even expectable for teens and even some young adults to be this way, simply for the fact that they don't have a lot of experience and are in many ways still very unsure of themselves. But as people get older, learn more about these subjects and become desensitized to them, and get better at their social skills, this is something that should diminish in time. So a 21-year-old being awkward and uncertain isn't necessarily a problem, but a 41-year-old stuttering and blushing like a schoolgirl? That's a different story.
And a few more tips!
Think about all the life experiences this character has probably had, with respect to whatever time period/periods this character would have been though. What probably happened to this character in childhood? What was going on at age 13? How about age 15? 17? What about at age 18, 22, or 26? How about age 30, and so on and so forth? What all would the character have seen and done that would have left a lasting impact or would have taught the character something about life/human nature/etc? Your character has lived long enough to have done, seen, and learned a few things; figure out what some of those things are.
There is no age when you suddenly have all the answers/wisdom/whatever. 24 year olds are not massively more knowledgeable and wise than 22 year olds, and 22 year olds are not massively more knowledgeable wise than 20 year olds, and so on. And no matter how old people get and no matter how much knowledge they accrue, there will always be some things they don't know and some situations they really don't know how to handle. A lot of it comes down to getting better at keeping their heads on and acting like they know what they're doing while they handle the problem.
There's a lot of truth to the old saying that "old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill." Don't make the mistake of assuming that the knowledge they've collected over the years is trivial, or that they're all just faking it all the time. Being older, they've had time to learn quite a lot that they can put to their advantage if they're smart.
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