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Writer’s Craft # 88 – Aging in Sf/F

September 3, 2012
Catherine Lundoff

Catherine Lundoff

Catherine Lundoff is the author of Silver Moon (Lethe Press, 2012), a novel about menopausal werewolves and new beginnings. Website: www.catherinelundoff.com


I recently moderated a #Feministsf twitterchat on the topic of depictions of aging in science fiction and fantasy.  It makes for a surprisingly complicated conversation to have via 140 characters on an hour long “chat” consisting of linked Twitter posts.  To start with, how do you define “aging” or “older,” for that matter?  Defining who is an “older” protagonist is made harder by the reader’s notions of “perceived” age – a character who seems significantly older or younger than their stated age.  Usually younger.  Then there are the workarounds to the problems of aging – “Sure, I’m chronologically 80 years old but thanks to genetic modification/alien technology/magic potions, I have the body of a 25 year old!”  No lack of wish fulfillment there.  For the purposes of our discussion, I set the age limit at over 40 (standard Earth years) and began compiling a resource list here – http://catherineldf.dreamwidth.org/261709.html.

Overall, we found that what makes an older protagonist or the process of aging believable hinged on a lot of the same things that make for a good story: well-written characters engaged in interesting activities.  I might add that all of us found characters who actually felt the physical effects of standard human aging to be far more real and relatable.

Do you have any favorite older protagonists in sf/f?  Why or why not?

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2012 6:42 am

    With aging a subject near and dear to me, since I am living it (we all are, but one tends to focus on it more once one has passed one’s first half-century), I wish to register a complaint. I am not familiar with many of the characters in Catherine’s list, so perhaps there are more exceptions to this than I am aware of. But I find “older” characters seem to fall into three tired stereotypes:
    1.) The Curmudgeon. A cranky old fart/bag who actually has a heart of gold, and is won over somehow in the course of the plot by the idealistic youngsters. Sometimes The Curmudgeon is just comic relief; often they hold some key piece of information or skill which will save the world, and must be persuaded to overcome their cynicism and be willing to fight again.
    2.) The Crone/Mentor. You know. Yoda. Gandalf. The wise grandmother or sage. Often enigmatic and prone to drop Zen gems.
    3.) Searching for the Fountain. The man or woman who hates getting old and wants nothing more than to regain their lost youth. Packs more angst than any teenager. Often a tragic figure whose aging is painted as all the things Youth fears: loss of strength, beauty, sexuality, power, etc. A persuasive argument in favor of dying young.

    There’s actually another one I’ve just remembered: SuperSenior, a kind of reassurance that one can get old and still hit the home runs if you work out, take your vitamins (or hormones or whatever) and maintain the proper mental attitude. Still looks hot at fifty (or more) and can still do anything the kids can do.

    It’s very rare that I come across a character that realistically captures the humanity of growing old. Ray Bradbury nailed it in a lot of his stories. Modern authors seem too damned afraid of aging to acknowledge its realities with warmth and courage.

  2. September 3, 2012 7:03 am

    I have several characters in my fantasy trilogy who are over 60…one of them, a woman, is an herbalist and sort of a warrior so she seems younger than the other woman, who has been drained of energy by the antagonist…I think aging in this country (U.S.) is difficult and there’s a lot of ageism in our culture…it bothers me since I’m in my 60’s–I prefer the native cultures and the European cultures where older people are considered wise and looked up to…gray hair here causes people to turn away. It surprised me the first time I noticed this…because I don’t feel old! (and I’m not)

  3. September 3, 2012 8:55 pm

    Notice how the actors for Doctor Who (not really science fiction, but what the heck) have gotten progressively younger over the years. And we’ve also have had two pairs of young Sherlock Holmes and Watson lately, and are about to get a third.

    • September 4, 2012 6:30 am

      I loved the original Dr Who with his crazy scarf! And yes, Sherlock Holmes as well–too bad!

      • Kat Sefton permalink
        March 16, 2013 8:09 pm

        Wasn’t it Tom Baker, the fourth doctor, with the long scarf? The first doctor was William Hartnell, back in 1964 and 1965, which was when I first watched the show. He was an older man with white hair, and yes, I did like the older (and older) doctors better. They seemed to have more personality than the recent younger ones. As you say, Nikki, “too bad!”

  4. September 17, 2012 8:38 am

    Nikki’s observation about people’s attitude toward the old-er also reflects in the litterary community. Unless you’re an already established author, if you don’t look young or hot”, people tend to make a wide berth arounf the signing table.

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