Mysterious Doings: Age over Beauty?

It’s been common knowledge that in almost every genre out there, readers want youth and vitality in their heroes. There’s good reason for this. Older protagonists lack the agility to be action stars, it’s often harder for young readers to relate to an older character than for an older reader to do so with younger characters, and it’s sometimes perceived that older characters lack the growth-ability necessary for a substantial character arc. But for all those reasons NOT to use the senior sect, there are powerful reasons TO use them as well and writers are taking the challenge.

While the national market has Jane Marple, aging Poirot, and  Miss Pollifax, the LDS market is not bereft by the older wiser either. Once we understand the drawbacks of using a character that may be difficult for readers to relate to, or lacks the physicality necessary to keep the stakes high, we get into the meat of why the average senior citizen might be exactly what the story needs. I posed a few of these questions to some fellow authors (and myself, which was weird, let me tell ya) and compiled our answers. The authors here all happen to be women and write women–I couldn’t really find older male main characters in the current local market, so be sure to let me know if I missed someone. First, let me introduce you to our panel:

Josi S. Kilpack writes culinary mystery novels featuring the amateur sleuth, Sadie Hoffmiller, a 57 year old widow (I know, I know, she’s not quite a senior citizen), retired teacher, and neighborhood busy body. Though written within the scope of LDS fiction main stream content expectations, the series is not LDS specific.

Tristi Pinkston writes murder mysteries involving a former Relief Society Presidency who finds a new “calling.” Ida Mae Babbitt is the ringleader of this band of sleuths and although a lady never tells her age, she’s in her mid-seventies.

Carole Thayne Warburton writes a variety of works and characters including more than one work that revolves around an older woman. In her recent novel, Suntunnels and Secrets, three elderly sisters undertake to solve a mystery left behind by 79 year old Norma’s husband when he passes away.

Question 1: What drew you to writing about an older heroine?

Carole: To be honest, I find it much easier to write older characters than younger. Older people have earned the right to be a bit quirky. They can have depth and wisdom and no one questions that. I also find their back stories much more interesting.

Tristi: Ida Mae popped into my head one day, fully formed, with a name, her personality, a favorite color, and just started talking to me.  I don’t know if I was drawn to her or if she found me and latched on.  I tend to think it was the latter.  And the more I listened to her and wrote down what she said, the more I learned about her and the better the story became.

Josi: I needed an amateur sleuth and I needed her to be unencumbered by children or a husband who would put the kibosh on her antics. In that sense, I didn’t set out to make her older, it just worked that way. I wanted her to have the depth that comes through heartache and maturity. Making her an empty-nester and a widow worked perfectly for the story.

Question 2: Did you find any limitations in writing from a POV so much older than yourself?

Tristi: I’m a little bit of an older soul.  I’ve always believed that I should have been born in the 1940s.  I love Cary Grant, the Andrews Sisters, Nat King Cole – so Ida Mae really wasn’t that much of a stretch for me.  Then again, she does all the talking and I just write down what she says.  She’s made the whole process very easy for me.

Josi: I’ve had some reviewers comment on Sadie’s spryness despite her age. I’ve tried to give her some self-defense and yoga to help explain it, but not everyone has been mollified. I know some 60 year-olds that could definitely best me in a wrestling match so although I’ve tried to keep it realistic, I’ve also let her be a little bit ninja.

Carole: I had to keep in mind that typically women in their 80′s don’t have as much energy and that we needed to be reminded every once in a while with moans and groans about aches and pains, dimming eyesight, and perhaps some memory loss. When you’re writing about a character in her 80′s you’re also pretty limited on having her be the romantic lead. The romance for Norma at 79 is really her reflecting on the love of her husband even when she finds out he kept a secret from her all of their married life. Norma keeps up with technology, but it’s more common for older people to struggle with technology.

Question 3: Were there characters you read about in other works that helped inspire you to use an older heroine?

Josi: I’d read some short stories about Miss Marple, which I’m sure helped with my confidence in being able to write an older heroine, but for the most part Sadie just was who she was. I quickly found that while I’m 20 years younger than her, she would worry about the same things I did. We aren’t that different.

Carole: Nevada Barr has a strong woman character who is middle-aged in many of her gripping thrillers. Anne Tyler, one of my favorite all time writers often writes women who are older.  I find that the British seem to have no problem with aging women being interesting main characters. I wish we had more of it in our literature and media.

Tristi: I’ve always loved Miss Marple and Mrs. Polifax.  Who doesn’t? But I’m not sure to what extent they influenced Ida Mae – of course I remember the stories and the attributes of those characters, but Ida Mae is very much herself.

Question 4: Did your character inspire the plot, or did the plot lead you to the creation of your character?

Tristi: Ida Mae totally inspired the plot.  She just took off and I grabbed her apron strings and held on.  To be honest, I didn’t even know what the plot was when I started writing.  I discovered it right along with her.

Josi: The story definitely built around Sadie. All my books start with character and the story fills in around them.

Carole: My books are mostly character driven. I usually start with a character and start with a small idea and it grows from there. With “False Pretenses” all I knew about the character that became Sunny Day was that she would rescue the young distraught woman by the side of the road, that she would smoke, and was a hippy from Haight Asbury. She definitely led the plot.

**It will be interesting to see if this trend will continue, peter out, or get stronger in the LDS market. Miss Marple has certainly proven the timelessness of going with the older and wiser protagonist. Are you aware of other books with a more mature hero or heroine? I’d love to hear about them.


About Josi Kilpack

Born in raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, I'm the third of nine children and the mother of four kids of my own. I've written 13 novels, most of them directed to the LDS market, and also write articles, short stories, and do freelance editing. I've been involved with LDStorymakers, a guild for LDS writers, since it's inception ten years ago and am currently the president of The Whitney Awards, a genre award program for LDS writers. I live in Willard Utah with my husband, kids, dog, and chickens.
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4 Responses to Mysterious Doings: Age over Beauty?

  1. It’s great to see a variety of ages, etc., in heroes and heroines. I love that Sadie Hoffmiller is neither young, nor skinny, nor gorgeous.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Thinking about it, I believe that the mystery genre is one that’s largely immune from the lure of very young characters (excluding flat-out juvenile stories such as Encyclopedia Brown). Am I being too seriously literary-critical to suggest that the “whodunit” element in a detective story represents, in miniature form, a quest for wisdom — and that wisdom is something we have an easier time associating with mature characters? As opposed to the archetypal journey of the fantasy novel, for example, which is largely a quest about identity and thus highly suitable for adolescence. Detective novels, in Blake’s terms, are songs of experience, as opposed to songs of innocence. What would a young and naive detective look like? I’m not sure I even know.

    Great comments, and nicely thought-provoking.

    • C. M. Malm says:

      I think you’re correct, Jonathan. In most other genres, the story is about the protagonist’s growth/change (or their failure at same). But Mystery is a quirky genre in that the plotline isn’t really about the protagonist as such, except in secondary ways. Consequently, the constraints of plot pacing usually require a detective to have a greater degree of pre-existing know-how than characters in other genres. One of the primary sources of such know-how is life experience.

  3. Very well said Ladies. I love your view in this matter. Thanks for the enlightening session.
    Anna del C. Dye

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