Writing Tips From Fay Weldon

What age are your characters?

What age are you going to make your characters? It matters to publishers, it matters to marketing and PR people. You may chose to ignore this horrible fact and pursue your literary ambitions unmoved by the practicalities of publication, but you came to this site for words of advice, so you might as well listen in.

It is any writer’s first and reasonable instinct to make their main protagonist the same age, roughly, as they are – but consider whether it is a sensible thing to do. Readers come in all sizes, sexes, shapes and ages, but all prefer their novels to feature young women rather than old. This applies particularly, alas, to older women, who are by far the more prolific readers of fiction. (Men tend to prefer non-fiction – histories, biographies, science, car mechanics.) And older women, my theory is, prefer to identify with themselves when young, not as they are now, in the days when they were sexually active, agile of limb, and not afraid of adventure. It makes for livelier reading.

Publishers, who these days tend to turn away novels by middle aged women about middle aged women on the grounds that they are depressing, are probably wise to do so. We now have a sorry state of affairs in which older women, who tend to be the only ones with the time, energy, experience and patience to write novels at all, have an uphill struggle trying to get them published. Whereas a pretty young woman with her face on the back flap sells a lot of books, but has rather less wisdom to pass on than the older woman. What’s to be done?

My own answer is always to have a juvenile lead, someone running around in a state of sexual turmoil, while the older woman, keeping a low profile, passes on the wisdom of her more senior years. Get your juvenile lead on the front page: lure the reader in. 25 works better than 35, 35 than 45 – after 50, forget it. Theatre plays have been employing such tactics for a long, long time. Women past their nubile prime don’t get parts in films or jobs announcing on TV. It shouldn’t be so, but it is.

Having said all this someone like Roddy Doyle, who writes about women better than anyone I know, will prove me wrong, writing a book which sells like hot cakes about a woman of 55. He got away with Paula being 39 in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and she feels even older to the reader – she’s taken to drink; but she wisely spends a long time on the page back as a young woman.

If you’re a woman you need to bear these things in mind. And do make your protagonist as little like you physically as you can. Otherwise your reader will assume the novel is about the person in the picture on the back flap. It may well be, but try not to let on. If you’re a man you can safely make your male characters any age, while keeping your female characters young and sexy. Try and avoid too great an age gap, though. Readers get queasy if a male hero of pensionable age is loved by a 20-year-old-girl: the writer will find himself under troll attack.

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