If you haven’t seen Stranger Things --- wasn’t that a clever pun in my lead paragraph? he asked in the pathetically neurotic way writers do when they seek approval/validation, which is most of the time, by the way --- the aforementioned lead paragraph means nothing, so allow me a word or six to explain:
Stranger Things is a Netflix series just finished its second season. Set in 1983/84 in the imaginary town of Hawkins, Indiana, it focuses on the adventures of five nerdy young teens who must deal with all sorts of unpleasant/horrific consequences when one of them unintentionally opens a gateway to another, malevolent dimension (well, actually, is forced to open it by a shadowy, nasty government agency of the sort we’ve become all too familiar with in film and literature, the last 30 years or so). While not a particularly original concept --- people who enjoyed The X Files or Fringe will find Stranger Things familiar --- it’s well told, the child actors in particular being both believable and excellent.
But here’s the rub, as Will would say: if these kids were 14 or so in 1983… in real life, they would be, as I said, 49 in 2018. Well into careers, marriages, kids of their own, joys, sorrows --- you know, the Whole Damn Thing. Which is, if you’ll pardon my saying so, a strange thing and really ties in to Will’s quote: And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, and then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot; and thereby hangs a tale. Ain’t you just a bundle o’ joy today, Will.
And thereby hangs a tale i.e. it got me thinking: how should writers portray characters aging?
(Assuming we simply don’t make them immortal, of course… which is, frankly, cheating a bit. Why? Because we immediately lose part of our connection to immortal characters. How could we not? They’re gonna be around long after us mere mortals have turned to dust, so they can’t appreciate the mayfly nature of our lives --- the slings and arrows of our passing existence until it’s “out, out, brief candle,” to quote Will again. For example, Elrond is an interesting character in Lord of the Rings --- he’s also, by the way, Aragorn’s multi-great uncle --- but being immortal, he doesn’t have the same investment in Middle Earth’s problems that folks like Frodo do. It’s the same thing with Wonder Woman’s immortality: I’m glad Gal Gadot doesn’t age a day in the 100 years between Wonder Woman’s main events and the conclusion that takes place in modern times --- it’d be a crying shame to see that beauty wither --- but it does mean Diana Prince will neither know nor ever really comprehend our lives and the aches and pains of getting old. And even if romantic interest Steve Trevor hadn’t conveniently died at the film’s climax, he would have long since bought the farm due to old age… so a long-term relationship with Diana wouldn’t really be in the cards. Like I said, think mayflies.)
In many stories, because the plot focuses on one pivotal period in a character’s life, aging isn’t an issue. When we look at events ranging from hours to a year or two, it’s generally not a big factor. It only becomes so if the story in question spans years or decades. But there, it can seem creepy or awkward when writers bring it in. In the final Harry Potter book, for example, we’re treated --- if that’s really the word --- to a conclusion where adult married couples Harry/Ginny and Hermione/Ron are at the train station, sending their kids off to Hogwarts. The book scene was awkward enough, but the film version is truly creepy… seeing Harry et al transformed into these fleshy, middle-aged mums and dads… a little less lithe, a little more used up by the vicissitudes of life… eww. Yeah, I know it happens to us all: I see it daily in the mirror, and as Miracle Max said, “thank you so much for bringing up such a painful subject. While you're at it, why don't you give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice on it?” My point is, yes, we all age. But do we have to be/want to be reminded of it in story characters? Interesting question… and personally, as you can see, I’m a little conflicted by it.
Sometimes, writers ignore the issue altogether. In Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the two protagonists, Jamie and time-travelling Claire, are separated at book 2’s conclusion, and at book 3’s beginning, it’s been 20 years since they saw each other last. Ms. Gabaldon doesn’t exactly spend a lot of time dwelling on how the two have aged --- it certainly doesn’t seem to have affected their libidos at all, he said, rolling his eyes --- and I was curious to see how the Starz TV series would address the matter. To my amusement… essentially, they don’t. They make a half-hearted attempt to age the characters before they reunite, but since then, have pretty much ignored the inconvenient fact that the 30-something Jamie and Claire of the first two seasons are now 50-somethings --- at a time where most humans didn’t live to see 50-something… or if they did, looked a lot older than 50-something.
Does it matter? Should it?
Well, as the old saying goes, the reader must decide. And the writer, too, I guess. In the meantime, since he’s a little more upbeat than Will on the subject, maybe we should leave the final words to Jack Lewis: Autumn is really the best of the seasons; and I'm not sure that old age isn't the best part of life.