Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Theme-Plot-Character-Worldbuilding Integration Part 9 - Convincing Elder Characters

Theme-Plot-Character-Worldbuilding Integration
Part 9
Convincing Elder Characters
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

As always, the series of posts with "Integration" of several skills in the title assume you have mastered the individual skills we have discussed.

The previous posts in this series are indexed here:


A novel, in any genre, to have depth, be "immersive," and thus be memorable, making readers memorize your byline to hunt for other books by you, must have (or refer vividly to) Characters of various ages.

Your Characters were not born all grown up, and did not arrive at their current view of their world without having held other views prior to the story.

Characters have a past-story as well as a past-plot.  Because they have a past, if they survive your story, it will be clear to the reader that they will have a future (and maybe more books).

This is why backstory is given such emphasis in writing lessons.  But a backstory (the history of the world, its Characters, and the karma that has swept them to this current place in life) is as complex a tapestry as the current episode, and the future.

This is true in all genres, but it is in high focus, exceptional three-dimensional relief, and grand scale in Romance of all types.

Romance, in our modern day of grim outlooks on reality, has to "sell" the Happily Ever After ending.  Whatever sub-genre you might blend into your novel, the Romance has to barrel through the plot and blast out a nice niche of happily ever after where it seems plausible the Characters will live a long and fulfilling life.

So in order to convince your readers that your World (and presumably somewhere in the reader's world) there is the possibility of a Happily Ever After, you must SHOW DON'T TELL the achievement of an HEA.

You must present some Characters who have lived an HEA.

And you must convince your readers these Characters might possibly be somewhat like real people.

In other words, you must create a Character who is older than you are, has lived life experiences you have barely witnessed and certainly not yet experienced, and you must give your reader the feeling of having experienced those life events themselves.

In other words, you must put your reader inside the "head" of an Elder Character who convinces the reader that the HEA is possible because that Character lived it.

Because it's a novel, there has to be a risk that the HEA might not be achieved by the current young Characters who are living the plot.

That's easy because if you are not young, you were once.

But how do you create a Character older than yourself by decades?

Tolkien created Gandalf, and many other writers previously and since have given us Elders to admire.

Such elder characters are the demented grandmother in the attic, the beloved grandfather in a wheelchair pounding his cane on the floor, the Elder who comes out of retirement to lead a life-or-death charge against an implacable foe, or, as in the film, Cocoon, Elders who escape a group home to go on an adventure seeking the fountain of youth.


In today's current TV Series, we see Parents depicted as major problems in the lives of the Characters living the story.  Parents are depicted in a negative light, as people nobody would like, never mind love.  Their presence during a visit, or even just a phone call, interrupts the important things going on and makes the Characters feel bad about themselves, frustrated or enraged.  Everything is ruined when the Parents show up.

How does that convey the plausibility of the HEA ending?  Parents are AT the HEA ending, or grandparents are, and if they are still angst ridden, acting out, hammering on their children to behave differently, and sick and miserable, how does that convince the audience that an HEA is plausible for the Characters currently having the adventure?

The Elder Character can be a leader and key-player, like Gandalf, or a bystander giving advice like the Grandmother in the TV Series SUITS, a Character who dies and leaves a legacy of Wisdom.

To convince your readers that your current young couple is headed for a long and happy life, you need to show-don't-tell how previous generations in your well Built World have achieved the HEA in their own lives.

That, in itself, is a Theme -- here is a world wherein the HEA is a common achievement.  The Theme is "HEA is Real."

OK, so how do you integrate that theme with your current young Characters?

Ask yourself what is a Couple like after decades of HEA?

How does an elderly couple relate to each other and their great-grandchildren.

Many good Romances have used "Inheriting An Old House" -- spooky Gothic, sudden riches, problematic neighbors, rejecting small town society -- all kinds of conflicts can arise as a young Character inherits an old house and explores the attic, trying to clean it out to sell the house.

The "World" is the setting of the old House and the town nearby, the Characters in that town, its economy and culture.

But in that World, the elder is gone, and all that's left is memories and memorabilia, the detritus of a life.  Exploring the detritus of a long life of an HEA can be a life-changing event.

Does digging through the attic uncover a life of secret misery, or a life of serene triumph after a majestic storm of Events?

The Theme, the plot, the Character, and the World all have to come into play as you answer that question.  Sometimes you write the entire novel before you understand the theme or even the World.  Sometimes you think you are writing the story of extreme misery, only to find in the end there really was happiness.

Or sometimes, as in my Vampire Romance Novel set on the Moon, the Those of My Blood, the ending frees the Characters of the oppression of Elders.


Most writers don't know, for certain, exactly what the ending will be until they actually write, "The End."

I had that experience writing Those of My Blood (the original Hardcover was hailed as my breakout novel).  It was a surprise to me how it happened.

The writer knows it will be a climax point, an explosive blow, followed by a denouement - a few paragraphs of serenity after the storm - indicating an HEA is likely.

But which way will the cookie crumble for the principle Characters?  Very often, the writer is more surprised (and moved to tears) than most readers will be.

The future of those Characters, indicated in the brief paragraphs after the Ending of the Slot, the few paragraphs where the Story is smoothly docked at its destination, is actually decided by the opening sentence of the novel.

Therefore, after writing The End, it is often necessary to go rewrite the opening to match.

This often happens because, when laying out the idea for the story, the writer has not included a full representation of the Elders.  So during the writing, the writer has to explore and flesh-out the Elder Characters and how the Young Characters have internalized the teachings of the Elders.

The teachings of the Elders were received by the Elders from their Elders.

We have the maxim, "Respect Your Elders," and previous generations were taught to stand when an Elder enters the room, to surrender a seat on the bus to an Elder, to open doors for Elders, to fetch things without being asked, and to address Elders as Sir or Madam and always acquiesce, never-EVER-ever argue.


This concept of proper behavior was drilled into youngsters for centuries, so if you are writing Historicals, be sure to vet every line of dialogue to be certain none of the Characters ever contradicts an Elder unless it is a major plot-point, an act of defiance, or the Character is Pure Evil.

In our current world, it is taken for granted that anyone older than you is wrong about everything.

Both Thematic Elements, "Elders Are Always Correct" and "Elders Are Never Correct," are actually true in their Times, in the respective Worlds.

There is a progression of Life for humans (which might not be true for Aliens) that alters mental, emotional, and spiritual skills with time, and ONLY with time.

In other words, no matter how much a Hot Shot a young guy might be, he can not be as Wise as an Elder (who isn't demented -- and even the demented Elders have flashes of Wisdom worth adopting).

Here is an article about some research into the Age-Related Skills among humans.


This article traces the ages at which large samples of population aced certain skills.

People really do get wiser as they get older.

It turns out life really is the best classroom.

A team of psychologists asked people to read about a conflict, then asked them questions about it. The scientists analyzed the responses for characteristics like being able to see from someone else's point of view, anticipating change, considering multiple possible turnouts, acknowledging uncertainty, and searching for compromise.

They found that the oldest group they studied — people who were between 60 and 90 — did better than other ages on almost every count.

Psychological well-being peaks at about 82.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, scientists asked people to picture a 10-step ladder, with the best possible life on the top rung and the worst possible life on the bottom rung.The oldest group they studied (82- to 85-year-olds) gave the highest average rung number, about 7.

---------end quote-------

The reason today, "Elders Are Always Wrong" is true is not just that "the World has changed" but rather that the pace of change has accelerated.

Adaptability is a trait that peaks early in life, then falls off, and we have solved the problem of how to get to an HEA of our own.  No longer searching for a path through life, humans settle into a groove which becomes a rut very hard to get out of.  In fact, humans who are old enough to still get out of their rut might actively choose not to.

Humans have the ability to form Habits (such as never speaking words that contradict their elders).  Success or Failure in life used to depend on internalizing the Wisdom transmitted by Elders (grandparents who survived the harsh realities of life did so because of Wisdom acquired from their Elders).

Surviving a long time was prima facie evidence of Wisdom -- because the world of their Elders was almost identical to the world they survived, and now you are living in that same world, and so need the same HABITS of thought, the Wisdom, that allowed your Elders to survive.

One Wisdom, I think, has in fact a legitimate application in today's world, "Never Volunteer" -- the watchword of inductees into the Army.

But beyond certain basics, most of the old adages are no longer applicable or helpful.  We are now responsible for creating new adages, new Wisdom of a New Age, that will remain applicable for at least a few generations.

Are Romance writers up to that?

Are your Characters going to become Elders who are always correct or always incorrect?

Will your Characters, through the Plot events generated by your Theme, come to understand the dynamics shaping their World in a way that they can pass down to their children?

What do you know about the real world around you that your readers don't (yet) know?

That Wisdom you enshrine in your one-liners, the little quotables that will become watchwords for some readers in their real life, ("Not The 'Droids You Are Looking For"), may change a Misery Ever After ending to a Happily Ever After ending.

Do a good job of finding the key to living in the Internet Of Things world, the A.I. managed world, after the Singularity that is coming, encapsulate that Wisdom and convey it to the youth growing up behind you with a memorable one-liner.

The Romance Genre is especially suited to creating and conveying these deep, obscure, never-before-discovered or needed, Wisdoms.

The mechanics of staying alive in the world will have shifted to emphasize the skills of the 60-90 year olds mentioned in that quote above.  Seeing conflicts from various points of view, anticipating change, (having a Plan C and D), finding new ways of resolving disputes.

It is possible the age of Majority may rise from 18 years to 28 years, or maybe 40 or 50.  Perhaps nobody under 50 will be allowed to vote?  The life-skills of value will be those of the Eldest Humans -- as life-expectancy increases.

In the mystic tradition, the age of 100 bestows a Vision youngsters don't have.

In building your World, consider whether mere age is the source of this kind of cognitive skill, and whether artificial life-extension techniques can automatically bestow it.

We've all known Elders who were just as foolish and clueless as they were when they were in their 20's.  And we know Elders who have "lost it" -- dementia or Alzheimer's or decreased blood supply to the brain -- whatever the cause, they just do not have Wisdom to gift you with.

Are such Elders also worthy of "respect" (as society used to practice?)

What is it about Age that demands the respect of Youth?

The answer to that question is a thematic element and requires a Character active in the story to show-don't-tell the reader how your World functions.

Ponder that research into ages at which cognitive functions of various sorts "peak" and create your novel's society to take advantage of this human trait, or to attempt to violate it.

If you have Aliens -- be sure to create the equivalent experimental results for them (which should not be included in your text, but used to generate dialogue and attitudes).

On the other hand, maybe very little of our current civilization may survive and you can start from scratch building a whole new world.


On the SimeGen Group on Facebook, we collect apocalyptic phenomena because Sime~Gen is set a thousand years after such a wipe-out hits our current world.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. So...karmetic... to read this chapter from a wrtier whose work I have always respected, and who respected mine, even in the days of its infancy. Why karmetic, you might ask? Because of a character I had created whose backstory was important to the type of person my protagonist grew up to be. Recently, the catalytic character's story bubbled out of me and, as Jacqueline mentions above, I was able to show and not tell.

    I'm looking forward to reading the new Sime-gen - have been a fan since Kraith. Keep on, keeping on. We learn by doing.