When Characters Age in a Series

In today’s publishing market, a series or a trilogy is bookselling gold. Booksellers/Librarians love knowing that a book that kids have gotten excited about has more volumes coming, and that further adventures are in store for a beloved character.

What can and does pose a problem- both for authors and for readers, is when the main character ages over the course of the series from child to young adult or teen. Take Harry Potter for instance, where Harry goes from 10 in the first book to 17 in the last book. As Harry ages, the maturity and intensity level of the series also increases, thus inciting many debates on whether to keep the entire series together in the children’s section of the bookstore/library, or to shelve the later books in the Young Adult section. This also of course posed problems for parents who had introduced their young children to Harry, but were uncomfortable allowing them to continue with the series as it became more intense.

I encountered a similar problem as a bookseller years ago with William Nicolson’s dystopian Windsinger trilogy. Having read and loved the first book, I comfortably sold it to a 10-year-old reader, who also loved it. When the second book released, I eagerly read it, only to find that there were people being burned alive in monkey cages. Suddenly, I had the unfortunate task of explaining why she couldn’t and shouldn’t continue with the series at that point. The fortunate part was I did read the second book and could speak to the content, but often times with a series, I simply have to trust that nothing freaky is going to happen in the next book.

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice books are another example of a series that age the character. Alice goes from 6th grade to high school graduation, (not counting 3 prequels that feature Alice in 3rd-5th grades) and as Alice matures, so do the books and her experiences. In fact, several of the titles featuring Alice as a teen have been challenged for their frank treatment of teen issues such as sex and drinking. I’ve personally shelved the more recent titles (from Junior Year onward) in our YA section due to content, but it does make it confusing for shoppers who logically expect to find all of the books in one area, and disappointing for the reader who is suddenly too young to keep reading them.

This leads to the other challenge of aging your characters too drastically- the risk of losing your reader due aging your character out of their bracket- especially when they start out being the same age as the main character in the first book. The idea of the audience growing up with a character really only works once. While the maturing of a character might help to retain the reader’s interest while they wait for the next book to release, when readers discover the series after it’s already complete, you don’t have the luxury of having them wait a year or two in between books. As a child, I remember reading the Little House and the Anne books right up until the point where their experience exceeded the realm of what I could relate to or was interested in. As an eight or nine-year-old, characters getting married and having their own children didn’t interest me, and I abandoned the books at that point.

So as a writer or a reader, what are your thoughts on aging characters in a series? What approach do you take to your writing, and which do you prefer reading?

12 Responses to When Characters Age in a Series

  1. Natalie Aguirre Apr 17 2013 at 6:36 am #

    These are interesting points. I hadn’t thought of the risks of aging your characters too much and how the story might be inappropriate for the younger readers that start it as an upper middle grade story. I’ll have to keep that in mind in developing any series I write.

  2. Jessica Knauss Apr 17 2013 at 9:53 am #

    For series that don’t get very intense, like the Little House series, I don’t think there’s an issue. I read through the whole thing when I was in the third and fourth grade. The adult stuff interested me because I knew I wouldn’t be a kid forever! I hesitate about series like Harry Potter and the ones coming out now that get so intense, but then again, children have always read books for adults. We can only hope they have someone they can discuss issues with when they come across them. Great post!

    • Rachel Seigel Apr 17 2013 at 1:39 pm #

      I agree with you that if the action doesn’t get too intense, the age of the character isn’t a problem, but I think that finding a way to maintain the innocence of the series while the character ages is where the biggest challenge lies.

  3. Alexa Y. Apr 17 2013 at 9:57 am #

    As a reader, I never particularly minded when the characters in books aged. I thought their experiences, despite them being vastly older than I am, were still easy for me to relate to. Or perhaps I was just too attached to the character or the series to even think about NOT continuing on with it. My parents were never strict about what I read, even as a young one, so it never affected me. I actually prefer reading series where the characters get older because I get older along with them. Best example? Harry Potter.

    As a writer, I think it’s very difficult to age your characters in a way that feels authentic. That’s what I intend to do with my own stories, but I will admit that it’s hard. I’m not sure if I can pull it off, but I do think it’s possible because I’ve seen it done.

  4. Fiona Ingram Apr 17 2013 at 9:57 am #

    When I began writing my first middle grade adventure (The Secret of the Sacred Scarab) I had no ideas about a series until I had nearly finished the book. Of course, two young heroes (12 and 13) needed more time to save the world. The Harry Potter ageing 11-17 also bugged me. I did not want that to happen. So, I put in a crucial race-against-time, and the fact that my heroes get to go away with their intrepid journalist aunt over school holidays while they hunt down the ancient Stones of Power (and save the world in the process). If I’m lucky and manage to juggle the school calendar (Easter, July, October and Xmas vacs), they will age by under a year. Thank you for an interesting article which sheds light on readers and how themes and issues change as the characters and their readers grow up.

  5. Jes Apr 17 2013 at 11:36 am #

    I remember reading somewhere (not that I can remember where) that kids/teens tend to read about 2 years behind character ages. That has made me a little worried about my current project; the MC is 15-16 over the course of a trilogy, but working in a fantasy world changes what 15-16 means in terms of life experiences/maturity. Worrying about issues surrounding sex is the biggest hurdle: you don’t want to suggest it to 13 year-old readers, despite the fact that you’re writing in a world where a 16 year-old can be married with kids. I’ve changed the ages of the MC and her friends a couple of times now, and I’m still not sure I shouldn’t up it one more (16-17) just to be safe with those issues.

    Then again, when I was fourteen, I was reading Tamora Pierce’s work (Tortall) alongside that of Anne McCaffrey (Dragonrider’s of Pern) from a generic “fantasy” section of the library that combined YA and adult titles. ::shrugs::

  6. Carrie-Anne Apr 17 2013 at 12:09 pm #

    I love reading and writing a good Bildungsroman, showing the character gradually aging over a longer period of time instead of only advancing a little at a time, parceled out over 10 or so books. It makes me sad to think of all the classic books that would have a hard time finding an agent or publisher these days, since the character doesn’t stay in one age-based category. One of my books, which I’ve decided to pursue e- or indie publishing for, ages the main character from 5 to 20 from 1959-74, and a much-shorter (in comparison) book I’m hoping to finally start querying ages my protagonist from 14 to 20.

    I’m used to reading and writing historical, which traditionally takes place over a longer amount of time than, say, a typical contemporary or mystery book. If I’m reading about a pivotal era like World War II, the Civil War, the 1960s, or the Revolutionary War, I kind of expect to follow the character over that entire event as s/he grows, matures, and changes. I’d feel really short-changed and written down to if I had to digest that story one book at a time or if it only covered the last year or first six months. One of the books I read for my final project in my YA Lit class last semester was Anne C. Voorhoeve’s My Family for the War, which was originally published in Germany and follows the protagonist from age 10 to 17, with a short Epilogue in her early twenties. That’s almost unheard of in American YA these days!

  7. Kim Apr 17 2013 at 8:45 pm #

    As a reader, I don’t mind. But I do see your point. While the series is ongoing it’s fun and reasonable if they main character ages. Once it’s done, it’s a different story. The books are all out and it’s not like someone is going to want to read one book while they are X age and then way until they are Y age like the MC in the second book to read it. I feel like this is only a problem for MG, though. In adult series it never really matters that the main character ages — and when YA gets older into NA, it’s not that big of a deal.

    As a writer, I agree with what Alexa said. It is hard to age a character authentically but it can really help the character arch if done well.

  8. Sorcha Apr 19 2013 at 1:38 pm #

    It’s a difficult issue because there are a lot of younger readers who are perfectly capable of dealing with more mature material. Who decides what is appropriate for each age group? Personally, I think you should write the story or series as truthfully to your character, as they age, as possible and leave it up to parents of younger readers to decide whether it’s appropriate for their particular child.

    Otherwise you get stagnant, sitcom-style series like Sweet Valley High or Nancy Drew where there’s no real chance for character development. They have their place in the world and obviously they’re wildly popular but I’d miss the character arcs in series if that’s the only kind that was available.

  9. Caitlin Vanasse Apr 20 2013 at 12:49 am #

    you make a really good point when you talk about aging characters out of the interest level of their readers. I remember absolutely LOVING the first three or four books in Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy Tacy series but I didn’t read beyond that because “betsy got all boring and liked boys and stuff.” Now I’m looking forward to revisiting the series including Betsy’s older adventures. Similarly I made the mistake of picking up a book I LOVED as a kid only to realize it hadn’t aged quite as well as one would hope. Which certainly doesn’t diminish the love I had for it then. Kids, who knows what they’ll like, right?

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