Craft Exercises: Characters at different ages

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Here’s another craft exercise of mine that got me thinking long after I carried on with my day…

The challenge was to write the same character at three very different ages (15 minutes, 5 minutes per age). Here’s the Tri-aged character that ended up on the page when I was done:

~*~

Mattie acted like a kid with blond hair, blue eyes, and freckles. By some cruel trick of the universe, however, he was born with raven hair and eyes darker than midnight and skin so pale it was nearly transparent in the wrong lighting. But if Mattie knew it was his job, genetically, to act dark and mysterious, he grievously misunderstood what those words meant.

He smiled all the time, even when he was alone, and couldn’t quite get the hang of walking without skipping and hopping ahead. Everything was a game to him; everything delightful, and everything amazing.

 *

Matt made his way through the bleak office building, hating it. He glared up at the fluorescent lights and shook his hair back into his eyes. He wanted to be outside again, not in here having meetings. One arm was curled around the binder they’d given him, now full of doodles and no real notes at all. The other hung limply at his side, twitching angrily every so often, his only outward sign of his resentment for this confinement.

Someone greeted him in the hall, and he looked up with a bright smile and shining black eyes. Everyone was always after him to get his hair cut because he had “Such striking features” and shouldn’t be hiding them.

 *

Old Matt Jenkins found his way out to the porch, where he would probably spend the next few hours. His eyebrows dropped low over his eyes, which glinted in the bright sunlight as he watched the neighborhood. He looked back and forth as if watching little children playing tag in their yards.


In fact, this is what he wished he was watching, and the extra wrinkles that formed around his mouth as he clenched his teeth together were born of the anger that he didn’t see anything of the sort. He wondered just what kids were doing right now. Where they were hiding from a day like today.

~*~

 Initially, I felt mildly victorious when I’d finished. (Mostly because I have to make a conscious effort to not stereotype appearances with moods, but that’s a topic for another blog post…) It made lots of sense to me at the time: child who likes the outdoors –> Adult who feels trapped indoors –> Old man who wishes the young kids played outside. And I guess there might reasonably be a person out there whose life follows that pattern. 

But now I’m wondering if I took the easy way out of the assignment. Maybe Mattie hated the outdoors when he grew up. Maybe Old Matt Jenkins is too absorbed in his love of classical music to care that no one is enjoying the sunlight. People change. 

So I thought perhaps I’d try again by writing Matt at three ages without that thread to link them together, and I just couldn’t get my head around him anymore. Once I took that trait out, I couldn’t really justify that the boy, the adult, and the old man were the same person. So, what is it about characters that make them ‘themselves’ besides the things they like? How do you show that a person is the same person when something critical about them has changed? (This is obviously going to be one of those posts where I ask a bunch of questions and offer few answers.) 

I know it’s not common to literally write three ages in the same story, but there are always flashbacks and such things. How does one properly convince the reader that the character progressed from Point A to Point B without actually showing them those events? Or must you show them the events? Or are the flashbacks these pivotal events? 

I guess I haven’t stumbled on too many books that use flashbacks, so if anyone has any good examples, I’d be really interested in hearing them. Any thoughts on this? 

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