How Old is Young?

I’ve just finished reading Rosamunde Pilcher’s bestselling novel The Shell Seekers and while I would still recommend this beautifully written saga about family relationships I can’t help feeling that the characters display some very old-fashioned ideas, as if they inhabit a different era to the one portrayed. And here’s why: The novel was first published in 1987 and the subject matter is mostly contemporary, with some nostalgic flashbacks to the Second World War. The matriarch of the family, Penelope Keeling, is 64 and describes herself as ‘elderly’. She accepts that she’s in her declining years yet she seems far too energetic and independent to settle sweetly into frail old-age.

And this is my problem – I’m 63 next month and although I might identify with some of the Penelope’s traits, I do not consider myself in any way ‘elderly’. Had the novel been written in 1957, I could have forgiven Ms Pilcher (who is still alive today at the grand old age of 91, so by her own estimation she’s been elderly for a very long time) for attaching such an ageing descriptive to her heroine but 1987 isn’t that long ago.

Is that really how older people were seen in those days?

Those days – it sounds like another century, but then, it was. At the time of writing The Shell Seekers Pilcher was the same age as Penelope, and coincidentally, my age now. But to me old age is always 20 years into the future.

The social construct of old age as viewed by the generations is changing. Younger people don’t have the experience to envisage life after thirty – you may as well be dead and probably will be – but the older ones amongst us see things differently. Sixty is the new 40 – at least it is in our house (and this brings me back to the novel) – we need to watch this in our writing.

Our characters should always resonate with our audience and depicting them age-appropriately is a given. While younger writers catering to an audience of their peers might not even include any adults, anyone wishing to appeal to a wider audience should think about how realistically they are portraying people of all ages, and strive to produce well-rounded, believable and recognisable characters. We won’t succeed if we give our characters anachronistic speeches which bear little connection to the world beyond the pages of the novel.

Time moves on. We evolve. And so must our writing.

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