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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Middle Age in Fiction By Janet Greger

 Book publishers and movie and TV producers don’t know what to do with middle-aged individuals, especially women. Think about it.

Many of the middle-aged women in novels and films are victims - mothers who lost their children and wives abused by their husbands and/or the welfare and penal systems. They’re often pathetic, and they certainly don’t radiate a positive image for middle-aged women, at least at the start of the novels.

Successful professionals in many romance, suspense, and mystery novels are unrealistically young. Most physicians are close to thirty-five by the time they complete medical school, their basic residency, and their fellowships. Less than three percent of the principal investigators on major grants from the National Institutes of Health are thirty-six or younger. However, physicians and scientists in novels are world-class experts in their field in their early thirties. Wow!

Sometimes, writers create “fortyish” physicians and scientists as protagonists in their novels, but the characters are transformed into thirty-year-olds in TV series and movies. A prime example is Kathy’s Reichs’s Tempe Brennan character in the TV series Bones.

Middle-aged protagonists are problematic in thriller and adventure fiction. The comic book action heroes (Superman, Batman, Spiderman, X-Men) grew out of cartoons and more recently video games designed to appeal to adolescent males. Not surprisingly the characters never aged past thirty-five. The fate of women protagonists – Lara Croft and Superwoman — in this genre is worse. They seem to stay eternally in their twenties.

The more “realistic” action heroes, such as John McClane, Indiana Jones and Rambo, were conceived of as sexy, active men in their thirties. However, middle age has snuck into action films as Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, and Sly Stallone aged. Screenwriters ignored the problems engendered by middle-aged stars, and producers hired more stunt doubles and starlets twenty years than the stars. One exception to my statements is RED (Retired and Extremely Dangerous). The scriptwriter let the characters show their age and eliminated extreme action scenes or gave them a humorous twist. The film even has woman action hero – Helen Mirren.

Most middle-aged characters in novels, TV shows, and movies are forgettable. The cast of Downtown Abbey supplies good examples of the fate of middle-aged characters. Julian Fellows wrote the most interesting lines for the elderly, sharp-tongued Violet Crawley, played by Maggie Smith. The under-thirty crowd provides all the action and romance in the series. The two main middle-aged characters, the Earl of Grantham and his wife, are costumed background pieces, who spout trite phrases. Similarly, Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple is an elderly spinster, not a middle-aged woman.

There is one class of novels, which defy the norms. Protagonists of most cozy mysteries are middle-aged women, but often they are so addled they’re contemptible.

Why don’t writers make their protagonists be articulate, fit women in theirs forties and fifties? Women who could be portrayed by Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Sigourney Weaver, or Alfre Woodard.

Don’t laugh at my question. The middle-aged market is large. According to the census in the U.S. in 2000 and the census in the U.K. in 2011, about one-half of the females in these countries are between thirty and sixty-five years of age. The Motion Picture Association of America found a quarter of all moviegoers are over fifty, and the percentage is growing.

My message is: authors should populate their novels with more smart, fit women in their forties and older.

I practice what I preach. The heroine in my medical thriller series is Sara Almquist, an epidemiologist who retired early to get away from the male-dominated academia. She’s energetic and attractive, but doesn’t attempt to be twenty again. Here’s how Rachel Jones, twenty-nine-year-old blonde beauty describes Sara in Malignancy.

What do Chuy and the other men see in her? She does have guts, but look at her. She has no style. Her pixie haircut accentuates the small sags in her jaw line, her slightly droopy eyelids, and her ten pounds of extra weight.

I can tell Rachel what the men see in Sara: a resourceful woman who helped to find a cure for a deadly flu epidemic in Coming Flu, consulted on public health problems in Bolivia in Ignore the Pain, and helped set up exchanges between scientists in the U.S. and Cuba in Malignancy. And that’s the only the work-related side of her life. She never flinches (well, not much)  when she confronts a drug czar in the Albuquerque area with strong ties in Bolivia.

Bio: As a professor in nutrition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I honed my story-telling skills as I lectured to bleary-eyed students at 8:30 in the morning. Students remember chemical reactions better when the instructor attaches stories to the processes. 

Now I have two great passions – my Japanese Chin dog, Bug, and travel. I’ve included both in my novels: Coming Flu, Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight, Ignore the Pain, and Malignancy. You can learn more about me at my website: and blog (JL Greger’s Bugs): I also answer question directed to:

MALIGNANCY: Men disguised as police officers shoot at Sara Almquist twice in one day. Albuquerque police suspect Jim Mazzone, a drug czar who Sara has tangled with several times, will order more hits on Sara. Thus when colleagues in the State Department invite Sara to arrange scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, she jumps at the chance to get out of town and to see the mysterious Xave Zack, who rescued her in Bolivia. Maybe, she should question their motives.

Malignancy is available (paperback and Kindle formats) at Amazon and Oak Tree Press:


Jim Jackson said...

Just because there are a lot of people in a demographic group does not mean those people want to read about people in their same group. I suspect middle-aged readers prefer reading about the younger set (most of us think we act and feel younger than our biological ages) or older (who I’ll be when I grow up).

If they really did prefer middle-aged protags, the marketers would know and fill that need.

That said, my protagonist is in his late forties!

~ Jim

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

My protagonist is in her late forties, pragmatic, resourceful, respected and liked by her clients, with a teenage daughter spouting snarky comments. She does need to take a self-defense class to improve her odds against her antagonists.

J. L. Greger said...

Thanks for hosting me. In response to Jim - maybe the fascination with youth is partially due to few good middle-aged role models. If nothing else, the action movies with middle-aged stars often unintentionally show us that trying to act twenty when you're fifty is sometimes foolish.

Gloria Alden said...

My protagonist is in her early forties. When I started my first book in the series, it was with my sister. She wanted the protagonist to be in her twenties. I did most of the writing and eventually went on my own in writing it. I couldn't picture her as in her twenties, and changed her to her early forties with an interesting past.

I think the British shows on TV do a much better job of using middle-aged women. At least, in the latest episodes of Downton Abby, it looks like Lady Grantham may be straying from her staid position into a possible romance. Same with Mary's former mother-in-law, although she denies it. Then there's the Inspector Lewis series with a woman definitely older than her 20s who is the coroner.

E. B. Davis said...

I think the old and young are favored in books and movies, unless the MC is widowed young or divorced. I'd like to see more middle-aged people as protagonists, but I acknowledge that in real life, most of this age group is actively engaged in child-rearing and earning a living. Unless they are in a weird category or they work in the police or PI arenas, they won't appear.

Thanks for blogging, Janet!

River Glynn said...

I wonder if the lack of middle-aged protags is more a function of authors falling victim to the perceived wishes of readers. They will read a good story no matter the age. I know I read great YA, NA, and crone lit myself. Make it available and build the audience.

E. B. Davis said...


Think about joining the SinC Guppies. You might find a home there!

KM Rockwood said...

How old was Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote? I always thought of her as being middle aged. And to tell the truth, I always thought of Miss Marple as being middle aged, not elderly, but perhaps that was my misconception.

The protagonist in my Jesse Damon series is in his late 30's, which I guess is a bit young to be considered middle aged. Although it is in the middle; as they said in On Golden Pond, people don't live to be 120, so 60 is already old.

Jim, my mother-in-law said wistfully at her 85th birthday that she was still working on what she wanted to be when she grew up. (She asked for--and got--a white water rafting trip for her birthday.)

Gloria, I think your right about the British characters. Their best actors are often accomplished people in their middle ages and beyond, not the stunning young starlets.

Shari Randall said...

And you didn't even mention my pet peeve, all those older actors like Stallone and Willis who somehow end up with 20-year-old girlfriends on screen!
Glad you mentioned Helen Mirren - I've been a fan of hers since Prime Suspect. Talk about a great role and a great actress.

Ellen said...

I've never even thought about the ages of the female protagonists in the novels I've read... hmmm! But when creating my Rollin RV mystery series, I naturally gave the starring roles to a couple in middle-aged couple -- Betty is celebrating her 55th birthday when the first book in the series ("Pea Body") opens, and her husband Walt is in his early 60s. I've struggled a bit with Walt's age -- knowing I have several ideas for this series, I don't want him to age too much or too fast -- he drives an RV, after all. So your suggestion that series characters *should* age as the series progresses has me chewing my lip a bit.... Thanks for raising the topic!

Amy M. Bennett said...

I recall reading that Agatha Christie had wondered at one point if she would have made Miss Marple younger if she had known that she would have been so popular and had so many adventures (truly, for someone Miss Marple's age, it seems incredible that she lived long enough to have had so many!) And yet, Agatha Christie said, no, Miss Marple HAD to be elderly... a younger woman would have not had the life experiences that made her the kind of sleuth she was.

I think it all depends on the type of protagonist you want and how you want them to develop. My protagonist is young, 30-something--not so young so as not to have had some life experience, but with plenty of time to be active without resorting to action-hero antics! We'll see what the next couple of years bring!

Donald J. Bingle, Writer on Demand said...

Not only do I have a middle-aged protagonist as the spy in my thriller, but he loves his wife (who doesn't know he's a spy):

Dick Thornby is not Hollywood's idea of a spy.

In his rough and tumble job there are no tailored Italian suits, no bimbos eager to please, and no massive underground fortresses built by evil overlords seeking world domination—just an endless series of sinister threats to the safety and security of the billions of mundane citizens of the planet. Sure, Dick's tough and he knows a few tricks to help him get out of a tight spot, even if his boss accuses him of over-reliance on an abundance of explosives. But he's also got a mortgage, a wife upset by his frequent absences on "business" trips, and an increasingly alienated teen-age son who spends way too much time playing in gaming worlds on the computer.

J. L. Greger said...

Gloria, I agree with your comment. When I wrote this blog, Downton Abbey hadn't begun it's new series. They have added plot lines for the middle-aged characters this season.

EB is of course right. Middle-agers (I think I made up a word) are busy with work and families. They don't have the time to snoop, which is a prerequisite of a protagonist in mysteries. However, they do constitute a big share of the market.

KM, I thought of Jessica Fletcher as I wrote this piece. She was an exception, but I read an interview where someone in the management of the show noted her age turned off younger viewers. That brings me to my final point.

Lots of writers are including middle aged characters in their books, but the characters on TV's successful series (CSI, Bones, etc.)look young and beautiful. Does that say something about our audience's preferences?

Michael E. Henderson said...

Very timely post for me. My first novel had a young protag, and my next two had middle-aged men as protags. The novel I'm working on now has a middle-aged protag.

But last night I was watching some videos about the Hero's Journey, and realized that these people are generally young.

The novel I'm working on now is science fiction. I can't think of too many older heroes in sci-fi. Most of the people I encounter on Goodreads and Google+ with respect to writing are young, and mainly young women.

I came to the point in my novel the other day when the old protag had the call to action. And he's like, why should I struggle with this evil? I'll just escape. I can't get him past that.

The two young characters are like, yeah, let's rock.

So, I've come to the conclusion that there are no middle-aged heroes because they realize they're not ten feet tall and bullet proof.

So, I was considering rewriting the whole thing from the POV of the young boy, or even the girl, who are college age.