April 4, 2022

In Praise of Older Characters by Mark McNease

In Praise of Older Characters by Mark McNease

I’ve always enjoyed reading stories with characters who reflected my own life in some way, even if those stories were fantastical. Whether it was Poe firing my young imagination and expanding my vocabulary, or Alice Walker challenging my assumptions, or Anne Sexton enriching my understanding of poetry, I’ve always gravitated to writing that called forth things within myself that I wanted to nurture. I wanted to experience my own emotional life in the emotional lives of the authors I read and the stories they told, regardless if it was in a short story, a novel, or a stanza.

As I aged, it became meaningful to me to read about characters who were going through the same life stages I was. Once I passed, say, the age of forty, there simply wasn’t much interest for me in reading, or writing, characters who were significantly younger. I don’t have anything against characters in their twenties, and in the case of my Marshall James books, I write characters who are in that age group. But those stories are told in flashback: they begin with Marshall, the antagonist, in his 60s—just like me!—and they then go back in time to 1980s Los Angles, where I lived at the time, to tell about several murderous experiences he had.

This is also why I started writing the Kyle Callahan Series, with an older gay couple as the central characters, and why the Marshall James books are written in both the present and the past: I am an old(er) man. I look at life as an older man, and specifically as an older gay man. My favorite thrillers (or suspense novels, or mysteries) are series in which the main character has grown old with me. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, and John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series are perfect examples of this. I’ve been reading both of them for many years, and there is something important to me in having the main characters age as I do. Harry and Charlie are old men now. Louis and Angel, a rather lethal gay couple who are in most of the Parker books, are dealing with the realities of getting old, even as they assassinate those who deserve it. These men feel familiar in ways that characters in their twenties or thirties simply cannot. If I engage with a young character, it is most often as a sort or remembrance of who I was—just like Marshall James retelling stories from his past, when murder and near-death experiences were more manageable physically and mentally.

I also identify more strongly with the inner lives of characters my own age, or close to it. I like the romance of two people who have been together a long time and are growing old in the life they share. I don’t read or write romance fiction, and have no opinion on it. It’s a genre, with a set of expectations and rules, that a great many people enjoy, and a long list of authors provide. I’m just not one of them. For me, nothing is more romantic than two people whose love has endured through the years, and while I’ve enjoyed sex to the fullest in my time, I don’t find it necessary in the stories I tell. Like authors in any genre, I know what my readers enjoy, because they tell me, and I know what I want to write. For the most part, they coincide, and it keeps me getting up early in the morning to continue this make-believe with voices in my head and a keyboard to record them.

Will I write a book when I and my characters are in our 70s? I’m not so sure. I suppose there will come a time when I either lower the age of my characters a decade or two, or simply stop writing them. But that’s what makes it all so interesting: not knowing. I appreciate things that have a beginning, middle, and end, like life itself. I also believe that all things must pass, and that “all things are of the substance of dreams.” Somehow what I’m saying is connected. I could not remain thirty forever, nor would I want to. My characters will continue to age with me, and when they tell me they’ve had enough, I’ll throw a little retirement party for them and thank them for the memories.