3 Factors for Choosing the Age of Your Main Character

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

None of us are getting any younger. Fortunately for us, our characters can effortlessly move through time to whatever age we deem most helpful for our stories. Often in the screenwriting world, the age of a character in your script is driven by casting, which is an important consideration when looking to sell your script or pilot. However, creativity cannot be driven purely by capitalism. There have been successful projects featuring people of every major age demographic, so what should we consider when assigning an age range to our protagonist? Here are three key considerations for how many candles to put on your main character’s birthday cake.

1. CONSIDER EXPERIENCE

Some things only come through living life, not through simple milestones. Our scars, our war stories, our pain, and our laughter make us who we are. If an audience is to feel empathy for your character, they must believe that character is real.

Characters only feel real when they seem to have had the appropriate life experiences that would inform the scenario they find themselves in. Most teenagers will not understand the complicated range of emotions one experiences watching their friends die regularly – at least not in the same way that someone in their 80s would. Similarly, someone in their 50s will likely have had too many life experiences to know the passion of a first love in the way that a 14-year-old might.

The experiences that a character has had can also link to the genre of the story that you are telling. Many comedies have been based around a character ironically not having the appropriate experience in a situation. Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin become octogenarian bank robbers in Going in Style. Steve Carrell was a 40 Year Old Virgin. Robert De Niro’s character was re-entering the work force in The Intern. Rigorously working through a protagonist’s backstory before you ever write FADE IN on your script can help you flesh out the truth about the life a character has lived before we meet them.

2. CONSIDER TIMESPAN

Determining how much your character will age over the span of the story is important. This will indicate what age we should meet the character at and perhaps what age the character will be the majority of time we spend with them. Some stories take place in a short amount of time, over the span of a single day or even a single hour. Other stories span a character’s life from the cradle to the grave. Still others cover a brief season of a character’s journey.

Unless you are writing an epic, you should likely only feature three seasons of a character’s life – and usually fewer than that. In Personal Shopper, we meet a protagonist in one significant season of her journey. In Lion, we meet a character in two different seasons. And in Moonlight, we meet the protagonist at three very distinctive moments in his life.

In researching this piece, it became clear how few stories span the entire lives of women. Many films have featured men that we travel with from birth to the end of their days – but few women have had that same cinematic treatment. In order to more fully understand the human experience, we sometimes need stories that capture the entirety of someone’s life. While there are great numbers of women in history whose stories would be compelling on-screen, the female characters that live in our imagination are limitless.

3. CONSIDER STAGES OF LIFE

At various stages of human life, certain desires (and external goals) are more common than at other times. Babies, careers, and significant others can be a part our lives at many different ages. However, there are certain times when these experiences are most common. There are other experiences that are universal and span across age groups – love, acceptance, and finding life’s meaning, to name a few.

Marking milestones in your story may be a helpful way to zero in on an age for your character as well. Births, weddings, divorces, and deaths all mark our lives in different ways. These milestones can work across genres as well.

Bachelor and bachelorette parties have been one common marker in recent years. The Hangover films, as well as the upcoming Rough Night and Girl’s Trip, center their stories around the premise of a milestone at a specific stage of life. Different characters in a story will likely be experiencing different stages of their lives. However, the stage that the protagonist finds himself or herself in will interplay with the theme of the story, as well as the relationships they inhabit. Take care that all these moving parts function together well.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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