numbers in fiction

I don’t know if I’ll ever be one of those people who lies about their age. A friend of mine recently told me that when she was backpacking in Europe at 18, she told everyone she was 19 because it sounded less green. It worked wonderfully until an American girl saw her passport in passing and called her on the lie. My friend had to cut all ties with the American for fear she would out her to everyone else.

Numbers in and of themselves are a fiction we tell ourselves to make sense of things that would otherwise go unnamed like the passing of time, and how much a can of baked beans is worth.

What I’ve recently been struggling with, is how age means a different thing in fiction. When you don’t have a person in front of you, whose lined skin and calloused hands and thinning hair tell their own story of experience, it’s much harder to say what a number means.

I realised the other day that I’d mistaken the romantic interest in my young adult WIP. My protagonist is 13, and as the story stands the real love interest is about 28.

Considering they won’t actually be romantically involved for a good few years, this doesn’t actually bother me too much. But if I imagine special k, who is also 28, being in love with a 13 year old, it bothers me a lot (aside from the fact that he’s my husband and shouldn’t be in love with anyone but me).

So I have, grudgingly, started to shift the numbers around. Having to make him younger brings some new, interesting elements into the story and I think it’s going to work. I’m still finding it hard to let go of the character as I originally wrote him, though.

There are genres and settings where the age difference would work. If he was a vampire (werewolf/demon/angel/fairy), for example, he could be 2,080 and it would make no difference. If the setting were pure fantasy, rather than a science fiction universe populated solely by humans, it could work. If the story was going to be an epic that spanned a good decade or two, also possible.

The series I’ve been thinking of quite a lot is Tamora Pierce’s Immortals quartet. The romance that spans four books does very much what I want to do: a young girl starts to build her powers under the mentorship of an older mage. They fall in love almost imperceptibly as she grows up.

Do you read fictional relationships according to what is acceptable in real life? And what would push the boundaries too far beyond your comfort?

Comments 2 Responses

  1. Cheryl Nekvapil

    Yes, I’m a realist insofar as and in-the way-that I grasp reality, bering in mind that reality is oftern stranger than fiction. Fictional characters have to fit in to that for me or I stop reading. And the boundary that goes too far is the one that ventures in to perversion — and that needs defining — then I also stop reading. It’s a choice about how to spend this precious time we have in life!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      yeah – I think when you DO have those age gaps that would be questionable in real life, then your writing turns into an exploration of perversion/where the line sits. So unless you’re prepared to tackle that head on, it’s probably better to avoid age problems. If, like me, you’re writing an action-adventure romp for young readers, then you probably don’t want to go there! 🙂

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