One of the most challenging things to do as a writer is to write about someone who is very different from yourself. It requires a lot of research, but it also requires a lot of imagination. This guide aims to aid roleplayers and writers in portraying characters who may be many years—or even decades—older than themselves.
Note: I was originally asked to create a guide for each decade (how to roleplay characters in their 20s, 30s, etc.). However, after doing research on the subject (and finding very little), I realized that there wouldn’t be many tips specific to each decade, so I decided instead to make one guide with general tips that apply to all ages.
In writing, it is easy to write about situations you have experienced yourself, or create characters similar to yourself; the challenge arises when the time comes to write about things you do not yet understand. How do you write about a character who has lived many years more than you have, and has therefore experienced much more? This character may be nearing the end of his road, while you have got your entire life ahead of you. The following are things that you can do in this situation in order to accurately portray such a character.
Model the character on someone you know.
This is by far the easiest way to build a believable character: take characteristics from real-life people. Do you know someone in their thirties? Are your parents in their forties? Do you have grandparents in their sixties? Find someone whose age is relatively close to the age of the character you are going to portray, and take cues from the way that person acts and reacts to situations. Don’t let your character become an identical twin to that person, but take characteristics you notice and carry them over into your character.
Observe adults around you.
If you don’t know someone in the age group of the character you’re building, or even if you simply want more material with which to create a believable character, observe adults everywhere you go. Carry a notebook and take notes on their reactions to situations, their mannerisms, their habits, the things they say—anything that stands out to you.
Get to know the dialect.
Learning the way adults talk is like learning a whole new dialect. They have all sorts of slang, just like our own generation. The dialect shift is more and more diverse depending on how wide the age-gap is; if your character is in his twenties, his dialect will not be much different from your own, whereas a character in her eighties might seem to be speaking a whole different language at times. Pay close attention to your word choices, as even the use of a single word can be the difference between an old character and a young character. Once again, observe adults around you. Listen to your parents’ conversations; write down sentences you overhear on the bus. Real people are the best models of how characters should be.
Ask for opinions.
If you know someone who is around the same age as the character you’re writing, don’t be afraid to ask that person what they think! Whether you’re not entirely sure how an adult would react to a particular situation, or you can’t decide whether or not a certain piece of dialogue sounds like something an adult would realistically say, ask adults what they think! Adults will know better than anyone else does, because they have that experience; they know what makes sense in their own lives and will therefore know what makes sense for your character.
Know your history.
Anyone who has lived longer than you will have more memories of the past than you do. You won’t know the unbridled joy and relief, your heart leaping from your chest upon your first glimpse of your husband or your brother or your cousin the day he returns for Christmas dinner from the battlefields of WWII. You probably won’t remember the frustration of the first days of email, when the computer was a blank screen with a square, blinking cursor and no formatting options. But your character might. It’s your job as a writer to read up on what the world was like for your character growing up, so that you understand what kind of memories the character might have. This way, you’ll be able to more effectively mimic the kind of experience your character will have that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to accumulate.
Think of life as a long road trip. Someone who has been living longer than you will have seen a lot more of the world, and will have all of those memories stored like snapshots out of a car window. Your job is to write about these memories as if they are your own, so you need to know as much as possible about the society in which your character spent most of her life.
Know your character.
Above all, use your imagination.
Imagination is absolute key in creating a believable adult character—or any character for that matter. If you can get inside her shoes and see things through her eyes, if you can truly understand her from the inside out, it’ll be an absolute breeze portraying her in roleplay and novel alike.