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We Need More Older Protagonists in Speculative Fiction – and Beyond by Samantha Garner
I was 18 when I decided to pursue my goal of becoming a published author. Twenty-three years later, my goal was achieved with my debut literary sci-fi novel The Quiet is Loud. I was 41 when it was published, but 36 when I started writing it, so making its protagonist 28 was a natural thing I didn’t question. In the intervening years I’ve asked myself why 28 felt like a good fit for Freya, and I found I could simply no longer access the mindset of someone in their early twenties. And as a reader of speculative fiction, I also wanted to see a protagonist who had the added weight of experience, mistakes, biases, and responsibility.
Though I write and read across many genres, I find that it’s speculative fiction where I often have the most difficulty finding people like me represented. I do enjoy books where the protagonist saves the day at the age of 19, but it doesn’t take long before I start to wonder about the people propping up the rest of the world—the grumpy potion shop owner, the parent organizing the activities of an entire household, the chatty spymaster who knows everyone’s business. Why don’t we get to see them doing interesting things? Wouldn’t their unique perspective add some compelling tension to their world-saving?
One weird thing I’ve heard over and over once I entered my forties was this idea that someone my age should have their act together, be mature at all times. I often hear this from people in their twenties who are worried that they’ll have to wrestle their lives down into something socially acceptable really soon. I’m sure I used to think this way myself at some point, but now that I’m on the other side of that worry it seems laughably absurd. I do not have my act together. I probably never will have my act together, because I’m constantly evolving—like every other person alive. There are many ways my world can still be rocked. I have decades ahead of me in which to experiment, mess up, become a different person in subtle but impactful ways. I’ll still discover new things about myself. I’ll still meet new people and form complex relationships. Those things didn’t end once my twenties did. I’m still messy—I’m just messy with more life experience.
When it comes to writing and reading, I find that I’m more drawn to protagonists north of, say, 25. Maybe it’s an arbitrary age, but it’s how old I was when I finally felt like I was in control of my own life, and when I developed the confidence to assert what I wanted. I’m so far away now from the younger me who felt more black-and-white about things, who was prickly and impulsive. From about 25 on I no longer felt the need to make grand gestures. For one thing, it was harder. I had a full-time job. I had rent and bills to pay. I had moved in with my partner. I was no longer the person who blew her last $200 on skydiving or spent 52 hours moving across the country on a Greyhound bus, and I didn’t want to be.
From a storytelling standpoint, I find that the contrasts that come with age are more relatable and more interesting to read. Older protagonists often have less energy, more responsibilities, more set-in-stone opinions, and harsher societal expectations. These can add some excellent tension to a story as the protagonist tries to balance what their quest needs and what their life expects of them. An older protagonist knows what they like and often has unique life experience that colours their perspective. Why shouldn’t someone like this be the person embarking on the quest to save the world?
Freya, the protagonist of The Quiet is Loud, has spent her entire adult life trying to keep her prophetic dreams hidden from her father as well as the scrutiny of a hostile society. Everything about her life is designed so that nobody gets close to her, save for the few she trusts. She thinks she’s protecting herself—until her mental ability begins to get away from her, compromising her physical safety. Her personal conflict arises in this decision: stay living the way she is, or emerge from her false cocoon and seek help in a world she’s spent the past decade hiding from.
Freya is paranoid and jaded. She’s lonely but has spent years telling herself it’s actually security. The novel wouldn’t at all be the same if its events happened when she was 20. At that age, she still believed she could find a way to fit in. At 28, she’s fully internalized the belief that people like her will never fit in. What better time to force her out of her comfort zone, make her face the many years of lies she’s told herself?
Again, I’m not knocking young protagonists—they certainly have their place and they don’t always have it easy. But I just find “messy with more life experience” protagonists so intensely rewarding. I think I always will. The protagonists of my current fantasy novels in progress are 32 and 35, respectively. It’s familiar to me. It’s cathartic to read and write protagonists who have to crowbar themselves out of their bubbles, fight against years of conditioning and back pain, and achieve their end goal despite all that pulls them back into the lives they’ve built. And the older I get, my protagonists will likely age up as well.
I appreciate seeing myself reflected in older protagonists, but I believe it can be a comfort for younger readers as well. I’m not interested in ever being a wise mentor figure, but I do enjoy the almost palpable relief my younger friends often feel when I tell them the ways in which I’m still evolving and not-exactly-mature myself. Older protagonists help readers see that there isn’t just one way to be once you hit a certain age. And what better place to learn about other mindsets than in books? I believe that older protagonists bring a valuable perspective to storytelling of all genres, no matter the age of the reader.
Have I convinced you? Great! Here are just three of my favourite books featuring protagonists who are older than 25:
- The Creature X Mystery Series by JJ Dupuis
- Where the Silver River Ends by Anna Quon
- Letters to Amelia by Lindsay Zier-Vogel
Samantha Garner is the author of The Quiet is Loud, shortlisted for the 2022 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. A Canadian of mixed Filipino-Finnish background, her character-driven fantasy novels explore themes of identity and belonging. Samantha is endlessly inspired by history, mythology, and story-rich video game worlds. She can be found online at samanthagarner.ca and on Instagram at @samanthakgarner.