‘Old & Wise’ OR ‘Old Fool’—that is the question. Age, or to be precise experience, changes an individual’s perspective and a character’s role in a work of fiction. The sage grandpa, the batty old lady next door, the wise matriarch, the silly old fool, the elderly voice of experience…. There are lots of clichéd characters that put older people into two extreme camps. On one hand they are losing it (perhaps through dementia) and on the other hand they are the voice of reasoned, experience in the midst of anxious, reactive younger characters unable to see the forest for the trees.
My friends vary in age—both older and younger than me. My late mother said it was very important to have YOUNG friends. I’m starting to understand that now that she is gone. Her younger friends—most a bit older than me, but some younger—have been very helpful. While her contemporaries are less available to help. Those that did not predecease my 89-year-old mom are focused on their own age-related quandaries.
Some of the greatest characters in literature were elderly. The wizard Merlin appears in many guises but is usually depicted as wise and noble, but still unable to guide his king to avoid jealousy and loss. Nobody beats King Lear for selfish, foolhardy, self-destructive choices. Whatever wisdom the old king accumulated over his lifetime, his judgment about his family was not sound.
Lately, I’ve been noticing how older characters respond to their “invisibility.” Some embrace it—discovering how much they can learn & do under the radar. While others rail against the way younger people ignore them or take them for granted. Miss Marple is the classic example of a character embracing her invisibility. She knits, sips tea, chats, and —most of all LISTENS. Going unnoticed, she in turn notices much more than a more active character.
Do you have any thoughts to share on the old wise/old bitty dichotomy in storytelling?