Beginnings are more interesting than middles or endings.
Every so often someone on the editorial side of the press laments the scarcity of movies or books that star elderly people. This comes to mind as I see a review of Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Come wa Machigatteiru (English title: My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU), one of the more popular anime series to come out of Japan’s Spring 2013 television season.
Imagine that the title of the series were My Golden Years Romantic Comedy SNAFU.
Actually, that might draw a viewership, because people would be curious if nothing else. Love stories featuring elderly people are pretty much NEVER presented as wacky and fraught with drama. The assumption is that by the time you are of a “certain age”, you’ve figured out how this relationship thing is done, and disappointments and loss have so jaded you that you just kind of stand in the general vicinity of your romantic interest while looking bored and sage. Meanwhile another media project about teenage dating hijinks gets the production green-light. Yeah, this isn’t hard to figure out. It’s not about ageism, it’s about what appears interesting. Someone’s first love is generally more interesting than their fifth. Discovery is fascinating; most of us don’t pay good money to watch a character shrug and say “Been there, done that.”
A story of a relationship between elderly people can be just as interesting as the first love of teenagers. But the characters need to experience the beginning of something, not a continuation. This doesn’t mean the writer should ignore the pasts of the characters. It just means the characters have to be surprised, have to learn new things, have to change.
We could say the same about all stories featuring elderly characters. When writers assume their characters have so much life experience that there can be practically no bewilderment, mistakes, or growth- or none at all- then the story is bleached of anything that actually makes a story good.
For a long time I’ve wanted to write a story that features a gay man in his seventies who has never been in an honest relationship. He married a woman at one point because nothing else was expected in his younger years; it wasn’t a terrible arrangement for either of them (if she suspected the truth she never spoke it aloud), but it could never break through its natural restraints. The story is about this man edging out of his comfort zone finally- finally– because now he dares to.
I’ve always had trouble writing this story. Every time I’ve tried the results have felt too simple, and like nothing really happened even though the concept should be fairly strong. In light of the things I’ve outlined in this post, I realize that even something as noteworthy as a gay man deciding to explore his true self for the first time in more than seventy years can be boring if you don’t think of it as a beginning.
I think I thought of it as an ending.
Yes, it is an end to a lifetime of pretending and lies, but the story better be the start of a whole new way of living or even I won’t be able to stay awake long enough to write it. New ways of living are exciting, confusing, unnerving, and exhilarating. At best. Past experiences won’t help much.
Also, because it is a story, it needs complications. NEVER make things easy for your main character as they begin something; they must struggle. Originally I planned for the man’s wife to die, freeing him to be who he really wants to be. But if what if we keep her? Not only does this throw a monkey in the guy’s wrench, but now she gets a beginning too- maybe now she will also get to find a relationship that gives her what she has always needed. Whatever that will turn out to be.
Increasingly it looks like we could title this story My Golden Years Romantic Comedy SNAFU. For the first time I feel like I could really write this thing.
As the tried-and-true piece of writer’s advice goes: Begin at the beginning.
If we do exactly that, thrusting elderly characters into situations that are new to them and leave them flailing as much as any teenage chara, I think audiences will respond positively and then there can be a good deal more age diversity in fiction.
Photo Credit: JoJoTheModern, CC 2.0 Attribution. Origami models folded by JoJoTheModern. “Message Heart with Wings” model created by Sok Song; box model is traditional.
You can legally check out MTRCS on Crunchyroll.