Four Reasons Why We Love Awesome Old Characters

I’ve noticed that in a lot of works of fiction, I’ve found myself drawn to the characters at least a generation older than the protagonists who show themselves capable of wit, social maneuvering, and all sorts of overall awesomeness. Iroh from Avatar. Boneclaw Mother from Digger. Simon Illyan from the Vorkosigan series. Torogai from Seirei no Moribito. It’s not just me, either; a number of my friends do the same thing. That got me thinking: what’s so cool about awesome old people?

One is that, like ultrapowered children, they play with our expectations. We tend to expect that old age means coming to a stop; as a result, when we’ve got oldies who are living life as normal either because age hasn’t quite caught up to them or despite the fact that it has, and especially when they’re stepping up and fighting, they come across as just as cool as ultracompetent youngsters. At the same time, they give us hope for when we’re old and gray ourselves—that we’ll be like them when we grow up, or at least as like them as we can be.

Second, because of their limitations and secondary character status, they get to use tactics the main characters just can’t get away with. They leverage their age and their old injuries to turn weaknesses into strengths; they weaponize guilt trips; they say things that they can only say because people think they’re senile. Not only that, but despite these tendencies often falling into the purview of the sneaky antagonist, the natural limitations that age creates tend to neutralize such associations and let the awesome old people come out of it clearly on the good side.

Third, they’re useful as mentor figures, particularly in stories where the “band of competence” is a particularly young age range. Because of the (probable) slowing down from old age, it’s assumed that even if they’re stealing spotlight time from their younger counterparts, it’s not going to be forever, so they can be “better” in the ways that let them teach without being a threat. In addition, if you’ve got a war of the ages going, the old folks can be seen as not belonging to the adults’ side. When I was young, I ran into an unattributed quote in a cryptogram: “Why do grandparents and grandchildren get along so well? They have the same enemy: the mother.” It’s a similar principle.

Fourth, awesome old people have been there and done that. That gives them two advantages. One is that they can make fewer mistakes onstage (boosting their apparent competence) without being considered “too perfect”; they’ve made them in the past and learned from them. The other is that it makes them a reliable way of yardsticking the younger characters’ achievements; if the awesome old person is impressed, the character who just impressed them definitely deserves it.

Awesome old characters: what’s not to like?

Leave a Reply