Ain’t it Funny, How Time Slips Away

With the fifth book in my Pliny series (The Eyes of Aurora) coming out in September and the sixth one in the works, I have been pondering an issue that every author of a series eventually faces: how do I let my character age/develop? Readers are initially drawn to a series as much because of the characters as because of the plots. But must the characters always stay the same?

For some insight into this issue I’ve been looking to comic strips. I’ve been an avid reader of the strips—especially serial strips—since the mid-1950s. I have long wondered why some strips allow the characters to develop and age while in others the characters are stuck, even as the world changes around them. I hope to draw some lessons from them.

A few strips have aged their characters. That relic called “Gasoline Alley” has seen whole generations mature, even die, since its inception in 1918. But two of the minor characters, Joel and Rufus, have not aged along with everyone else. Must be something in that jug they always carry. “Arlo and Janis” has shown a gradual progression since it first appeared in 1985. The main characters were in their early 30s at that time, with an elementary-school child, Gene. Gene is now college-aged, but his parents don’t look any older than they did thirty years ago—a dream that we can all share. And their cat is still alive and licking.

Other strips have allowed their characters to age ever so slowly. When “Luann” first appeared in 1985, the title character was “vaguely in eighth grade.” By 1999 she was 13. Somewhere along the way she had her first period. Since then she and her friends have aged to the point that they are now attending their senior prom and planning what they’ll do after graduation. Similarly, Jeremy, the main character in “Zits,” was 15 when the strip debuted in 1997. He has aged an entire year and now has his driver’s license.

“Funky Winkerbean” began as a strip about a group of high school students in 1972. In 1992 creator Tom Batiuk “rebooted” the strip, aging the characters and introducing more serious themes. In 2007 Batiuk jumped everything forward in time again, so that the characters—at least those who haven’t died—are now pushing 50. Their children are in high school and college, or in the Army. I’ve given some thought to applying this principle to my Pliny series. Instead of each book being set a few months after the previous one, I could just tell readers, “Pliny is now ten years older than the last time you saw him.” Maybe I could write one of the books as a flashback, a technique which “Funky” and “Gasoline Alley” have used.

When the comic strip “Curtis” first appeared in 1988 its main character was an 11-year-old African American with a younger brother about 7. Today the boys are still the same ages. But on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, their father sat them down to talk to them about the importance of that date, since Curtis had been “too young to understand it” and Barry “hadn’t been born yet.” Huh? Each spring Curtis looks forward to the end of school, so he can get away from his teacher, Mrs. Nelson, but each fall he’s back in her class. I don’t think I want to apply this “Groundhog’s Day” technique to my mysteries. I want Pliny to have a good learning curve and memories.

Two classic strips also handle the passing of time in odd ways. “Blondie” first appeared in 1930. Blondie (neé Boopadoop) and Dagwood Bumstead married in 1933, causing Dagwood’s wealthy father to disown him. They had two children, who grew into teenagers and then mysteriously stopped aging in the early 1960s. Blondie does now have her own catering business instead of staying at home and Dagwood sometimes wears a shirt that doesn’t have one big button in the front, but little else has changed in the past forty years. The couple celebrated their 75th anniversary as a strip in 2005. I wish their kids would establish their own families, so Blondie and Dagwood could have some grandchildren. Maybe then that strange neighbor kid, Elmo, would stop hanging around and walking in on Dagwood while he’s in the tub. (What part of “lock the door, you pervert” does Dagwood not understand?)

“Mary Worth” simply ignores time. When the strip began in 1938 (there’s controversy over whether it was developed from an earlier strip called “Apple Mary”), Mary was gray-haired. Today, approximately 140 years old, she’s still gray-haired but has lost some weight and a few wrinkles. And she’s still an obnoxious yenta. I recommend that any writer read “Mary Worth” to study bad dialogue, contrived plotting, and one-dimensional characters.

“Marvin,” centering around a rambunctious two-year-old, first appeared in 1982. The characters celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2007, apparently unperturbed by the fact that Marvin was still in diapers. As of early April Marvin’s parents were talking about whether to get a dog or have another baby. If they take the two-legged option, it will be interesting to see if the baby ages while other characters don’t. Will his mother be pregnant for 25 years? Lucy, in “Peanuts,” originally had an infant brother named Linus, who aged until he almost caught up with Lucy. She later had another younger brother named Rerun, who, in his rare appearances, aged faster than anyone around him.

“Rex Morgan, M. D.” also operates outside the framework of time. The strip began in 1948, but Rex and his nurse, June Gale, did not marry until 1995. And yet they were still vigorous enough to have a child! Sarah was born in 2002, is now six years old and, despite her slow development, has a contract for her first book. And June is pregnant again. I wonder how Rex manages to keep up with all the new developments in medicine, since he must have graduated from med school during WWII.

Lynn Johnston, creator of “For Better or For Worse,” manipulated time in a way that no other cartoonist or writer has done, as far as I know. In the original run of the strip, from 1979-2008, the characters aged at a real-life rate, going to college, marrying, and establishing a new generation. In 2008 Johnston announced her retirement, but then started the strip over again, with everyone at their original ages. It continued in that format for about two years, then switched to a mixture of reruns and slightly altered reruns, called “new-runs.”

I was able to do something similar to what Johnston did with my first novel, a Roman historical called (at an editor’s behest) Daughter of Lazarus. After it went out of print, I reissued it through the Authors’ Guild’s Back-in-Print program. Last year I took it out of that program, tweaked it just a bit, and issued it as an e-book, with my original title, The Flute Player.

Creators of comic strips, like writers of mysteries, expect us to suspend disbelief, and we want to because we like the characters the way they are. These are soap operas, long-running narratives played out each day, a few panels at a time. I look forward to reading them—which I now do online, since most newspapers have cut their comics pages to a bare minimum—in the same way that I look forward to turning the page of a book to the next chapter or picking up the next book in a favorite series.

Writing mysteries set in ancient Rome gives me the luxury of not having to worry about technological changes, but I do want Pliny to have something like a real life. To some extent I have to because he was an historical person. I know things about where he was at certain times, when he held certain political offices, who his friends were, and I can’t ignore those factors. How I’m going to deal with the passage of time, though, is something I haven’t decided yet.


2 Responses

  1. The progress of time is indeed a problem for series. Sue Grafton avoids the problem by keeping Kinsey in the 1980s. When I introduced Maggie MacGowen in 1990 (Telling Lies) she was about 35, a young teen during the Vietnam War. She is now (The Color of Light, 2014), 43, and was very young indeed during the Vietnam War. Juggling the story line and her background is tricky. But if she aged in real time, making her sixtyish, her story lines would be very different than those I want to write for her.

  2. I hadn’t throught about my characters as aging at comic book pace, but you’re so right. (Interesting about For Better or For Worse reruns and new-runs.) My folks, unlike me, have aged only four years since Murder in C Major came out in 1986.

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