I can so take myself back to thirteen-year-old Mary and all of the clearly Mary Sue characters that she loved to now, despairing over the fact that no one will just give Morgoth a damn hug even though he would utterly throttle anyone that tried. And it’s probably pretty indicative of what age we are based on what kind of characters we like, but it’s also interesting to me to see how much those character preferences change over the years. 13-year-old Mary would have picked up the first available sword and followed Aragorn straight into war, no questions asked. 29-year-old Mary, when asked which character I’d most like to be, usually picks Rosie Cotton so that I can be married to Samwise.
I know why I liked Aragorn so much as a character when I was younger, and I can totally bring myself right back to that mindset. Heck, I still settle in it sometimes when I tell friends to be prepared for the eventual day that I create a character that has Aragorn/King Arthur/Thor vibes. (Will I actually? I’m doubtful, but we’ll keep the option open.) But, back then, when my favorite character was Eragon, I was looking for kingly characters. As a baby writer, and even as a baby reader, I just wanted big, powerful characters. I didn’t care a whole ton about their development, which I think is just the age that I was at, but instead wanted epic stories with characters that made my heart sing.
Don’t get me wrong, I still want characters that make my heart sing. Just in a different way now. Instead of desperately wanting to see battles and dragons and big speeches, I want realistic emotions and impactful relationships. Honestly, now that I take the time to actually think about it, most of my early favorite characters were loners. People like Aragorn & Eragon didn’t want company, or felt that they didn’t deserve it, and most of their adventures were carried out alone. Nowadays, my favorite characters are usually part of a big cast, or have created found families, or, even if they say they want to be alone, are secretly searching for the people that make them feel whole.
Realistically, it does make sense that our character preferences change with age. When we’re newly teenage, we’re not emotionally developed enough ourselves to want to see that reflected in our characters. This is not at all knocking the books that I read at that age, and, honestly, I think if I reread the Inheritance Cycle right now, I’d probably notice a lot more character development than I did as a 13-year-old. And this is not to say that middle grade books and young adult books on the younger age range don’t have character development because they do, but, whether it’s intentional or not (and it probably is), it’s a little less nuanced.
Compare, for example, the witches in Love Sugar Magic vs Serpent & Dove. Meriano’s witches have a lot of powerful emotions going on. Leo is uncertain about her place in her family, wants desperately to be included in the magic that’s happening, and gets all sneaky at the end, which results in more than a few mistakes, some hard hits to her friendship with her best friend, and a whole lot of chaos. Lou in S&D has a lot of similar vibes, actually, but the difference is in how those emotions are presented. Because LSM is middle grade, Meriano scales down the nuance in the emotional impact so that readers that are eight to twelve can get on the same level as Leo. The way that Meriano presents those emotions are the same way that a 9-year-old is also currently experiencing those emotions. Lou, on the other hand, is geared for the older end of teenagers, and thus, she’s got a lot more chaos in her emotions. Think about yourself at 17 or 18-years-old. You were absolutely bonkers. You thought you knew everything, you wanted everything, and you weren’t going to let anyone stop you. Sound familiar? The way that Mahurin presents Lou’s emotions is the same way that older teenagers are going to be currently rattling through those emotions.
Imagine you’re eight, and you read Serpent & Dove. Not only would it go waaaaaay over your head, you probably wouldn’t enjoy it. (Also, wow, don’t recommend reading S&D as an 8-year-old, you will be so confused, or just scarred for life. Do recommend reading it as an 18-year-old, though.) But, thinking like that, you’re not going to want huge emotional nuance when you’re younger, but you are going to want it when you’re older.
Wow, that all felt so technical, I want to shift a little. I recently reread Shadow & Bone, which is a whole fun thing in itself because I definitely blacked out a bit the day the trailer premiered, and, when I came to, I was 50 pages into S&B. Honestly have no idea how that happened, but it was a really fun reread! And although I rated it the same and had all the same love for it, there was one very different thing–the Darkling. When I first read S&B in 2018, I was all about characters like the Darkling. Give me Malachiasz everywhere. I want Jace Morgenstern and Akiva for days. And I still love all those characters. Heck, I’m so ready for the last Wicked Saints book to come out and for Malachiasz to just utterly destroy me. I will love Jace until the end of my days. Less thrilled about the Darkling in KOS, but that’s a whole other can of worms.
This time, however, as I reread S&B, I started to notice how much I was rolling my eyes at the Darkling and how much more I liked Mal. And I know I’m definitely in the minority here when I say I’ve always liked Mal, but Alina is also one of my favorite women characters, so you’ll just have to put up with me here. Mal is so much more of a likeable character than the Darkling, and the obvious healthy choice for Alina (although someone recently argued that she should have just been given the peace of being alone at the end, AND YES), but so many of us were/are drawn to the Darkling, and I know, holy SHIT, I know what’s going to happen when the show comes out. The amount of love that the Darkling is going to get is going to be astronomical, and yes, I will be part of that. And yet.
It’s different now. While I still appreciate characters like the Darkling, I like characters like Wren from Girls of Paper & Fire more. And no, they’re not at all similar, but Wren’s emotional nuance is so much different than the Darkling’s. Honestly, the Darkling’s character development is kind of flat and one-dimensional (those are a little different, albeit sound very much the same), and while he’s got that morally grey, definitely evil, but also sexy vibe that so much of us love, the way that Ngan broke down Wren’s character is just beautiful. And even though it’s only been three years since I read S&B, I found myself wanting something more like Wren when I was encountering the Darkling. I wanted that complex uncertainty, the way that Wren believes so strongly in her faith & family even while wanting to break apart from it, even the mistakes and honesty and despair that Wren displays. And that, yeah, is definitely part of the age that I’m at and the type of emotional development I’ve personally achieved.
Oh, we got technical again, bleh.
What I’m saying is that whatever you’re looking for in a character right now, it’s exactly what you need. We, intrinsically, know what we want out of our characters, even without having to think all that much about why we want something specific. It’s also pretty interesting to see how those palates change over time, and how our response to a book we’ve loved previously might change a bit when we reread it.
I still love S&B, and the Darkling is still an attractive character, but there’s–less, almost? There’s certainly less that I want out of it, and less that I’m getting out of it. As I get older, my character preferences do change, sometimes a little, sometimes drastically, and I’m curious to see how they continue to change moving forward.