Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, October 26, 2009

Can I Get a Ruling: Twenty-something

Greetings! It's another edition of Can I Get a Ruling, aka that time when you vote on whether my pet peeves are signs of prescience or insanity.

Next up: twenty-something. Or thirty-something, forty-something, or a hundred-and-forty-something. As in a character is "[age in factor of ten]-something" years old.

I have to admit: when I see the phrase [number]-something my brain kind of shuts down.

Here's why (I think). It's just so unspecific. There's a huge difference between a twenty-one year old and a twenty-nine year old. I suppose twenty-"something" is supposed to be somewhere in the middle, but why not just say how old they are? "Something" is longer than every number from one to ten, so it's not as if you're saving characters.

At the same time, maybe saying "twenty-seven" is too much information and the specificity is somewhat distracting?

If you're reading this by e-mail or through an RSS reader, please click through for the poll:







194 comments:

J. Koyanagi said...

Don't be afraid to give your character an age.

Chuck H. said...

As I'm typing this the thread says "No comments yet." But by the time I send it a hundred and three people will have beaten me to the punch.

Rick Daley said...

If you're pitching the premise for a sit-com, where the casting will determine the "something," then by all means, go for it.

For a novel, you should know how old your characters are. Especially for a query, where (hopefully) you are focusing on two characters: your protagonist and antagonist.

Except if you have a centuries-old vampire. Then it's OK to be vague.

Chuck H. said...

I was only off by a hundred and two. Not bad. I say use early, mid, or late if you don't want to be specific with someone's age. I'm turned off by the use of "something" also. I didn't even like that show. What was it? Thirty something?

Melissa Blue said...

I'm paranoid about confiding age. If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me You're so mature! I'd own Google. So twenty-something doesn't bother me.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

If it's vital that the reader knows the age of the character, then give it. Why be cute and fudge? I don't see the point.

Elspeth

Ink said...

I say be specific unless you're intentionally using the slang phrase "twenty-something" in dialogue (or in-character narration).

Just my take.

Bryan

Josin L. McQuein said...

When I started reading your post, I thought you were talking about writers being cagey about their ages, which would be easy to explain. Vanity and the perception of youth. (Do something at a really young age and it's WOW!, do it when you're older and it's a smile and nod moment, or a lukewarm "that's nice".)

For characters, unless you're describing the appearance of an immortal, there's no reason not to give an age to the character. Of course, as I write this, I realize that one of my characters doesn't know how old she is, so she has to be vague...

Susan Quinn said...

53 votes but only 5 comments? Hmm...

I think it depends on the character using the term. If it's a 65 year old character that's using "twenty-something" as vaguely pejorative, lumping all those 21 and 29 year olds together (as in, you young whippersnappers!), then okay.

Otherwise, specify.

Anonymous said...

"Twenty-something" (or thirty-something, forty-something, etc.) sounds affected, trendy. If you need to be vague, why not say early, mid, or late-twenties?

Kristi said...

I think it conveys great information about that character if they define their age in that way. For instance, if a woman protagonist classifies herself as forty-something rather than say, forty-six, that fact alone can hint at insecurity, vanity, etc. I've given all my characters specific ages, but as I write juvenile fiction, my picture book characters tend to be proud that they're six. :)

Amanda said...

Haha! It bugs me too.

Marcy Gordon said...

I think writers sometimes use the term twenty-something (or whatever age- something), to be derisive. Just a way to characterize a person by not being specific and lumping them into a age group and mocking them.

Lady Glamis said...

Great question! I finally got to the point in my editing where I'm just adding the age and making it work.

Flemmily said...

I have plenty of pet peeves, but this doesn't happen to be one of them.

When someone says "twenty-something," I'll admit, I usually think of said person as "near thirty."

But on the whole, I drift right past it.

Bradley Robb said...

Well, brushing aside that the decade-something pairing has become a cliche, I have to say, I don't really have a problem with it.

The pairing servers a point - instantly drawing upon the commonly held notions about a distinct period in a life - which the author can then either agree with or contradict. The phrase includes a great deal of information into a very small space. It's compact.

Though, as others have pointed out, our continued reliance on segmenting by ages has made the early-, mid-, and late- pairings somewhat more efficient.

Anonymous said...

lol! It drives me nuts too. I want to know the character's exact age and their name up front, get that out of the way. Saying a character is 35 years old, gives me a better visual.

If however, in the main character's POV and they are describing someone they just met and dont' know much about, then it's okay to say....the D.A. was a fifty something year old man...etc.

Steph Damore said...

I was thinking the same thing as Bryan with the slang phrase meaning of the word - used that way it doesn't bother me.

Also to me, when you say twenty-something it has more connotation then saying the exact age. Twenty-something means a person who's out experiencing life, still young enough to make mistakes without mid-life crisis-like results. It's a phrase that encompasses a specific generation and their culture.

On a side note, it also reminds me of Sex in the City, where Carrie Bradshaw is always commenting on guys and their twenty-something girlfriends...

T. Anne said...

It would never occur to me to say 'something' rather than the age. I'm succinct about my own age as well, even if it is a lie. ;)

Wendy Qualls said...

They're two different things. If I say I'm twenty-eight, I'm giving my age. If I say I'm a "twenty-something," I'm claiming to belong to the twenty-something stereotype - single, carefree, fresh at a new job, more interested in hanging with my friends at the bar than I am in settling down and having a family. Even though I *am* twenty-eight and therefore by definition a "twenty-something", I would definitely define myself as the former and not the latter.

Jill H said...

I can't imagine a scenario where I would use it myself, but it doesn't bother me when someone else does. You still rock, Nathan!

Brandi G. said...

I like to know at least an age range. That way I'm not surprised later when the character I was picturing as young had gray hair or is going bald or whatever.

But I realize in my own writing that my characters have specific ages. At least, my female characters do. Weird. :)

P. Grier said...

I am sure there are situations where "something" is just right. However, I teach people to write, and that means I teach them to be specific. Vague generalities are rarely interesting, unless they are setting the stage for what the writer really wants to stand out. So, say, for example, that all the characters but one were "somethings." That one character who had an age would stand out-- making the detail far more interesting.

As a rule of thumb? Be specific.

Shannon Messenger said...

Personally, when I hear "something" instead of the exact age I automatically assume the character is almost in the next decade (because otherwise why would they feel the need to be so vague?). From then on I see the character as someone not comfortable with their age, which makes me not like them. So I say just admit their age already--you're not doing your character any favors.

MeganRebekah said...

For a character, I would rather know the actual age, because as you mentioned, there's a big difference from 21 to 29.

In real life, however, it doesn't bother me at all to have someone refer to themself as a "twenty-something".

Julia said...

Sometimes it really bothers me. Especially, when 'something' makes a difference. Being 21 vs.29 for example.
I guess, when we are talking about some minor irrelevant character, it is ok to be vague. As long as not all the characters are between 20-something and 30-something.... or something >.<

kalincasey said...

I can see using it as a pejorative term or in dialogue, as others have said, but if its vagueness doesn't have a purpose, it does seem sloppy to me.

Mystery Robin said...

If the narrator knows the age, then give it. But I think it's perfectly appropriate for a character (or a first person narrator) to guess at another character's age as thirty... something.

Sandy Williams said...

If you POV character knows the other character's exact age, okay, but it they meet someone who looks like they're twenty-five-ish, I have no problem with the POV character guestimating twenty-something.

L. T. Host said...

Twenty-something is annoying if you're talking about a character in a book you wrote. You should know how old they are, unless it's just that kind of book (sex and the city, devil wears prada-style).

But, if you're talking about yourself, I can excuse it as not wanting to seem too young. Only because this has been happening to me my entire life. But I do prefer "in my twenties" to "twenty-something". There's just something so pretentious about the phrase that it's a turn-off.

Valerie said...

It doesn't bother me but I think that's because I just sort of automatically assign an age when I see the word. Like, twenty-something = 26.

That said I don't mind seeing it in a blurb but in the book if you're going to mention the age, I want to see an actual number.

Polenth said...

I'm struggling to think of a book which uses that term and isn't chicklit. The convention fits the genre, as it's often about women who're insecure about stuff.

It makes me avoid stories because of the associations it has. But it could also attract a reader who likes those stories.

M said...

"Twenty-something" annoys me, too. Is the author indecisive? Has she just not thought about how old her character is? Either way, it ain't good.

Cheryl said...

If the characters are being coy about their age for a reason then it will work for me.

I would far prefer age to be omitted and allowed to draw my own conclusion in regards to the characters ages (based on occupations, schooling, etc)rather than read a "xx-something" description.

Vacuum Queen said...

Well...somebody should've mentioned this to the producers at GLEE. Mr. Shuester and his wife supposedly graduated high school in 1993, which would make them 34 right now. HOWEVER, obviously the casting call said a "30 something" looking actress to play his wife. And they got a 42 year old. Too old for the part and it drives me mad. Mad I tell you!

Emily White said...

I have to agree with you. I don't like it when things are vague.

Caroline said...

I disagree. I think it can help for characterization purposes when a character describes a number. Especially in little kids. Children always seem especially cute to me when they use the word "something." :)

Tim Koch said...

I'm with Ink. Thirty-something means way more than age. It's about lifestyle. Whereas, if the character's age is important enough to mention then it needs to be declared. I also didn't buy the idea of a twenty-somethinger until John Mayer isolated the quarter-life crisis syndrome, but that's another matter.

CNU said...

There is a difference I can assure you- at 21 I wasn't embarrassed to give my age! (27 now...)

I think this labeling is more in the realm of marketing- as opposed to the world of lowly mortals on the street.

It's hipster code word for "What's popular to these degenerates makes us money so let's just put them in one large mass, because as we know everyone is exactly the same" (or so these executives wish...)

(Hey don't you know that vampires are the hottest thing in the teens, "tweens" (pre-teens) and "Twenty somethings demographic??"

See what I mean now?

-C

CKHB said...

Twenty-seven-and-a-half would be too specific and weird.*

"Twenty-seven" is no more overly-detailed than hair color or height or any other factual description about the character. Giving a specific age is never distracting. Giving an AGE RANGE, however, either means that someone (character or author) is dealing in generalizations and, most likely, stereotypes. Not good.


* Six-and-a-half, on the other hand, would NOT be too specific or weird, because kids care about that stuff.

Ink said...

Nathan,

I have a totally off-topic question about advances: I know they usually come in two or three payments (signing the deal, publication, etc.), but I was curious about what happens if someone signs a multi-book deal... Do they get a half and a third of the whole deal up front, and then portions for each book later on? Or is it broken up more than that? Don't think I've ever seen it mentioned anywhere.

Admittedly it's a rather optimistic question...

:)

Anna Bowles said...

It's a characterisation tool.

"27-year-old Jo" = colourless factual description (we could learn next that Jo is a cavewoman, a marketing exec or a giant tortoise).

"Twentysomething Jo" = characterisation, translating as 'Jo, a contemporary woman who shared and/or was influenced by current cultural norms for people in their mid-20s'.

B. Nagel said...

I voted for specific age, but there is a set of characters that would use those labels.

As writer/authors, we should know the character's specific age. But if the individual's voice calls for that sort of labeling, use it.

Josin L. McQuein said...

It's funny that so many here assume "20-something" means the person is at the higher end of the "something".

I used to fill in forum bios with "Over 3 and under 30", mainly because I didn't like putting specific personal information on the forum. The most common assumption I got from people was 24.

Nathan Bransford said...

bryan-

It all depends on how it's negotiated and there's wide variation.

RCWriterGirl said...

I voted no in the poll, but that's a conditional no. Your character should be well-defined. You should give his/her age. All the significant characters in the story, you should provide an actual age for. If your MC is observing someone he's never met and chooses to describe them as "twenty-something" or "thirty-something" when he spots the the person across a crowded room. I'm less bothered by that. Though, even then, a lot of people go with mid-twenties, early twenties, late twenties, to give some idea of more specificity, even when the character would not reasonably be expected to know an exact age.

Jena said...

Twenty-, thirty-, forty-something doesn't bother me, but I just turned plenty-nine again this year...

Wendy Sparrow said...

People really like to be asked their opinions judging from the poll.

There are a few reasons why you could say "twenty something" especially if you're giving the description using a character's viewpoint. It seems to me that you could just as easily guess with "early thirties" or "slightly older than me" or whatever.

It didn't annoy me before, but now it sounds cutesy, and you've given me something else to obsess about. Happy Monday to me. Thanks, Nathan. Oh and go straighten your blinds--they're slightly crooked.

JDuncan said...

I would say it likely depends, as most things in writing do. If the context is non-specific, such as seeing someone walking down the street, and an exact age has no relevance to the description, saying "twenty-something" gives a general age appearce. When folks see strangers I don't think they typically say to themselves, "that person looks 25." Though I suppose it might be more twentyish than twenty-something. To me, the phrase is fine as a vague, general descriptor, but if the age needs specificity or the age is know, by all means use it.

Other Lisa said...

What RCWritergirl said -- your narrator won't always know exactly how old another character is. Though I usually use stuff like "early twenties/mid-twenties/thirty-ish."

brian_ohio said...

I agree with you, Nathan. So you must be right. Anyway...

There is one exception. I wrote a SF novel a while ago, and this alien race had a unique numerical system. I invented a whole language, like Klingon. Only different.

Twenty-anything = 21
Twenty-everything = 22
Twenty-something = 23
Twenty-nothing = 24
etc...

See?

Donna Hole said...

It does sound like a viable pet peeve. I've been guilty of the feeling myself.

However, my annoyance factor depends on how the -something is used. If there is dialogue and one character is describing another (usually a stranger) as twenty-something, its acceptable.

But if an author is using a persons age in the query or synopsis, or if the character is talking about themselves, then I like them to be specific. Even syaing mid-thirties or late forties doesn't get it for me in those situations.

..........dhole

Anonymous said...

A 20-something is a 29-year-old who wants everyone to think s/he still is in her/his early 20s.

That's the whole point: honesty up to a point, flattery beyond it.

affbet said...

"Twentysomething" isn't meant to convey an age, it's meant to convey a stage of life. No specific age gets across the type of job, lifestyle, and attitude that "twentysomething" implies. It's like "middle-aged." You only use it for a certain type of person 30-60 years old whether it's technically true for all of them or not.

Jael said...

I like to specify. But somehow my PM deal announcement ended up with a "twentysomething" in it anyway. Therefore, I have left off stressing about it.

In a query, I wouldn't even mention the character's age unless it's important. A 50-year-old going to Europe for the first time is different from a 20-year-old going to Europe for the first time, but a character losing her husband is a character losing her husband. You've only got room for a certain number of details in your query. Pick the ones that count.

Lydia Sharp said...

I don't think the [something]-something should be used. Either state the specific age, or don't state the age at all. Yes...HUGE difference between a 21 year-old and a 29 year-old, so if that is important to understanding the character, the reader must know.

elle and ben said...

We would both rather know the age; even the difference between 24 and 27 is huge.

This makes us feel self-conscious because we just created a blog which uses "twenty-something." But we stand by it; "desperate hope" is the same at 21 and 29.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I think there's a difference between "twenty-something" and "fify-something". I'd prefer to read the first over the latter. The first brings a "Friends-ish" image to my mind. The latter makes me think the writer doesn't know how to count.

Jenni Bailey said...

I think a writer should know everything about their character. Every. Little. Detail. And they shouldn't necessarily include every little detail in their query or pitch but neglecting to specify his or her (or its, for all the paranormal folks) age suggests a dangerous lack of attention to detail. It just doesn't bode well for an author who wants to convey a sense of a fully fleshed-out work.

Gretchen said...

I agree with those who said the use of "[number]-something" conveys something different than a specific age. It's not used to tell us exactly how old a character is. It's intended to lump him or her into a broad group along with all the perceptions and stereotypes we may have of that group. It doesn't bother me at all if it's used appropriately.

Ian Wood said...

It *is" a cliché. Worse, it's a cliché that brings to mind a television show from the late 80s. So unless a writer is using the term with a specific intent--e.g., characterization, or establishing voice--I'd call it laziness.

History Dork said...

I'm going to say it really depends on milieu. In a modern society, yes, everyone tends to know their age to the exact year. But if you're writing in a pre-modern society, particularly in the typical medieval-esque secondary world, that I would be astonished if your character knew how old they were to the exact year. In fact, I'd probably demand an explanation.

In medieval societies as a rule, unless you were waiting to come into an inheritance at a specific age (or your noble parents were anxiously waiting for you to hit 12 - female - or 14 - male - to marry you off) the closest people could recall their actual age was to the nearest decade. Once you were "twenty-something" and definitely past any possible definition of minority, you really didn't care exactly how old you were. Your age wasn't exactly going to help you planting or harvesting your crops....

Amy said...

From a reader's perspective, I'm interested in "20-something" characters - I agree with Tim that the phrase implies a lifestyle - or that the book will deal with the tribulations of "finding yourself" (cliche for a reason!). I suppose one could find a more creative way to express those characteristics though. I kind of like "quarter lifer" - succinct, crisis implied.

Selestial said...

I think it all depends on how it is used. As RCWriterGirl mentioned, if a narrator is referring to someone whose specific age they don't know, but they either know, or guess, that it's #-something, it works. It also works as a way to convey insecurity or a stage in life.

However, if I were an agent and ran across queries that said something along the lines of "Julie, a thirty-something housewife...." it would really bother me (not only because it's bland :P). The author should know the character's age, and to toss out a generalization like that without it having a deeper meaning (insecurity, etc.), it seems rather lazy.

Chris Scena said...

What about a third option? Depends on if the character is mentioned in passing or is a main character? If it is just describing what someone looks like and then we do not see them again it would not bother me. If it is the protagonist or antagonist, I think there is a problem.

Anonymous said...

Depends on the character it's used to describe. For a main character, you need tobe specific. For throwaway characters, however, a general idea may suffice. For example:

"Jack Killer [main character] threaded his way through the crowd of mostly twenty-something, inebriated concert-goers."

Or:

The fifty-something civil war reenactor loading his musket on a haystack went unnoticed, as did the fact that he was not loading it with blanks.

Anonymous said...

Yes, as in the above examples, the phrase 30-something or 40-something is good when describing a crowd or person of unknown but aapproximate age through the eyes of another character.

All these designations have their use at 1 time or another. There is no such thing as language or phrasing that never has its place. They are all useful in certain situations.

~anonypus

DMO said...

Nathan - This is a bit random but I need to ask you this!!

Is it presumptuous to compare your novel to a NYT bestseeling author?
I've written something which is relatively similiar to two authors. Is it okay to reference this is my query letter - I don't want to sound big-headed, but they are really the only two authors I can semi-closely relate my book to!

Many thanks!
DMO

Anonymous said...

I think what bothers me more is when people get prejudiced about age.

I mean what is wrong with a forty-five year old man or a sixty-five year old woman as a protagonist. Does every main character have to be seamlessly young and perfect???

And how about a family where every members' age is valuable to the story. The different generations perspectives adding contrast and information to each other.

Also, 17th century twenty-one year old is very different from a 21st century 21 year old.

Matty Byloos said...

I hate the "-something" add-on for the same reason I hate when writers describe characters as being similar to movie or t.v. stars. "Hers was a way like Private Benjamin on that eighties t.v. show about the army." "Malcolm spent his days thinking he could be someone more like Magnum P.I." And then they stop. It's as if the assumption being made is that we all know what/who the stars are, so the reference says it all. What actually happens is a kind of lazy, literary short hand, which feels mildly insulting at worst, and generic at best. Just tell me who your characters are, as explicitly as possible, I say.

Kathleen Elizabeth said...

i think that it depends on who's doing the describing. If you have one character describing another character then how would they possibly be able to know exactly how old the other person was? but they could see if they were somewhere in their twenties. But when the age is being told from some sort of omnicient narration, then yeah, the age should be specifc.

Anonymous said...

DMO:

It depends how to phrase it. You don't want to see "My book will sell more copies than [NYT bestseller X] or anything remotely like that. You don't even want to say, "My book s is similar to Bestseller's XYZ." It is acceptable, however, to say something along the lines of "Fans of Bestseller XYZ may like My Book," or "My Book is aimed at fans of Bestseller XYZ."

Capiche?

~The Anonymizer

Marilyn Peake said...

I think it depends. I think good writing can include either type of description and do it well. Many great novels include detailed description about some characters and only quick glimpses of other characters' age and physical appearance. Many novels never even mention the characters' exact ages; it's left to the reader to make an educated guess based on context.

DMO said...

Anon@2:14

Thanks!
DMO

Anonymous said...

Under FAQ's somewhere in this blog, the answer to Question #1 should be:

IT DEPENDS!

That's the answer to 90% of the questions on these writing blogs. The mere fact that the question is being asked is, in many cases, indicative of a certain lack of understanding about the craft and/or business of writing.

IT DEPENDS!

~Anonypalooza

AM said...

I think whether or not a character’s exact age should be specified depends on 1) its relevance to the story and 2) who is revealing the character’s age.

If one character is guessing another character's age, then "twenty-something" is fine. However, if the omniscient narrator is describing a character, I think the character’s age should be exact.

Anonymous said...

It's a POV type thang!

~Anonymosaurus

Daniel Allen said...

I think a lot of it depends on the type of book you're writing. I don't know many people who walk down the road and say "Huh, that's a really cute 26 year old. It must suck having Virgo with Leo rising as her sign. I wonder how in the hell she got all 168 pounds of her in those size 10 jeans!"

My point is, the average person typically doesn't know those kinds of details about a person--or in this case, character. So why should our stories? Unless those details are important, I'm content to just leave them vague.

Now, on the flip side, I do flush out all those details in character bios for every major character in my books. You may never know that "Hero X" is 28 years old or 165 pounds, but knowing that information from the author's perspective can help create continuity in the writing.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

To me, twenty-something - or forty-something or whatever-something means more of a state-of-mind than a year of birth. It's a generality because the exact age doesn't matter as much as the stereotype. The number is precise but the meaning is missing.

reader said...

Ii only think it matters when the character is in a YA novel -- there is a huge, huge difference in a 14 year-old than a 17 year-old.

There's not that much difference between a 25 year-old and a 27 year-old, is there?

pjd said...

I found that in the middle of decades, I frequently forgot what my actual age was. 34? 36? No, probably 35. (Wait, what year is it?) Doing the math was no good either because I could never remember whether you add one or not if the date is after your birthday... or... oh, bother.

Question for you, Nathan: Does "mid 30s" bother you more, less, or the same as "thirty-something"?

I think I will have to create a character I can introduce as a forty-six year old twenty-something.

Kate Higgins said...

Something bothers me about this argument, it’s too black and white. “She is 40 something” is too vague and “Whitman was 37…” is too specific. I am an author/illustrator for picture books and dabble with middle-grade and YA. I would never tell my character’s age, I would show it with my pictures. Words are merely pictures drawn in type.
For instance:

“Cassy dreaded giving dad her report card, fifth grade math was just too hard.” Character is 8 or 9.

“Kevin left early enough to utilize his newly acquired milestone, today he was old enough to vote.” Kevin is 18.

“With her new BFA degree in her hand and 16 straight years of schooling behind her, Melinda could finally say good-bye to homework.” 12 years of public school and four years of college Melinda is mostly likely around 22 years old.

“George hated the day he got his AARP card…” George must be over 50 and finally, if someone celebrates their 50th wedding anniversary they are most likely over 70.

Show don’t tell.

Phyllis said...

To me, age is a lot like hair or eye color. It's information I can usually do without.

Besides, there are many indirect ways to indicate age, the way people walk and talk, things they remember and what they relate to. Somebody who remembers an embarrassing situation from high-school hasn't been out of it for a long time.

I will accept every way to describe an age range if it's helpful. That "twenty-something" has become your pet peeve, Nathan, tells me something else: It's becoming a cliché, and that alone is a good reason to avoid it.

Bane of Anubis said...

I've got a "teen-something" book I'm working on :)

Terry said...

I don't like the "xx-something" for the reasons Nathan stated.

But I'm writing in first person, and sometimes my protagonist doesn't know the other character's age.

So while describing someone, he might say, "mid-twenties or early- or late-twenties, or even preppy boy. Or, "She admits to thirty-two but I think it's been a while since she's seen forty." That sort of thing.

Ryan Potter said...

I tend to use decimals when I state a character's age - 26.2 yrs. old, 84.25 years old, etc.

Actually, I'm just kidding.

Or am I?

Anassa said...

Twenty-something (etc.) is a term that should come from a character, not from the author. I know my main character is twenty-two. Someone passing him on the street may only be able to peg him as in his twenties, and might use "twenty-something" to describe him.

I also think it's got specific connotations. A twenty-something, to me, is someone (in their twenties) who hasn't quite figured out who they are yet and is still living something of a student lifestyle.

HypatiaKant said...

The value of some often-repeated quotes would drop if the authors had been less specific.

Here are examples where the use of "something" would change everything:

"It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open one's mouth and remove [something]." -Abraham Lincoln

"I have a dream that some day [something] will happen." -Martin Luther King

"You only live once, but if you do it right, once is [something]." -Mae West

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at [something]." -Oscar Wilde

"Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting [something]." -Albert Eienstein

Karla said...

I don't mind (number)-something at all. Unless the specific age is crucial to the character or plot, an age bracket works fine for me.

The author should know exactly how old the characters are, but that doesn't mean the reader needs to know.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I'm usually specific with ages in my stories, and when I am vague, it's only to the extent of "early twenties", "mid-thirties", etc. A range of 3-4 years instead of a decade, to give some idea of where the character is in life (assuming they synch up to the established stereotypes) and I don't think it'd help the story to be more specific. As you said, there's a big difference between a 21-year-old and a 29-year-old. I'm 25 and I'm a vastly different person than I was at 21, and that's with only four more years of life experience.
Age isn't that important to me, though; I prefer to use instances in the characters' lives to show their approximate age.

Darin said...

If a character says "twenty or thirty etc.-something", and that is something they would say, then I think it's appropriate. If it is a narrative description, from the POV character, I think it is better to say. "She appeared to be in her thirties," or better yet, "She appeared to be in her early/mid/late thirties, as your POV character in third person is summing up their initial impressions. Twenty-something isn't as much a statement of age as it is a generalized view of a type of person. I wouldn't use it as description.

Anonymous said...

I think some use it to convey attitude rather than age. A 'something' is a bit more hip, a little edgy, more with it, if you will. I also think it's primarily a west coast thing just like we Californians tend to pin hours down to 7-ish, 8-ish, etcetera. So, Nathan, that's the vote from the laid back Southern end of the state.

Mungus said...

I voted "doesn't bother me," but that's only if there is a reason to be vague about the age. Always have a reason.

Mimm said...

"Thirty-something" of course brings to mind the television program and could be used to conjure a certain character type...other than that - tell me the age already!

Bobby said...

To me, it's become such a cliche and a crutch to describe a character that "refuses to be defined by age" that it just feels lazy now.

Robin said...

It bothers me if a writer uses it because they don't know the age of their character. But within the body of a story I'm assuming that the phrase was used intentionally and the writer understands that the reader could draw varying conclusions from the phrase based on their own ----something age.

and @HypatiaKant, I think the quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln should be Mark Twain.

Dara said...

When I mention age in my writing, I'm always specific. Twenty something is too vague in a novel.

Of course, in my writer's profile on my blog I state my age as "twenty something"...:P I guess I figure in real life no one really gives a care about how old I am; at this point in life most people think I'm about five years younger than I really am. But I'm not complaining :)

Dara said...

LOL, and after reading all these comments, I'm seeing that people think using the "something" is characteristic of an edgy and hip person. I never really thought saying you're twenty something, thirty something, etc. meant that.

In that case I'd better go change my info on my blog--I'm the farthest thing from edgy!

Liberty Speidel said...

I think it depends more on the characters, just like people. Some folks don't mind telling you their age (I'm one of them), and others would rather you not know.

In books, I kind of look at it the same way. If it's the Stephanie Plum series, well, the characters don't age. But, in other series they do so it seems to be needed more. In standalones, it seems more of a moot point to me.

Hannah said...

Unless it comes across naturally, (as in, someone asking how old they are or it being written in an article or similar) being introduced to a character and being told precisely how old they are (for example, coming right out of my head) 'Joe, 27 and a farmer' is weird. Generally, in well-written things, it's not hard to tell how old a character is. By their dress, their language, their description, their occupation. I don't need specifics.

But I do hate the expression '*-something'. If it's not important enough I know the character's exact age, it probably isn't important enough I know their approximate age. And it's a completely false expression. Nowhere in real life would I introduce myself or be introduced to by others as a 'twenty-something'. It's a cliche of writing and it makes me grind my teeth a little when I see it.

Jil said...

MY readers are going to learn things much more personal than my character's age, so i think they must know that too. It makes a difference in many ways. for example: At eighteen Jane had never been kissed or, At forty two Jane had never been kissed.
Poor Jane...

Sara said...

If one character is estimating another character's age, that doesn't bother me. Age can be hard to guess.

However, I am 29 now and definitely agree with your assessment of the difference between 21-29.

Anonymous said...

"The thirty-four-year-old initiate gazed down at the human skull cradled in his palms."

(Opening line from THE LOST SYMBOL)

~Anonymonopeia

Anonymous said...

CORRECTION:

it's not the opening line, but it's in the beginning.

~Anonymonopeia

Scott said...

Can I get a ruling on polls that don't have don't have my answer? ;^)

Just kidding, but age should be important in a novel. If it's too general, than we're being forced to assume the characters are basic archetypes and therefore it's more of a plot-driven genre yarn. Which is fine, but that could be a problem if that's not what the author is writing.

"Just this side of 25" or "barely into her thirties" says a little more without being overly specific. I would guess that most shorthand it for query purposes, not realizing they're watering anything down.

Robert A Meacham said...

First, I belive that a pet peeve is that final line of defense from going insane. Write the age of the character for specificity or count the number of times you tie your shoes and go insane. For me, I wear shoes without laces unless I am attending a 40 something formal affair...oops!

Scott said...

Bah, I've got a clear ruling on "no comment edit function". :^P

Anonymous said...

"The thirty-four-year-old initiate gazed down at the human skull cradled in his palms."

Geez, I just can't get over that sentence. That is high art! isn't that xactly the kind of thing every MFA wishes they could write? That THESE are the types of sentences you need to write in order to capture th collective imagination of America (and the world's) reading public?!

Wowza!

Becks said...

I think it depends on who you're talking about. If its the main character, then of course you should know their age. But if its someone the character is describng (whose age they don;t know) or a minor character, then -something is all right.

Anonymous said...

Twenty-something (et alia) ... ugh! If you can't give a real age (TMI?), what's wrong with "late twenties" or similar? It's more precise and doesn't sound so much like the idiom current a decade ago.

JohnO said...

It's just a piffle our pernicious language. As everyone who's ever sweated a spelling bee knows, we already have the following horrendously hard to spell words:

quadragenarian - 40 - 49 years

quinquagenarian - 50 and 59 years

sexagenarian - 60 and 69 years

septuagenarian - 70 and 79 years

octogenarian - 80 and 89 years

nonagenarian - 90 and 99 years

Since that's incomplete, all we need to do is consult our handy list of Greek prefixes to coin some fresh new hard to spell words.

Thus, twenty-something = icosagenarian

thirty-something = tricontagenarian

... and the highly useful ten-something = decagenarian

That help?

Giles said...

I can't agree more! It's like when someone states that a "Number" of ants moved in and stole the picnic. How many ants is a "number?" One is a number, so is ten billion. Be more specific, please.

On the other hand, if the author is talking about a group of people, it doesn't bother me. Like if they're talking about a dance club populated by an age range from 21 to 29, then I think the term is okay... but only in group context.

Jessica said...

I'd vote for neither. Unless I'm reading YA, I really don't care how old the characters are, either specifically or non-specifically. I should hopefully get an impression in fairly short order whether the character is youngish, youngish but old enough to do just about anything, in middle years, been around for more than a handful of decades, or ready for the home. Even narrowing it down to a decade is more information than I care about.

Anonymous said...

I agree - state the age. Not that I'll discard a book automatically if that info isn't there. But certain ages are indicative of often specific life events. For instance, I write romance, and if a character is 25, and she's still a virgin - now that I'll throw across the room. Not remotely believable, IMO.

If she's 25 and debating whether or not to finish grad school, I'm right there with her. Stating a specific age can be a great way to get across characterization.

terryd said...

This has the stench of pop-sociology and is something up with which I will not put!

Even worse: child of the name-the-foul-decade-of-your-weaning.

RDJ said...

It depends. If we're experiencing a scene from a character's point of view, then knowing that character's age is cool -- they, presumably, know their own age, and so we too should have access to it.

If, on the other hand, it's someone else the POV character runs into, well, the POV character wouldn't necessarily know the other person's age, so being too specific might be jarring. I recently read a thriller in which the POV character ran into a boy of fourteen -- his age repeated half a dozen times -- and it bothered me: how does he know how old the kid is?

Marsha Sigman said...

I am specific about age when it comes to characters I write about. I tend to write mainly middle grade and YA, and I think at those ages specifics are important. Remember when someone asked your age back then and you said '9 1/2' or '11 and 9 months'?

I like to know how old a character is when I'm reading too. But if we are talking about real life..at some point we are allowed to be vague...or even lie.

Elaine 'still writing' Smith said...

I'm probably not the only person to post this but I'm namowrimo planning and feeling more }:( than :) with no time to read everyone else's thoughts.

I think the usual rule applies: reveal the age, fairly early on, rather than state it.

WORD VERIFICATION: consol - Star Trek-ian images abound!

Genella deGrey said...

If a real person says (insert number)-something, I get it. I don't wish to push the subject of their age. But for characters in books, yeah, need to know the age so that I can identify with them.

:)
G.

Ash. Elizabeth said...

What if a character's name isn't supposed to be revealed till later on in the novel due to undercover-ness (fully aware that isn't a word) ??? Jw. . .Thanks.

Chase March said...

Ya know what?

I don't often know the age of my friends or colleagues. And I've always been terrible at guessing. So if I can peg it down to 20's, 30's or 40s, I'm happy with that. If a narrator does the same thing, I can really identify with that.

Unless the age really matters to the story, I think twenty-something is fine.

jen-lehmann said...

More appropriate if you're talking about a group of characters that are near the same age, but not exactly the same age. And okay if the main character is describing another character known only vaguely. But the main character should have an exact age.

Of course, until two months ago, I was 29 and didn't object to being twenty-something. :-) I am not ready to embrace thirty-something.

Who are we? said...

If it's used to give information about the character -- ie. he/she is the type who would never give his/her true age, relying instead on a cliche he/she thinks makes him/her (jeesh this gets tiring...) seem sophisticated and cavalier, then it makes sense. Otherwise, yes, seems lazy. Or cliche. Or both.

Anonymous said...

a "Number" of ants moved in and stole the picnic

"Number" in this kind of example is used to indicate plurality, like saying "a group of ants or a colony of ants or a mess of ants or whatever. Nothing wrong with it. No one asks "How many ants are in a mess?" cuz you just know it's meant to mean a NUMBEr of ants--as in, a group of them.

Anonymous said...

a "Number" of ants moved in and stole the picnic

"Number" in this kind of example is used to indicate plurality, like saying "a group of ants or a colony of ants or a mess of ants or whatever. Nothing wrong with it. No one asks "How many ants are in a mess?" cuz you just know it's meant to mean a NUMBEr of ants--as in, a group of them.

~Anonymonopoeia

ryan field said...

I like giving specific ages for main characters. One of the things I've learned over the years from reviews (we all learn from reviewers, all of them) is that readers like details and you have to be careful about what you, as the writer, assume.

But if it's a throw away character, I'd probably just say in his or her early or late twenties, without being too specific.

Leigh Lyons said...

It seems to me that it's a visual thing. You can look as someone and say "I don't know. Twenty-something?" but for books, know the friggin' age... unless the protag is looking at someone.

ann foxlee said...

I agree with Chuck H., if you don't want to be specific for fear that it will distract the reader into wondering, "why 26 instead of 25 or 27?", then just use 'early', 'mid' or 'late'.

The use of _______-something just makes me think the person is lazy or doesn't care enough about the reaers to allow them to form some kind of picture in their head.

Besides, I hated that sitcom.

Botanist said...

Seems to me that specifying age might be a matter of perspective. I agree that the *writer* should know the age of their characters, but if you're writing from the POV of someone else then they might need to talk in vaguer terms. How would you describe the age of someone you didn't know?

Agreed also that too specific can be unnecessarily distracting. But for me, early/mid/late twenties gets around that and works far better.

Final thought though. I think that "twenty-something" could be intended to convey more than just age. I think this kind of term is intended to convey a *type* of person, or more probably a stereotype, usually with slightly condescending overtones. If it's used deliberately in that sense rather than just from laziness then I see no problem with it.

Paige said...

I've always assumed the use of the "-something" is to indicate someone uncomfortable with just stating their age. Therefore, I've also assumed it was someone in their late 20s, 30s, 40s, etc. Regardless, I do think it's way overused and it always makes me mentally flinch when I see it.

Kerry Gans said...

Personally, I like to know specific ages. But sometimes it is appropriate for the book to be vague, as so many people have pointed out, and when it's done properly, I don't mind it.

And Jael stated "A 50-year-old going to Europe for the first time is different from a 20-year-old going to Europe for the first time, but a character losing her husband is a character losing her husband."

I would have to disagree - a woman losing her husband at 25 is very different from a woman losing her husband at 75. Whole different outlook on death, whole different set of life circumstances. Age ALWAYS matters.

Dawn Hullender said...

To me a protagiont's age is important. From that the reader can determine a level of maturity and wisdom. It becomes easier to identify with them. After all, making our main character identifiable and likeable is the foundation of a work.

Jessie Oliveros said...

Maybe if it is a minor character that the non-omniscient MC is observing, the number-something age would be appropriate since it is obviously a guess.

Annalee said...

Personally, I read "twenty-something" as having a different connotation than, say, "twenty-seven."

"Twenty-something" says "this person is in that period between graduating from college and becoming a Real Grownup." It conveys a sense of being a bit adrift and between identities. I also tend to think of being "twenty-something" as a hipster thing, but that might just be because I know a lot of twenty-something hipsters.

"Twenty-seven," on the other hand, means, well, twenty-seven.

For example, I'm twenty-three, but I don't think anyone who knows me would describe me as "twenty-something." I've begun my career, I'm about to get married, and I'm house-hunting--my pretensions of not being a grownup yet were repossessed sometime in May. Meanwhile I have friends a few years older than me who are working retail, volunteering, or pursuing degrees, and are still unsure what they want to be when they grow up--and they describe themselves as "twenty-something."

(None of which is to say that I think being "twenty-something" is a bad thing at all. It's nice to live in a world where you can choose to spend several years figuring yourself out post-college. A combination of wild luck and hefty student loans just sent me off a different way).

D. G. Hudson said...

This sort of generalizing began after the popularity (or not) of the Thirty-something TV show which appeared in the 1980s.

It gives the impression that the age of the character isn't important to the writer, or to the story. It could also be a Gen-X attribute.

I prefer knowing the specific age of the character.

Diana said...

I voted yes, but I was actually in the middle. It depends on the character, the content, and the decade-something. While there is a whole lot of difference between 21 and 29, there isn't that much difference between 41 and 49. It doesn't start being a big difference until people get into their 70's when there is a difference between being 71 and 79.

My guess is that you're reading a whole lot more stories with characters that are twenty-something instead of forty-something, and thus your aggravation is understandable.

Lucinda said...

I say tell the age of the characters unless there is a need for being vague, and then find a creative way of being vague rather than "something."

"thing" is sends me screaming anyway. Just what is a "thing?" Something or nothing, maybe just about anything or everything is still a thing. It is much like the word, "stuff."

Allison Brennan said...

I think it really depends. Whose POV are you in? If you're in the character's POV she knows how old she is so let the reader know. If your POV character is assessing someone else, and their age is important to the story or setting the scene, then I would describe the age as my character would. Some characters WOULD think "twenty-something." Some characters would be more specific, "She looked thirty, but her gray roots suggested closer to forty." And if a witness is giving a description to the police, they're not going to be specific. "The robber was older than you," he said. Or "He looked about forty give or take." Or "How should I know? It happened so fast. Twenty? Thirty? Probably thirty-something."

Greg said...

I'm with those who like specificity. If you have a character that is very old but who looks young (e.g. vampire, anti-aging, etc.), then of course I want to know what age they appear, and then early-20's or late-30's might be okay. Even then I prefer something like, "Though Alice had wondered the earth for 327 years, she looked not a day over 35."

Joy D. Wilson said...

I think it is alright to say the character is twenty-something when your just describing the book to someone. In the book though, the real age should be reviled.

Reisa said...

But it's not as annoying as saying someone is, "67 years young."

That gives me the creeps.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

I figure the choice of phrasing shows the person's attitude. "Twenty-something" suggests a, "Meh, it's just a number" attitude more than someone specifically noting that they're twenty-seven.

But I can definitely see how the term is vague and potentially annoying. If you're giving information, then give it, am I right?

Josin L. McQuein said...

What about someone who says they're "17 and holding" or "Forever 21" (as opposed to just shopping there :-P )or "Trying 29... again." or "39 going on 16"

There are lots of ways to show someone who's older and holding onto their younger years.

Linguista said...

It doesn't bother me. I usually give my characters ages. On occasion, if I have another character describe a lesser charater, he or she might end up "in their thirties" etc...

Becky said...

I think it's important to know the main characters ages, but if the main character is describing someone they just met, I think it's okay to say he was about thirty, or she was in her early thirties.

Madara said...

Why not say 'early', 'mid', or 'late' 20's, 30's, etc.?

Dawn Anon said...

One year i called myself the wrong age for an entire year, then I was too embarrassed to say my age (the same age i said all of the previous year!!), so i say 40-something. It doesn't bother me at all to read the Number-somethings.

There are other things that bother me much more than that.

MelissaPEA said...

Because of the TV show Thirty Something, whenever I hear an age followed by something, it sounds dated to me. Maybe "ish" should be the new something. Thirty-ish. It's also not specific but it's much more fun to say. Ish. Ish. Ish.

annerallen said...

affbet--it may be accurate, but if you call a 30-year old woman "middle aged" you'll put yourself in danger of losing a part of your anatomy. Just a friendly heads-up.

I agree with other posters who say "#-something" is a cliche, but it's a useful cliche in setting a breezy, girly contemporary tone.

But if you're describing a bunch of Spartan warriors, Dwarf lords, or Zombies I'd say it's a mistake. Unless you're going for humor. Chick Lit zombie-Spartan romances anybody?

annerallen said...

Reisa--I'm 100% with you on "67 years young". It's like "gone home to be with the Lord" instead of "dead."

Girl with One Eye said...

Nathan, your too cute.

Just say it but just don't ask me.

Anonymous said...

As a general rule when reading, I don't care for variants of some nor seem nor sort of nor kind of, etc. Somehow is especially odious. Their usages as indeterminant modifiers throw me right out of a story.

In a dramatically meaningful context, it seems perhaps a wishy-washy or hedging character's vague meaning space might somehow characterize the character in a way related to some central dramatic putpose.

But, by and large, indeterminant modifiers are at the peripheral edges of ideas and sort of seem like, you know, kind of shyly missing the mark somehow with lame writing.

Umpty-something years old? Such-and-such-something years old? Weak meaning space grasp that disrupts the reading spell with unnamed or nonspecific meaning.

Kaitlyne said...

It seems that in the books that I read most characters are somewhere around late twenties or thirties. Honestly, I don't really care one way or the other. I've read books with younger and older protagonists and it's never been a turn off one way or the other. I don't really see what the point is of mentioning age at all unless it's a major factor in the story.

Vicky said...

I think that everybody knows the age of their character, and if they don't then maybe they should spend some more time with them. And if you know the age, why not just tell us?

Linnea said...

I think it depends on the style and tone of the book. Giving an age of XXX-something makes me think the character doesn't want anyone knowing their age. The why depends on which something. Twenty-something and they might not like people to know how young they are, forty-something and they don't want people to know how old they are. Sensitivity to age makes me, as a reader, want to know why they're insecure about their age.

Pam said...

When I see the something phrase in regard to age, I, as a writer, suspect that the author is shirking the task of keeping up with the details, thus the author chooses to play it safe. That alone could make me put down a book in favor of my ever-growing stack of books to read.

Robert said...

I would have to think it would have to do with PoV and context in which it was said, or written as it were.

If the main character is stating their own age, perhaps in a monologue or mentally, like "What have I done with the twenty-something years of my life?", than yah it is weird. But say the PoV character is looking over at a crowd of people and spots a young woman and thinks that she was a "Fine piece of twenty-something architecture" than I think that would be perfectly acceptable. It would seem stranger if the character made a direct reference to a specific age without a relationship existing between them in one form or another.

Jen C said...

It wouldn't really bother me to see it in a book, BUT if I did see it, I would automatically assume the book was chick-lit, even if it wasn't. There's just something about the 'something' that makes me think of Sex and the City and other such shows and books.

Jacqui said...

I'm thirty-something, which sounds ancient by some standards. But truly, I'm early thirties. Late thirties conjures up images of sagging and wrinkling (I can say that, I'll be there in a few years), but thirty-two? Now that sounds young and firm...um, right?

If it's an ancillary character, twenty- or thirty-something is no biggie to me. But if it's a character we'll see over and over, give him or her an age for the love...

moirayoung said...

The older I get, the more I realize just how much of a difference there is between 21 and 25, between 24 and 27. The occasional person defies the standards of her or his age, but overall, the number tells me a LOT about that person's mental and emotional maturity. Numbers matter.

Steve said...

In the novel I'm currently attempting, my protagonist begins as a high school freshman, so it is entirely relevant that she is 14. Her dad, on the other hand, is of indeterminate age, except that we know he served in Desert Storm. I could figure out an age for him if one were needed, but I really don't care, and I don't see why the reader should.

-Steve

Andrew said...

By that reckoning you HAVE to hate the terms "in their Twenties/Thirties/Forties", "Middle Aged" and "teenager" as well for their similar generality.

I've got no problem with people disliking the term (though I think giving more than 1 character a specific age sounds like you're reading a player profile from a football managment game) you've got to lump the whole lot together to avoid being a hypocrite

Neva said...

I always assumed it alluded to the end of the decade in question, as in "twenty-something" really meant "pushing thirty".

Sascha said...

I have occasionally used that phrase if one of my characters is describing another person whom they do not yet know. The basic idea is that from looking at them they have a rough idea how old they are, but do not know their exact age yet. The xxx-something phrase reflects that uncertainty quite nicely and is refreshingly different than using "Mr. T appeared to be around fifty years old." all the time...

Kristi said...

I'm having a hard time writing what I REALLY want my character's age to be, 38, because I'm told that (and this is really revealing my inner dream and sense of optimism) younger actresses looking for good movie roles, including those in their early 40s, won't accept a role where the character is over 30. !?! I know! Of course there's Cate Winslet who's taking roles decades older than herself, but that is rare. there seems to be a 40 year old cut off for top actresses, until they reach the Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep stratisphere.

Any comments on how to determine a character's age based on how you view the FILM(!) ?

Fadz said...

How come no one is pointing this one out yet? I don't intend to start a gender war her, but the term 'something' associated with age was created by women.

As you said, Nathan. There's a big difference between 21 and 29. Think of the bigger difference between 41 and 49.

:)

When a police officer in a crime story does profiling, they bundle up victims or wanted criminals in certain age groups, hence the 'something'.

A writer has to be clear of his character's age, true. But the character can choose to be specific or not about her age depending on whether or not she wants to be mysterious and alluring.

Fawn Neun said...

It depends. If it's a major character, I'd like an age, or even a 'late-twenties' or 'early forties'.

With walk-ons, I'm okay with '-something'.

I'm sort of on the side of the more important the character (or scene or object), the more detail I expect. For walkons, I don't care if the dogwalker is 20-something and carrying a cup of coffee. I don't need to know if it's Starbucks or McD's. If we're expected to meet the dogwalker, then we need an age and a brand of coffee.

Rowenna said...

I'm not so much bothered by the lack of specificity--what bothers me about "thirty-something" etc. is that it sounds so trite. It's a cliché, and by ascribing it to your character, it makes him or her a cliché, too. Real people are not thirty-somethings or twenty-somethings, but caricatures are.

J.J. Bennett said...

I think it makes the reader feel like the character is ashamed of his age. If you don't say the real age you wonder why that's the case. Just my opinion...

karen wester newton said...

I would only use it for groups, as in, "A cluster of twenty-somethings stood by the bar complaining about their jobs."

Carolyn said...

The real answer is, of course, "It depends."

A strong writer who is otherwise selecting words (especially verbs) carefully, can use that bit of vaguery to great effect.

It's a problem when the rest of the writing is also vague and non-specific.

In a sea of specific, a non-specific descriptor can 1) (ironically) stand out or 2) provide a subtle reinforcement of more descriptive statements nearby.

There's cultural information packed inside that phrase. The challenge is to understand the additional meaning so that the phrase is used with deliberate intent and not merely because it was the first thing to leap to mind.

So really, it depends. And I would also add that if you are noticing and are irritated by the use, then it's probably not well done.

scruffy said...

taken out of context, it doesn't bother me, perhaps in the mismatched wardrobe of poor writing it would be the glaring sight of a tee shirt tucked into boxers.

Chuck H. said...

Just an after thought. How do you feel about people who say things (as I occasionally do) such as "I recently celebrated the twenty fourth anniversary of my thirty ninth birthday"?

Rhonda said...

I would say that if a character is defining him or herself or another character as decade-something, it makes sense. If the author gives the age of a main character in those terms, then it doesn't.

Lisa said...

There isn't always a huge difference between a 21 year old and a 29 year old. Often, for sure, but I'd think that if the author is saying twenty-something, they're saying the character's age isn't something they want to define that character. I would argue it's like leaving out the character's height and weight; sometimes they're important for the story, but often, they're just not.

Angie said...

I think it depends on the circumstances in the story, and the tone of the book. If the story's being told from the POV of a character who would use that expression, then it's appropriate. Saying either "Yes, you can do that whenever you want" or "No, you can never do that" is massive oversimplification.

Angie

thoughtful1 said...

I agree with Flemmily. I tend to think it means at the older end of the decade mentioned. It implies a caution about telling your age, so the character must have a certain need to be vague about his/her age. Or if the story's setting were, say, in a bureaucratic office with the twenty-somethings being the singles connected to a singles scene after work and the thirty-somethings were the getting married and beginning families crowd, and the forty-somethings were multitasking away their existences between carpooling kids and being involved in extremely competitive careers and the fifty-somethings were struggling with fitness issues, etc. Then the use of it would pigeon hole the author's character into a type not just an age.

Anonymous said...

"Twenty-something, (etc.)" seems more like a casting thing for movies or tv.

It is all about perception. How does the woman/man/child/alien/vampire,etc
look to the other character(s)?

Where it becomes trickiest, for me anyway, is when there is an age progression. The movement from childhood to adulthood so that, um different things can happen while retaining the personality of the character is challenging.
So I think, eighteen may be too young for some activities, twenty-one may still be too young. Twenty-four or twenty-five moreso, twenty-eight is good for the man but the woman should be twenty-four.But then again, where (????) were they between eighteen and twenty-one?
(I could pull my own hair out.)

So the basic question remains: how important is defining just exactly what age that is? It might affect different readers differently. It also might just clutter up the writing, all those factoids. Once they are um of age they are no longer without the right gear.

Anonymous said...

I also think that "Thirteen Moons" is just Excellent in age progression, as an example. And he is very specific.

Amy said...

I think it works well for plurals.

Two thirty-something women.

I mean, what are you going to say? Karla is thirty-two and Samantha is thirty-four.

It doesn't bother me, although I think it's the best fit for light fiction.

Ray Rhamey said...

Nathan, it depends on where the phrase is. In one of my novels, a character assesses another character as "twenty-something" because he cannot know the actual age. Yes, he could also say "in her twenties," but if the quicker phrase communicates, why not?

Mira said...

Prescience or insanity?

It can't be both?

Ha. I'm joking. I don't even know what that means, I just thought it'd be fun to say.

I think if I were reading queries, this would bother me. I'd be trying to quickly get a detailed sense of the story. Not knowing the age would keep things vague. Also, I'd wonder how well the author knows his own MC, if he doesn't even know their age. Or if he was just trying to be clever, which would probably be irritating after the 5,639th query.

In a book - I pretty much agree with what people said - it depends on the author's intent. It could be used well, or used poorly.

Ken Hannahs said...

In the same vein, would it be ok in a story/query to refer to your protags as "college-aged kids"? Or should you be like "College Kid A is 19, College Kid B is also 19, but looks 5."

Idk, I try not to put ages exactly into the text, but giving their age an approximation by saying that they are juniors at university.

Laura Martone said...

I understand your point, Nathan. I mean a 21-year-old is far different than a 29-year-old, but it doesn't bother me that much. For one thing, even 21-year-olds are different from one another. I've known mature ones that seemed to be in their thirties, and I've known not-so-mature ones that don't seem out of their teen years yet. I figure the dialogue and action will tell me more than a specific age.

Of course, I don't see such expressions as often as you do, I imagine. :-)

Laura Martone said...

I should clarify, however, that I always give specific ages in my writing.

Anna Moore said...

Posting a comment to this as it is the latest entry, but I have a question about a previous post regarding writing a manuscript.

Nathan, you talk about having page numbers on every page except chapter pages, but I'm using Word, so, does anyone know how I can do this? Have tried going through page setup and header/footer setup, but no joy.

btw, writing my FIRST DRAFT of my FIRST NOVEL, woohoo!

oh, and, I agree with using thirty-something, but not twenty-something. When people are between the ages of 27 and 37 - they are at that stage where it'd be impossible to guess their age - that's what i think anyways.

Cheers

Anna L. Walls said...

The more I write, the more I see that firm detail is very important. The best advice I've taken and not give at every opportunity is "a thing either 'is' or 'is not'" So in this instance, a character is either 27 or 30 or 10.

MLeaves2 said...

I really like Kate Higgins' suggestion, to indicate characters ages through milestones.

My book's main characters are a 32-year-old man and a 29-year-old woman, who both put their careers ahead of relationships and have been dating for three months when the plot starts.

I find myself counting backwards to make sure I know how many years ago they were at various points in their lives, and I guess that people who create vital characters of indeterminate age don't want to have to do this.

Heidi Thornock said...

I pretty much agree with all your comments. At least say "early, mid-, or late twenties." That narrows it down somewhat.

But I also think in some novels it's more important than others. Adult novels don't seem to rely quite as much on age to tell the story. However, children's and YA literature are all based around the development at a specific age, so tell what age that is.

Naya Lionsong said...

One of the first things I come up with when I start developing a character is his/her exact age.

P.A.Brown said...

Or you could say mid-twenties or late-twenties if you didn't want to be too specific. It's a compromise.

Beci said...

I'm 26, and I refuse to be a 'twenty-something'. I will refuse to be a thirty-something etc, and my forty-something other half is 47 next week. If you're not going to be specific, why even give an age.

I know vampires have been mentioned, but I don't agree that decade generalisation is acceptable even in this circumstance. Over a hundred years old, yes. One-hundred-and-fifty-something, no. It's a waste of time on the part of the reader and the writer.

Anonymous said...

This is the only page on the internet on which the word "Anonymonopoeia" appears.

Wendy Christopher said...

In the final years before I hit the big 4-0, I would usually refer to myself as being "thirty-mumble." Now I can say I've "just passed the forty mark" - for, ooh, at least the next two or three years... before making use of the "mumble" suffix again ;^)

In my current w-i-p my MC doesn't know her own age or those of anyone around her, so she makes guesses based on observation. I've always had her say things like "in his mid-twenties" or "about thirty" though. I would NEVER use the '-something' phrase, because - well, I suppose I just don't write about the kind of people who would talk like that...

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