When I wrote The Perfect Friend I didn’t think twice about my main character being a woman of 44. She needed to have been through the mill and have life experiences that had left her emotionally scarred. So Alex Appleby came into being, mother of twins, former wife of Owen, who in her struggles to come to terms with the disintegration of her family has developed adult-onset anorexia. Her vulnerability leads to her forming a claustrophobic friendship with Carrie Goodwin, 24, who she quickly thinks of as almost a surrogate daughter. And who she decides she needs to look after and protect no matter what…
I didn’t suspect I was doing anything controversial at the time. Then I read comments from Fay Weldon, respected author and playwright of hits such as The Life and Loves of a She Devil. Recently she wrote a blog post about middle-aged main characters, claiming that publishers tend to turn away novels about middle-aged women because they are ‘depressing’. She adds they ‘are probably wise to do so.’ (To read her post in full, click here).
Women don’t disappear from life at 40. Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash
Is she right? She is an author with far more experience, at a far higher level, than me – yet I can’t help disagreeing. It seems ridiculous to discount an entire section of society on the grounds of age and/or gender. Women don’t disappear in real life at the age of 30, so why should they in books? (As an aside, I’ll add that I dislike the term middle-aged, but have used it here for ease of understanding and for want of a better term. In the context of this post, I’m using middle-aged to cover anyone aged 35 to 65.) There wasa time when books with female characters were almost exclusively below the age of 30 or, on occasion, a much older woman such as Miss Marple. But not now. The ‘middle-aged’ female protagonist is becoming more common – isn’t she?
I decided to do some research among my fellow authors. Recently I was talking about it with Jo Furniss, author of best-seller All The Little Children and The Trailing Spouse.
‘I think the popularity of domestic thrillers in particular have made the 40-something woman not just visible, but irresistible. It’s the age when women have it all going on; challenges coming at them from every direction,’ she says.
The irresistible lure of the 40-something woman. Photo by Lorna Scubelek on Unsplash
‘It’s a time when life, potentially, swerves to the dark side. By their 40s, many women have committed to their major life choices; a partner, a family, a career. But it’s also the age when you realise that you’ve taken a vast gamble, dumped all your chips on black or red, and with hardly any genuine control over who comes up trumps.
‘That love-of-your-life; is he what he seems? Those kids; you’d give up your life for them. Your hard-won career; a secret from the past could ruin all that. The stakes are high. You have everything to lose. Life begins to get serious at 40, and that’s too much for novelists and readers to resist.’
I can definitely relate to what Furniss is saying. From my own life experience, I can say there’s something about the old trope ‘life begins at 40’, and the urge to take gambles. When I was approaching my 40thbirthday I decided to change direction, turn my back on journalism, and instead become a writer of fiction. There was a drive to achieve it ‘before it was too late’, and as I am a woman in my forties it seemed logical that I write about them, too. This is particularly evident in Her Last Secret, which centres around Dominique as she tries to stop her family from falling apart with explosive consequences, and The Perfect Friend, where Alex struggles against adult-onset anorexia and losing touch with her husband and children.
So in addition to there being a lot riding on this time of life, as Furniss states, and therefore there being a lot of potential storylines to explore, is there another reason for the increase in middle-aged female characters at the heart of books? Perhaps it’s in part about the rise of female authors coming to writing success in their 40s.
This theory is something Weldon also tackles in her post. ‘We now have a sorry state of affairs in which older women, who tend to be the only ones with the time, energy, experience and patience to write novels at all, have an uphill struggle trying to get them published.’
At no point did my editor or publisher comment that The Perfect Friend might be a hard sell to readers because of my main character’s age. Furniss hasn’t had problems, either. Perhaps we have simply been lucky. Weldon has a further word of caution, though: that readers simply aren’t interested in women of a certain age.
‘Readers come in all sizes, sexes, shapes and ages, but all prefer their novels to feature young women rather than old,’ she writes. ‘This applies particularly, alas, to older women, who are by far the more prolific readers of fiction. (Men tend to prefer non-fiction – histories, biographies, science, car mechanics.)
‘And older women, my theory is, prefer to identify with themselves when young, not as they are now, in the days when they were sexually active, agile of limb, and not afraid of adventure. It makes for livelier reading.’
Is Weldon correct? Would The Perfect Friend be better if Alex were a decade younger? Is the fact that Carrie is 24 what has saved the book? Do readers simply not want to know about middle-aged women? A quick scan of my reviews shows that not one person has mentioned anything critical about the characters’ ages. It’s hit the Top 50 on Amazon USA, reached Number 21 on Amazon UK, and sat at No 1 on Kobo, so sales have been healthy.
My experience isn’t unique. KL Slater is the bestselling author of psychological crime thrillers, including Safe With Me, Blink, Liar, The Mistake and The Secret – and she’s convinced that age doesn’t put people off.
She says: ‘Judi, in Liar, is in her late fifties and still battling menopause symptoms among other personal problems. I received lots of messages from mature female readers who loved her! I enjoyed exploring stereotypical views of older women through the character of Judi, of what they’re capable of and, in particular, how they are so often side-lined or at worst ignored. Judi managed to set a few people straight.’
Far from being ‘depressing’, this new breed of character is breaking taboos – and being applauded for it.
Middle-aged women are breaking taboos and celebrating life. Photo by Catherine McMahon on Unsplash
Under A Cornish Sky author Liz Fenwick believes that attitudes have altered among readers.
‘When Under A Cornish Sky came out there was a clear spit in reviews. The younger ones loved Demi, the 26-year-old character, while the older readers adored the 60-year-old protangonist,’ she says.
But she noticed a changed when One Cornish Summer was published. ‘There has been a big shift, with many of the younger readers really rooting for Hebe, the 54-year-old, and the older ones feeling for Lucy, who is 28.’
So the theory that readers aren’t interested in characters of a certain age isn’t holding up. In addition, not all authors creating main characters in their 40s are doing so simply because they are themselves.
‘My protagonist in my psychological thriller, Where The Missing Go, is a woman in her 40s, though I am still in my 30s,’ says Emma Rowley. ‘It worked because I needed her to have accumulated all of the trappings of ‘adulthood’ – husband, house, a teenager – and be struggling with what it meant when they were lost or threatened in some way. I wanted the stakes to be as high as they could for her.’
There it is again, that thought of a character having a lot to lose. A middle-aged woman fits this perfectly.
Rowley agrees with Fenwick that changes in society and perceptions of how we age are adding to this shift in attitude over main characters.
Could this be the dawn of a new era, where woman of a certain age emerge from the shadows of stories, to take centre-stage? Photo by Shashank Sahay on Unsplash
‘It makes me wonder if we are seeing more older heroines partly as a reflection of the fact it is taking the younger generation longer to achieve the traditional markers of adulthood: perhaps 50 years ago she would have been in her early 30s and be playing the same fictional role?’ she says.
This was the driving force behind Jennifer Joyce’s decision to include an older female character in her latest book. She writes rom coms that usually feature characters in their early 20s and 30s, but knew she wanted to try something different this time.
‘The book centres around three single mums, and this particular character had decided to go it alone using IVF and a donor after the breakdown of her long-term relationship and then have a baby. It made sense that she would be slightly older than my main characters usually are,’ she says.
Susanna Beard, whose latest book, The Truth Waits, is out in November, and features a woman of 45, feels strongly that books should reflect the reality. She says: ‘As the population ages, it’s much more balanced to have stories about middle-aged people and older.’
The rise of the strong middle-aged female man character may be controversial at the moment, but it’s also unstoppable as society and perceptions change. Rather than being ‘depressing’ this age group is a previously ignored resource that can provide drama, emotion, mystery, and insight. Ultimately, as long as the story is good, who cares about the age of the characters?
About THE PERFECT FRIEND
My name is Alex, and my world has been shattered.
My husband has left me.
My children won’t speak to me.
My friend Carrie is the only person I have.
She’s the only one I can trust to keep all my secrets.
She’d never do anything to let me down.
This dark, gripping psychological thriller will have you holding your breath until the very last page.