My husband Gary and I have a friend (who we haven’t seen in a while) named Dave. We met Dave in college. Dave was a very short and slight guy with a personality bigger than a house. Dave was bubbly and he loved everything and everybody. Besides the incredible penchant for enjoying life, Dave seemed like your typical college student. He hung out with us, drank beer, played pool (and lost miserably but never cared) and stressed over term papers. Everything was copacetic.
Until one day Dave announced that he was getting a part-time job at the McDonald’s on campus. That in itself didn’t seem so bad, but then Dave enthusiastically announced that he asked for the first shift. A cry of disbelief rose from the room of friends. “DUDE! That means you’ll have to get up at like, 4 AM in the MORNING!” Dave brushed off our warnings of sure failure and happily started his job at MickeyD’s, sometimes leaving the house before the sun rose. We all gave him a week.
Well. Weeks came and went. Dave was cheerier than ever. Many friends of friends asked us if they could buy some of whatever Dave was ‘on.’ Finally, my boyfriend Gary (now my husband Gary) and I sat Dave down and asked him what was up.
“I just fit in there.” Dave said. “It’s like hanging out with your friends all morning instead of working. It’s totally great!” We were still unconvinced. Maybe Dave was taking drugs. “Listen, why don’t you come in one morning and visit? Then you can see how much fun it is.”
So, somehow Gary and I found our way to the Mickey D’s at some ungodly hour of the morning. I think it was 8 a.m. Crusty-eyed and weary, we stumbled into the eatery. It was practically empty, except for one corner. About 6 or 7 males, all senior citizens, were sitting and chatting, occasionally sipping coffee, and bursting out laughing every few seconds. We searched our pockets for some change and looked for Dave at the counter. A woman behind the register asked to take our order. “Umm, is Dave here? We came to see Dave.” “He’s on break,” she said, and she pointed to a spot behind us.
We turned around. In our sleepy haze, we hadn’t seen Dave sitting smack dab in the middle of those old men, being the life of the party. Dave had them cracking up. We were shocked. Dave, all be him happy and lively, was definitely not funny. He told corny jokes and near-miss puns that were awkward at best. He quoted lines from It Happened One Night and Casablanca. He was just, well, weird.
But here he was, playing to this crowd of gray hairs like he was Big Man on Campus. It was incredible; They loved him! They would talk to the MickeyD’s manager to finagle him longer breaks. They were usually at the door when Dave opened it up in the morning. They sat and sat, past the late hour of 8 a.m. and waited sometimes until 9 before they left, visiting with each other and Dave.
Dave introduced us to each one by name, with proper handshakes all around. One gentleman offered me his seat. They moved their hats from the tabletop to their laps. They showered Dave with mock insults like a bunch of buddies at a sock hop. Dave handed out the barbs right back. Dave was all of a sudden witty and sharp! It was strange to admit, but this group of gray hairs brought out the best in him. He really did fit in.
We talked to Dave later that day. “I’ve always gotten along with that generation better than my own,” he said. “I can’t explain it. I just feel like I’m a 70 year-old trapped in this 20 year-old body. I’ve always felt like that. Not that I feel old. Those guys are just like you and me.”
He excitedly told us that this group volunteered as ushers at the stadium downtown. Dave was going to start ushering baseball games and other events with them. “They’re like kids, you should see them. They prank each other and try to scam free ice cream from the vendors. It’s hilarious!” It meant that more of Dave’s time would be spent away from us, but there was no denying he was in his element. That day we saw who Dave really was, how Dave really saw himself. When we graduated and all moved back to the Philly area, Dave started dating retirees. And ya know what? It was perfectly natural.
Characters don’t always need unrelenting darkness to be interesting. Every day personality quirks like Dave’s can drive an entire novel.
Let’s turn to demographics for some hints.
Demographics is the study of generations and their behaviors. Used mostly in marketing and economics, demographics is a great place for a writer to begin when looking for character traits.
Each generation, usually everyone (in the USA) born within a 20 year span, has shared values and perspectives. In general, a Baby Boomer would be thrilled with a new RV and a Generation Xer would be pumped to get the latest hybrid. A War Generation (Rosie the Riveter and WWII GI Joe) person would never drive a Japanese Car, but Generation Y buys new and used Japanese cars as soon as they can drive.*
Although these generalizations don’t necessarily apply to individuals, you can get an idea of how your character’s world view was formed by the events surrounding them as they were growing up off stage (‘off stage’ is a writing term meaning ‘events that you don’t write about and readers assume have happened’). If your character is 50 years old, you can look up the pop charts and see what the biggest song was the year they were born (1958 – Domenico Modugno Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare) ) or perhaps more importantly, the year of their first kiss (1973 – Tony Orlando/Dawn Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round The Ole Oak Tree. Although, for that particular flashback I’d choose #4 on that same chart: Marvin Gaye Let’s Get It On).
Sometimes you can make a character interesting, like our real-life friend Dave, by just changing their personality profile to sync with a generation that is different than theirs. In my novel-in-progress, I have a Baby Boomer character that acts more like the ‘square’ parents of her generation. You can imagine a 15-year-old of today that listens to funk and dresses like Sly and The Family Stone. Hollywood movie scripts love this kind of nostalgic young character with “wholesome values” of times gone by set against a modern day backdrop. Last year’s kids movie “Nancy Drew Mysteries” played on this gag throughout the movie. Sci-Fi, in particular, loves the ‘time-transported male hero saves the day with good old-fashioned ingenuity” theme. This unexpected switch in demographic profile can drive a plot.
Below is a very basic chart of ‘Memorable Events’ that shaped the minds of each generation. Use them as a starting block to form a mental picture of your character’s demographic profile. Remember, these are just starting points. Avoid stereotyping your characters. Dave (and the rest of us) will thank you.
1912-Present General Characteristics per Cohort (‘cohort’ means ‘age group’ in this instance)
* Depression cohort (born from 1912 to 1921)
o Memorable events: The Great Depression, high levels of unemployment, poverty, lack of creature comforts, financial uncertainty
o Key characteristics: strive for financial security, risk averse, waste-not-want-not attitude, strive for comfort
* Pre ‘World War II cohort’ (born from 1922 to 1927)
o Memorable events: men leaving to go to war and many not returning, the personal experience of the war, women working in factories, focus on defeating a common enemy
o Key characteristics: the nobility of sacrifice for the common good, patriotism, team player
* World War II cohort (born from 1928 to 1945)
o Memorable events: sustained economic growth, social tranquility, The Cold War, McCarthyism
o Key characteristics: conformity, conservatism, traditional family value
* Baby Boomer cohort #1 (born from 1946 to 1954)
o Memorable events: assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, political unrest, walk on the moon, Vietnam War, anti-war protests, social experimentation, sexual freedom, civil rights movement, environmental movement, women’s movement, protests and riots, experimentation with various intoxicating recreational substances
o Key characteristics: experimental, individualism, free spirited, social cause oriented
* Baby Boomer cohort #2 (born from 1955 to 1964)
o Memorable events: Watergate, Nixon resigns, the cold war, the oil embargo, raging inflation, gasoline shortages
o Key characteristics: less optimistic, distrust of government, general cynicism
* Generation X cohort (born from 1965 to 1979)
o Memorable events: Challenger explosion, Iran-Contra, social malaise, Reaganomics, AIDS, safe sex, single parent families
o Key characteristics: quest for emotional security, independent, informality, entrepreneurial
* Generation Y cohort also called N Generation (born from 1980 to 2001)
o Memorable events: rise of the internet, September 11 attacks, cultural diversity, 2 wars in Iraq
o Key characteristics: quest for physical security and safety, patriotism, heightened fears, acceptance of change, technically savvy, environmental issues
* Car buying profiles taken from The Age Curve: How to Profit from the Demographic Storm by Kenneth W. Gronbach