Books with old main characters aren't new; the likes of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot have been entertaining readers for decades. But aside from the classics, in recent years, we've seen a huge resurgence in books that feature older protagonists. What exactly is driving this resurgence, and why are readers so enthralled by it?
There's a perception that older people speak more freely than the generations after them who may feel like they have to dilute their thoughts and opinions through a sensitivity filter before they speak. Old people don’t do that — at least not the ones I'm related to anyway. Richard Osman touches on this in The Thursday Murder Club, where he writes, “After a certain age, you can pretty much do whatever takes your fancy. No one tells you off, except for your doctors and your children.”
Coming from a family of lively Glaswegians and Mancunians (people from Glasgow and Manchester respectively), I noticed a glorious decline in my grandparents’ propriety that coincided with ageing. That is not to say that they became rude or unkind; they just spoke with a freedom that was endearing. Is that why people today are enjoying reading books with older protagonists; because they are so authentically and unapologetically themselves?
Books that feature older protagonists challenge the way we think and flip our expectations on their head.
In my novel, The Concierge, I write from the perspective of seventy-three-year-old Hector Harrow. Why? Because it's more fun. Older people seem to worry less about the repercussions of sharing their opinions, but I also think older people aren’t held to the same standards that younger people are. They are less likely to be criticised for what they say. People make excuses for them based on their age and upbringing because, things were just different back then, right? This is a fun place to write from, especially when creating a book that uses a first-person narrative.
When thinking about the protagonist for my book, I wanted to create a character that could be classed as a bit mischievous but that readers loved. That’s how Hector Harrow came about, because there’s nothing sweet about a twenty or thirty-year-old man walking around a hotel in tracksuit pants, challenging a police officer or sneaking a recording device into private conversations. In fact, we would probably label that anti-social behaviour. But, aww, isn’t it lovely to see someone who is normally doing puzzles in his armchair suddenly have the gumption to cause a scene and solve a murder?
Older people are like life’s underdogs, and everyone roots for them.
For me, books that feature older protagonists challenge the way we think and flip our expectations on their head. There would be nothing surprising about a young, nimble, caffeine-loaded individual saving the day. But when it's a story in which an unlikely hero with a dodgy hip and chip on his shoulder solves a mystery or embarks on a quest, that just feels more satisfying.
Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry does this incredibly well. Sixty-five-year-old Harold Fry gets a new lease on life when a dying old friend writes to him, and he decides to trek six hundred miles to say goodbye. People enjoyed it so much that last year that a film adaptation starring Jim Broadbent was released. This story absolutely wouldn’t have been the same if we followed a fit, healthy man on a walk across the country, because that’s just not as unexpected an activity for someone younger to uptake. Older people are like life’s underdogs, and everyone roots for them in scenarios like this.
In The Concierge, Hector says about the other staff at the hotel, “They used to say I was ‘cute’ and that they wished I was their grandpa. A little patronising, but nice nonetheless." This line exemplifies how we seem to infantilise older people. People tend to find most older people quite endearing, and this makes for a perfect protagonist because no matter what transpires, the reader will always be rooting for them, because so much of today’s society has given up on people who are older.
Take A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. This is a story about a curmudgeon who is so disgruntled with life but starts to make connections with his new neighbours. For me, the success of this story comes from seeing someone that others might have given up on form meaningful relationships that change his personality for the better. Old people make perfect protagonists because they are closer to the end of their life, and isn’t it nice to see an event take place that reignites their passion for living, and to see that it's not too late for us either?
I'm loving that not only are more books being written with old-aged protagonists, but that more people are reaching for them. With so much going on in the world, it’s a great time to celebrate older people in literature and get lost in their heart-warming escapades.
Abby Corson has been a luxury travel and lifestyle writer for over ten years, with her work featured in magazines and newspapers including Vogue Australia, The Age and The Herald Sun. She was born in Manchester but now lives in Melbourne. The Concierge is her first novel.