Michaeline: Wise Old Characters

Elderly African American Couple from 1899 or 1900 on their front porch. She's strong and has her arm on his shoulder.

Is there a dearth of wise old characters in fiction? What are we doing to fix that? (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Whoo-hoo! Three-day weekend here in Japan courtesy of “Respect for the Aged Day” on Monday. It got me to thinking about the old, wise characters in fiction. Currently, my favorite senior citizen is Nana Strong from Jeanne Oates Estridge’s new book, The Demon Always Wins.

Nana is feisty without being senile, is frail of body but strong in her beliefs, and offers a very real sort of “best friend” – not an all-knowing one, but one who knows a lot, and gives it to Dara Strong straight.

Other than that, though? Who are my favorite old folks in literature? It took me a little bit of thinking.

Werewolves? Nah, not a long-lived race, the werewolves. Vampires? Not what you’d call role-models, particularly. I am fond of MaryJanice Davidson’s young Betsy, Queen of the Vampires, but she’s not old.

So, I did what any 21st century philosopher would do, and googled. Hmmm. Gandalf and Dumbledore came up, and I’m not impressed. It seems to me that they present as perfectly capable wizards who suddenly ask people not especially equipped for the task (hobbits and children) to save the world. And then they bugger off (well, die) without being anything other than guides. Nana Strong avoided this trap by being a weak old lady in a nursing home. Of course she wasn’t going to pick up her herbs and holy water and go slaying demons! What excuses do Gandalf and Dumbledore have? (Well, OK, maybe their best efforts took place off the page. But still . . . I’m not going to put them on my favorite list.)

And then, finally, it came to me! Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. Best elders ever! Granny Weatherwax has always charted her own destiny without a man, and she is the definition of a kick-ass granny. A wonderful character who is smart and no-nonsense. Nanny Ogg could be technically termed a sidekick, but . . . she’s got her own life. She’s had an adventurous youth that tempers her judgement with kindness and understanding, she is the matriarch of a large family who would do anything for her (from fear and/or love – mostly love, I think), and she provides a super foil for Granny’s hard truths. And, let’s not forget, she sings dirty drinking songs. For that alone, I would put her on my favorites list.

How about you? Who are your favorite elderly characters? LOL, and are they older or younger than you at this point? I think I’m coming up pretty hard on Nanny Ogg’s heels, agewise, which would make me pretty close to Granny Weatherwax, as well. They were different times, when fifty really meant something in terms of age. I’ll just add, it was a sobering day when I realized I was probably older than Elizabeth Bennet’s mother in Pride and Prejudice.

Respect for the Aged: Let’s hear it for the old folks!

7 thoughts on “Michaeline: Wise Old Characters

  1. While I can’t remember the details of the book specifically, there was an old woman, a matriarch of the ton, who occupied several Regencies I read. She was quite the spitfire. And what about Jessica’s grandmother in Lord of Scoundrels? Come to think of it, there are a few old matriarchs in Georgette Heyer — two in one book, actually, that I particularly liked. In Sylvester, you have Sylvester’s mother, the duchess, who sees right through Sylvester’s arrogant regard towards women, and Phoebe’s grandmother, Lady Ingham, who is both hysterical (in the crazy sense) and practical at the same time.

    Nate’s mother plays a prominent part in my first novel, and I eventually have plans for her to have her own happily ever after short story down the line, with an older gentleman, of course. IMHO, we should be writing more stories with older women. Think of the directions the story can go when (particularly in a historical) they’re not constrained by the rules of society that an unmarried miss might be. A widow has more freedoms than a young miss ever would. Plus, she’s got some experience to back her up.

    • Loved Sylvester’s mum!

      There was also a regency series by Marion Chesney (aka M.C. Beaton) about six sisters making their come-outs and the eldest, Minerva, had a godmother, Lady Godolphin, who was a stitch (she wore mouse-skin eyebrows) who was also very wise. Those books are wonderful. I should go back and re-read them.

      Also, Stephanie Plum’s grandmother, Grandma Mazur, who is dead center in a lot of the slapstick in Janet Evanovich’s books.

      • Grandma Mazur! Of course! LOVED her!

        I’m going to have to dig around to figure out who the old woman was in the series I mentioned (but can’t remember the name). It had to be by Julia Quinn, Mary Balogh, Sabrina Jeffries, or Lisa Kleypas.

  2. Thanks for the mention. Nana’s last name is actually Perdue. Strong is Dara’s married name. I think every one of my books has an elderly person in it. The next demon book has a priest, Father Xavier, aka Father X, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s but still has a role to play.

    And years ago I wrote a romantic suspense novel about a woman on the run from an abusive husband that featured this woman as the shock-jock hero’s sidekick::

    Behind him, Erma, the station’s oldest employee, and possibly Boise’s oldest inhabitant, tapped a cigarette from the pack and stuck it between two rows of impossibly white teeth. Her lips were as puckered as a drawstring purse and her fingertips were permanently yellowed, but through some alchemy, some strange science she had learned in the Middle Ages, when she was a teenager, she kept her dentures unstained.

    She’d been reprimanded a dozen times for smoking in the office, even suspended once, but she continued to light up every time the office manager left the bullpen. Whenever anyone complained about second hand smoke, she’d give them her beady-eyed stare. “So what?” she’d say. “Do you think you’re going to live forever?” She seldom got a response. Rick’s theory was that people took one look at her wizened face and decided dying young might not be so bad.

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