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The Three Ages of the Storyteller

The circle of life – the three ages – also works as a way of understanding the kinds of stories that storytellers share. Just as people go through different life stages; so do storytellers. Stories reflect the three life ages: pre-adult, adult, old adult.

You can reskin these three ages in various ways:

  • child, worker, pensioner
  • future hoping, experiencing adult, remembering adult
  • everything to gain, everything to lose, everything about to be lost
  • innocence, sex, death
  • the promise, the delivery of the promise, the rewards of the promise
  • pre-career, career, post-career
  • the unknown, the risen star, the legend
  • the unknown, the risen star, the fallen star
  • child, parent, grandparent

The different ages are really based on life experience. The pre-adult lacks a sense of perspective. The adult has perspective, and the older adult has greater perspective. These ‘storyteller ages’ are viewpoints based in a linear timeline, a journey. They reflect the author’s perception of the world based on their ability to understand their own experiences. They reflect the writer’s own relationship with time.

The storyteller is not necessarily stuck within their own age-related phase. J D Salinger is famous for his coming of age novel The Catcher in the Rye, which he wrote as an adult. It’s a story about the experience of an adolescent. Holden Caulfield’s personality and inexperience means that he is unable to understand the adult world. He doesn’t get it. It’s not everything else that’s wrong – or ‘phoney’ – it’s him.

Salinger wrote about the adult world using the perspective of an adolescent (an outsider). Using an adolescent central character emphasises the relative innocence of the main character against the strangeness and hypocrisy of the next age (the adult world).

As an adult writer, Salinger said: ‘Some of my best friends are children. In fact, all of my best friends are children.’ What he means is that adult friendships are never as complete and honest as the friendships we had as children. Normal Mailer commented about Salinger: ‘I seem to be alone in finding him no more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.’ Salinger’s protagonist is a character who never becomes an adult. He is a character who never understands the world. A character who is an ‘outsider’ in the ordinary world.

The pre-adult central character is suspicious and fearful of the world. He or she longs for a better future. They have hope on their side. They are living ‘within’ the story of life, but unable to make an impact on it.

The adult hero does things out of necessity. He or she must make sacrifices for others, for the wider good. They may have to take care of ‘children’, or ‘older adults’. They must look beyond their generation. They are resilient and resourceful. They must face up to the challenges of reality, and have the power to change the story of life that goes on around them.

The older age of storyteller ruminates on the past. They are armed with greater knowledge and hindsight: their experience transcends generations. They know that time is running out. Their story is one of sharing wisdom, sharing the nuanced perspective that time has given them. Like the youth, they are not able to make an impact on the world. They are non-participatory observers. They are no longer in the story of life, but at the very edge of it, recollecting events that have happened, conscious of their own mortality.

The film Stand by Me combines pre-adult characters (who live in the moment) with the hindsight of an adult narrator. The innocence and naivety of youth is contrasted to the reflective wisdom of the adult narrator. Language can also be used to define the storyteller’s viewpoint. The use of a first person point of view, written in the present tense, often imbues the subject with the immediacy of a youthful viewpoint. The third person viewpoint, written in the past tense, gives the narrative the rumination quality of an older, wiser person, looking back.

Writers may choose to subvert these expectations. The ‘wise child’ character is a child who, by some weird magic, or surreal whim, possesses the wisdom of an older adult. They may have the gift of foresight, or be able to predict the future. An innocent looking child may possess supernatural or satanic powers that threatens others. Or, the adults may have regressed into childlike beings, like the pampered humans living in the orbiting spaceship in Wall-E, or the passive Eloi tribe in the novel, The Time Machine.

Stories can, and often do, incorporate all three viewpoints within a single story. The hero undergoes a transformative journey: from childish innocence, through real-world experience, into the reflective wisdom of old age. The three ages can be used metaphorically, as a character survives a challenge or dilemma: initially being taken by surprise (a childlike naivety, confusion), facing the problem (pragmatically, like an adult), becoming wise through gained experience (a newfound knowledge, wisdom, a redemptive understanding).

Understanding storytelling through the ‘three ages’ analogy is not a ‘rule’ – it’s simply a way of understanding what a storyteller has to play with, and potentially what they can subvert. Youngsters work their way into adulthood. What if adults try to regress back into their childhood? Adults try to develop the wisdom of an older person. What if they deny their responsibilities? What if they refuse to be ‘old’? Older adults look back, yearning for the apparent simplicity of youth (Citizen Kane). They remember a time when they were more active, participatory, adults at the peak of their powers. Adults feel more capable than children, but fear the physical weakness of older age, of losing their power, of becoming observers.

Society has its deep rooted expectations and prejudices. An adult is rarely respected if they shirk adult responsibilities and live like a teenager. Even less if they act like a child. Children desire to make an impact in the world, so that they can earn their self-respect, and the respect of others. Old people tell stories to celebrate the fact that they were once young and foolish, handsome and brave. Once upon a time they were important and had power. Adults remind children and old people that they are in charge, they are the ones making things happen.