Fran: So Manny, tell us all about yourself.
Manny: Well, I was born in London…
Bernard: Stop right there, David Copperfield. If we’re going back that far we’ll need popcorn or something.
— Black Books, Manny’s First Day
The ability to create a life narrative takes a little while to come online—the development process gives priority to things like walking, talking, and object permanence. Young children can tell stories about isolated events, with guidance, and much of adolescence is dedicated to learning “what goes in a story… and what makes a good story in the first place,” Pasupathi says. “I don’t know how much time you’ve spent around little kids, but they really don’t understand that. I have a child who can really take an hour to tell you about Minecraft.” Through friends, family, and fiction, children learn what others consider to be good storytelling—and that being able to spin a good yarn has social value.
It’s in the late teens and early years of adulthood that story construction really picks up—because by then people have developed some of the cognitive tools they need to create a coherent life story. These include causal coherence—the ability to describe how one event led to another—and thematic coherence—the ability to identify overarching values and motifs that recur throughout the story. In a study analyzing the life stories of 8-, 12-, 16-, and 20-year-olds, these kinds of coherence were found to increase with age. As the life story enters its last chapters, it may become more set in stone. In one study by McLean, older adults had more thematic coherence, and told more stories about stability, while young adults tended to tell more stories about change. […]
This developmental trajectory could also explain why people enjoy different types of fictional stories at different ages. “When you’re a kid, it’s mostly about plot,” McAdams says. “This happens and this happens. You’re not tuned into the idea that a character develops.” Thus, perhaps, the appeal of cartoon characters who never get older.