Age Is Relative

The Competence Zone gets intimate with the Rule of Perception: The physical appearance (and sometimes emotional maturity) of the cast isn't determined as much by their age, but rather their characterization and relative position within the cast. This can seemingly place them outside the normal Competence Zone, until you find out their true age.

In short, the more competent or mature you are, the older you look. And the inverse is true. A character in a position of leadership may look five to ten years older than they really are, while the youngest character will often look, and sometimes act, like a kid. This is especially true with preteen and teenaged characters, for whom their level of maturity is often mirrored by their physical development.

A prime cause of Younger/Older Than They Look. Compare Methuselah Syndrome, Acceptable Targets, Old Master, and Vague Age.

Examples

Anime and Manga
  • Pretty much the entire female cast of Mahou Sensei Negima!. Gentle, motherly (but scary when she wants to be, just like a real mother) Chizuru looks to be the third oldest of the class. The first and second, veteran mercenary Mana and wise Ninja-girl Kaede, can't even get their student discount at the movies. Meanwhile, the two least mature members of the class, the Narutaki twins, look younger than their ten-year-old teacher, even though they're about a month older than Chizuru. Another prime example is Chizuru's roommate Natsumi, who's pretty underdeveloped, even goes as far as to use a variant of the "Oneechan" (Big sister) honorific when addressing Chizuru despite being a few months older than her.
    • Negi himself falls under this. Later in the series, he spends a good chunk of time magically aged up a few years...and it fits his personality perfectly. Plenty of people comment that he doesn't really act like a ten year old. He does occasionally subvert it however: He still occasionally smiles like a ten-year-old. It also works in reverse where characters who he has seen naked many many times in the bath (he doesn't like to wash his hair) and other places without a problem suddenly give him the Megaton Punch after a slightly embarrassing situation.
  • The Knight Sabers in Bubblegum Crisis. Primarily in the characters of Linna and Nene, who despite being only a year apart in age, look nearly seven years between them.
  • The best duelists are or look older in Yu-Gi-Oh! (cf. Seto and Dark!Yugi). Yugi himself is a good example, especially in the anime, where his change from his innocent normal self to Dark!Yugi is accompanied by him actually growing taller and more mature-looking.
  • Despite great variations in their appearance, most of the senshi in Sailor Moon are aged within a year of each other, with any grade differences being a product of also being transfer students. This is obscured the fact artists draw Haruka and Michiru as much older looking than the other characters, who gushed about how mature they seemed. The Nineties anime even poked fun at the idea that Haruka's hobby of car driving doesn't really make legal sense.
    • For those who are unaware Usagi and the Guardian/Inner Senshi are 14 when the first anime starts (and 15 when the outers are introduced and 16 when the show ends) Uranus and Neptune are 1 year older, while Setsuna is hard to pin due to time travel but is physically in her 20s (and attends college). Hotaru is twelve years at the time of her introduction but due to age-downs and ups it's hard to pin. Chibiusa is physically around 5 then around ages to around 10. In the manga she's really 900 years old. In each case, she physically cannot age until her senshi powers were awakened.
  • Mikuru Asahina in Haruhi Suzumiya. Though one year higher than the rest of the cast, she is often a victim of Haruhi's molestations, though this decreases as the light novels go on.
    • Even Kyon doesn't know Mikuru's real age, by virtue of her time traveling capabilities.
    Kyon: "Please tell me your real age."
    Mikuru: "That's classified."
  • While the more mature characters in One Piece not necessarily look old compared to their age, a case could be made for the two least mature members of the Straw Hat Pirates, Luffy and Chopper. Luffy is 19 and looks and acts like a kid that could be anywhere from 5 to 13 depending on the situation. Chopper is a teenage reindeer who is very naive and does not know much about the world except for medicine, and he looks like a cute little teddy bear in his usual form.
  • Eyeshield 21 plays this trope to ridiculous extremes. Almost all of the cast is aged 15-18, yet you have characters like Komosubi who look and act like they're about 10 and characters like Mr. Don who look older then their own parents.
  • Slam Dunk: Done most obviously with Akagi, Uozumi, and Maki, who are all captains of their basketball team and all look about 30 (atleast). Subverted later on when the very boyish-looking Miyagi's made captain.

Film
  • X-Men: First Class does this in many ways with Mystique. She is about as old as Xavier. But as a shapeshifter, she chooses to look younger, and she prefers to stay with the teenage recruits. And according to Hank, her body ages slower.
  • In The Godfather Part III Mary Corleone is technically in her mid to late twenties (she's actually older than Michael was at the beginning of the first film). However she is portrayed very much as an innocent, wide eyed teenager (being played by the then 18-year old Sophia Coppala is also a factor.)

Literature
  • In the earlier Harry Potter books, when Ginny was outside the Competence Zone, she was described as "little" and in general made to sound like she was practically still sucking on a pacifier, despite being only one year younger than the trio. This ended after she Took a Level in Badass. Lampshaded when Harry tries to keep her out of the fifth book's adventure, only to be reminded she's older than he was when he fought Voldemort over the Philosopher's Stone.
  • Noted by Trian in the first book of The Death Gate Cycle. "Wars and kingship age a man. Magic does not." Zigzagged in that while he appears quite young, he has the power to act on behalf of the king, but he ultimately has very little power in the broader scope the series takes.
    • Zigzagged further with Alfred. He is often described as old and balding, but takes little initiative and displays far less power than the more youthful Haplo. He is specifically contrasted with Samah who displays far more power and who is in some ways older (they were both preserved in stasis for very long periods of time) but who is not described to be nearly as old in appearance. In truth, Alfred is the most powerful - magically speaking - of his people when he actually is able to bring himself to achieve his potential.

Live-Action TV
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    • While Dawn was quite whiny and downright bratty in seasons 5 and 6, there was a shift in her maturity during season 7. She was certainly as mature as Buffy who shirked her responsibilities and lied to her Watcher, mom and friends so she could go make out.
  • Desperate Housewives: In the later seasons, Bree started dating a younger man. The character was nominally in his mid to late 30's (like his actor Brian Austin Green) but in order to make the age gap seem a bigger issue he usually acted and dressed at least a decade younger, coming across as more like a twenty something Slacker.
  • Revolution: Charlie and Danny Matheson seem to come across as little kids at times, but they are at least older teenagers and young adults at most. There is Nate Walker, who's treated like a kid, even though the actor playing him, JD Pardo, is actually 33 years old.
  • Doctor Who. The Doctor is, of course, ancient but is also characterised strongly by his physical apparent age in that incarnation. (This is further complicated by every actor to have taken the part deliberately playing the character with mannerisms that hint at ages of both ends of the spectrum.) For a few more specific examples:
    • The First Doctor was the youngest Doctor and in many ways very naive and unsure of himself, but also the oldest-looking and the one characterised most typically by his old age (implied by later stories to be a facade disguising his relative youth). In several stories he comes across as childish and sometimes even like a sulky rebellious teen, but his basic trope is that of the absent-minded old man. Unlike all of the Doctors until very recently, he's also defined in terms of his familial responsibility - specifically, towards his granddaughter (and string of substitute granddaughter figures). In multi-Doctor stories he tends to take charge from his younger-looking but more mature other selves, who defer to his judgement comfortably.
    • The Fourth Doctor, the youngest man cast at the time, was initially conceived as an 'eternal student' character to take advantage of the actor's youth (then considered a shock development - for reference, the actor was 40 - hardly as young as the revival series got). This goes some way to explaining the unusual outfit he wears in his first season (preppy Oxbridge by way of Starving Artist and general tastelessness). This concept was dropped in favour of a Byronic aesthetic, but some elements of it stuck around, particularly in Season 17 which dealt a lot with his university education and had a story set in Cambridge. His personality was also much more childish than his predecessors - impulsive, petulant, prone to mood swings and attention-seeking, with a childish disrespect for responsibility and a tendency to act cute to get his way.
    • The Fifth Doctor, played by a man still in his 20s, was often shown to struggle to appear credible and authoritative, a problem that rarely plagued any of his older former selves. This was despite his basic personality being a lot more mature and emotionally healthy than at least his direct predecessor, if not all others. He related to his companions as a big brother figure rather than as a paternal or pedagogic one, and was characterised much by his innocence and the horrible things this caused him to go through.
    • The Seventh Doctor, by the time of the TV Movie, appears and acts rather old. So he gets killed off, and regenerates into the Eighth Doctor, who appears as an extremely handsome man in his thirties and promptly celebrates it by doing more kissing than he'd ever managed on screen before that point.
    • Clara's uncomfortable feelings towards the Twelfth Doctor in Season 8 are based partially on the fact that he appears drastically older than he had been when she'd first met him. "Deep Breath" even explained that his previous prettyboy Hipster incarnation was in part an act of denial - looking young allowed him to convince himself that he was, even allowing himself to think of himself as Clara's 'boyfriend'. His return to an older appearance was finally being honest to himself about his age, the stress of not living a lie giving him something of a new lease of Nightmare Fetish.

Real Life
  • It's been said that Presidents of the United States age in dog years while in office. Compare current photos of Barack Obama with those from the 2008 campaign.

Video Games
  • The OG Numbers in Super Robot Wars: Original Generation. Compare BFS-swinger Sanger Zonvolt to XO-slash-Captain Tetsuya. Both are the same age (27), but as Sanger is a battle-hardened veteran, he looks noticeably older than Tetsuya, who over the course of the series is just starting to grow into the role of a capable commander. Another example is fellow captain Lefina Enfield, who looks noticeably older than her 19 years would suggest.
  • Tales of Symphonia presents the rare triple subversion. When the characters are introduced to Presea, she's clearly a child, but strikes the characters as remarkably mature and capable (among other things, being responsible for single-handedly maneuvering a giant log that two grown men can't handle). The characters find out later that she's less mature than numb, and once fixed, she seems slightly more childlike. As the game moves on, she's revealed to be twenty-eight, having been locked as a child for sixteen years, and presents herself as being both young and mature. Characters like Raine and Regal are played straight, however, as they seem rather older than their respective ages (mid-twenties, early thirties).
  • In World of Warcraft, Thrall calls Garrosh Hellscream "boy" after he challenges him to a duel for the Warchief title. This fits with the roles of the two characters, with Thrall being the wise spiritual leader and Garrosh being the Hot-Blooded upstart warrior, however Fridge Logic dictates Garrosh is actually older than Thrall by at least a few years. Thrall was born on Azeroth after the end of the second war. Garrosh was born on Draenor, which means he must have been born or at least conceived before his father Grom Hellscream went through the Dark Portal at the start of the first war.

Western Animation
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender has Sokka explicitly stating that he can't remember his mother without Katara's face, because she has been acting as such since their mother's death. She is his younger sister.