Writing the impossible: Thoughts on immortal characters in fiction

Deities, vampires, demons, elves, artificial intelligences, cyborgs, genetically enhanced humans, sentient ships, aliens. All immortal, or living a life that’s quite a bit longer than the average. I love reading about inhuman aliens, about immortal characters, about the other that is, in some deep way, truly other. And so I am always more than deeply disappointed when the alien is merely a human with purple skin and the 400-year-old vampire prince has all the personality of a petulant teenager with pointy teeth. I am looking at you, urban fantasy. You, space opera. You, paranormal romance.

Immortality, like any story decision, deserves to be more than a cursory afterthought. Especially when its immortality granted to someone who would otherwise be human.

The questions are endless: What is it like to still be healthy and alive after a hundred years? In two hundred, how much has society changed and what is your role in it? In two thousand, how do you see time and the people around you? Does your perception of time continue speeding up, or do the days drag by? How has your religion changed, if it’s even still around? Is the passage of time oppressive or inspiring? Does living forever mean disengagement and bitterness, or compassion and patience? Which languages do you choose to learn and how often? What up with science? Have you upgraded your rotary phone yet?

Ever have trouble talking with an older uncle about things you care about? Image your uncle grew up in ancient Mesopotamia. Or was a nomadic shepherd on the Asian continent somewhere. Or a British sailor on a whaling ship. Now he asks you what you’ve been up to. Probably in ancient Chinese.

Damn.

Immortals in romantic subplots

Is that a 475-year age gap I see? Is that a teen dating an octogenarian?

Immortal love interests are ubiquitous in the romance genres. They come with troubled pasts – history is no cakewalk, after all. They demonstrate the weight of history through outbursts of anger, their iron-clad control, their impassive countenance, their pushy, alpha-male tendencies.

Egypt.JPG

Where are all the ancient alpha males who grew up in egalitarian societies or encountered the hard, no-nonsense women running households and businesses?

 

I always feel vaguely cheated. Is that it? Is that all? You’ve lived for hundreds of years, and all I get is a foot-stamping romance-novel trope, muttering “mine” uneasily under its breath? You are my immortal heroines acting with all the self-possession of a teen high on red bull and sugar.

Heaven knows, the immortal hero can be angry. The ageless heroine can be flighty. These characters can be anything. Desperate. Struggling with PTSD and depression and psychoses. Delighted and enjoying life. Bitter. Brilliant. Dull. Powerful. Jaded. They should not be flat and drawn from a bag of thoughtless clichés.

Practice makes boring

I finished Devil’s Daughter a few weeks ago.

“They switched the trope. It was the all-powerful immortal girl falling in love with average-Joe journalist,” I told a reading friend. “She had to protect him, tried to warn him off doing something dangerous and stuff.”

“So what d’you think of her?”

“Actually, she was kinda boring. She just…kinda had everything in hand.”

And that’s the other side of the immortality coin.

Lucinda from Devil’s Daughter is the daughter of the devil and Eve, which puts her age at anywhere from the biblical creation of the world 6,000 years ago to science’s first modern human 40,000 years ago, when the archaeological record shows homo sapiens first started cave painting. You’d think that after at least six millennia, Lucinda would have a handle on most things. And she does. And she’s kinda Mary Sue about it.

We are all immortals, I suppose.

Cat1

This is my cat. She is glaring at me because she knows that, unless she manages to smother me in the next two or three years, I am going to outlive her by at least fifty year.

Cat2

This is my other cat. He’s nine years younger, and still shines with the optimism of youth. He thinks we’ll be together forever.

There are also dogs. One living, one dead. A hermit crab, long gone. A couple fish that met an untimely end.

I could watch over fifty generations of mice trying to make their way to the promised land under the floorboards of the kitchen. I could live through millions of generations of flies.

Am I a god, then? Morelike a petty tyrant.

A glimpse of forever

What happens when a human gets a dose of forever? Kage Baker’s Company series takes it as close to realism as it could; the older immortals are shorter, sometimes with eerie proto-homo sapien features. Eventually, they can no longer pass as normal in society. Sanity is always a concern.

Constantine from Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, though less than 200 years old, is already eerily other, his coping mechanism Zen spirituality. The Doctor hides in the adrenaline rush of chasing mysteries.  Wolverine morosely chops wood in Canada.

Dorian Gray pursues a life of excess. Frankenstein’s monster is all alone. Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim lives forever, but only within his memories. Zelazny’s Amber characters while away their forevers putting Machiavelli to shame and post-Nirvana Sam has to relearn to care about material things. Patricia Brigg’s ancient werewolves go mad or fade into their animal selves. Sometimes both.

What is it like to live beyond a century? Jonathan, the 182-year-old giant tortoise of Saint Helena, isn’t talking. The 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine in California had no comment.

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11 thoughts on “Writing the impossible: Thoughts on immortal characters in fiction

  1. This was utterly beautiful! I love your cats!
    Didn’t you know writers are Gods? We have rule over life and death- or immortality in this case! I’m glad I am not the only one who gets infuriated by the immortal-teen wannabe in paranormal romance novels. He’s been hiding his secret for hundreds of years, but in the course of a few days/weeks, he breaks every rule he has and gives away his biggest secret to a young beautiful girl who would probably tweet about it!

    Love it!

    • Hah, except alphamortal probably doesn’t care to keep up with all the new internets the kids are into nowadays, and so doesn’t know what she’s been up to!”

      “Put that thing away! I got shot again throwing myself in front of you. What are you going?”
      “Uhhh, nothing. Definitely not live-tweeting. By the way, the wifi here is fast.
      “What? Nevermind. Come on, we must keep moving.”
      “I just got retweeted by Seventeen! Sec, while I take a selfie. How’s my hair?”

      I can see the appeal of the immortal character as the love interest; it’s the fantasy of the sophisticated older man noticing the much-younger-but-super-mature girl. Except in real life, it’s almost never that pretty or that simple. Then again, if it was totally realistic, it wouldn’t exactly be escapist fiction.

      But there’s gotta be a middle ground somewhere.

  2. I love this breakdown. As someone that wrote immortal characters in God’s Play, I dealt with this problem a lot. Meryl basically achieved enlightenment and decided he was above well, pretty much everything. Not the most exciting character, except that his ex held a major grudge against him for his aloofness. Cassie (the gorgon) was the most exciting for me to write because living for so long had made her extremely bitter. She saw humans as playthings but wasn’t exactly happy about this unlike some of the other villains who were 100% okay with toying with humans. The romance was tricky, but the immortal character has to get something from it, too, which becomes much harder to rationalize.

    • Those characters sound fascinating. There’s so much interesting space to explore with characters and story the moment you bring in the possibility of immortality!

  3. The “paranormal” genre has such potential for exploration of the human condition, yet so often it is just empty, air-headed dissappointment. One book I love is I am Legend because it actually uses the idea of “otherness” to address the idea of societal change. Humanity, which was once “usual” and “normal” is now actually the monster because he is the only one left. His moral decision making is atrocious to the new kind of living beings. And this is in the course of less than one generation. Imagine what it would be like to observe these changes over millenia? Would a being like this ever be able to fit into whatever form modern society has taken? If so, at what cost?

    • I was sorry that the movie version of Legend didn’t go there. It was a solid adaptation, but went more zombie movie. (I suppose it would have been hard to convey these ideas in visual form while keeping the action/suspense elements. But why can’t I have my book and watch it too?)

      I have a soft spot for these kinds of silly action adventure romances, but is it unreasonable to want depth in escapist genre fiction? Not a rhetorical question, either.

      • Not unreasonable at all. If we think about art as a form of escape, the more realistic it is, the easier it is to suspend disbelief. But let’s be honest. Real life is complicated and nuanced, not surface skimming teenager romance stuff. And real people change every moment as they interact with society. Wouldn’t a supernatural/immortal being experience this exponentially? There’s so much fun to be had here!

  4. Irene Soldatos has written a very good novel (Bad Bishop) with very ancient, very world weary immortals of a vampire cast, but not the immortal teen kind. Who could stand an immortal teen? Their preoccupations are so egocentric. They would probably only notice changing centuries by the different hair styles.

Chirp! What do you think?

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