A Long-Awaited Post About Writing Immortal Characters

Since a “scholarly” approach doesn’t work — I’ve tried many times, and the words disappear as soon as I attempt to put them in order — I’m just going to share my thoughts on this topic, slightly haphazardly, as they are in my head right now…

I’ve seen a lot of fiction illustrating all the terrible things about immortality/living a very long time, characters who whine or get angsty over their “curse,” and I think stories like those are popular because we want to console ourselves with having less time than we actually want.  Sour grapes, my friends:  “Yeah, well, I didn’t want to live for a thousand years anyway, so there!”

So ask yourself this:  Why assume that living forever, or at least for a long time, would be automatically bad for a person?

“It’s bad for evolution.” A person who lives a really long time doesn’t just reproduce and then die and get out of the way for the next generation, which is theoretically better than the last one, and evolution is all about improvement of a species, right?   Sorry, but evolution doesn’t care what is best (whatever the definition of best) in the long term; it selects for whatever works now, and anything that doesn’t hinder reproduction in some way is okay.  Also, long life span means more opportunity for the elders to pass on their knowledge/experience, and that has to be good for something.

It leads to extreme overpopulation.”  Why?  Who says that all people (human or otherwise), under any and all circumstances you can think of, would have the same population growth that we do currently? Right now, population growth is high in some parts of the world because birth rates haven’t yet adjusted to a lower infant mortality rate. An anthropologist I know says this will even out in a couple more generations. In some countries, population is already steady or even dropping, as people have fewer children… and part of this happens because humans are living longer than they used to.  (Also, “long lives lead to overpopulation” runs counter to the trope in traditional fantasy that elves are dying out as a species despite their long lives because they have a low birth rate due to having such long lives.  I’m not saying that this is the only way for a fantasy author to write elves — that would be unspeakably hypocritical on my part — but it is traditional, and somehow readers don’t seem to have a problem with it when it’s not their own species.)

Here’s the one that I thought especially silly when I read it in some book:  “Humans would get bored having the same job for hundreds of years, or being married to the same person.”   Wow.  Talk about assumptions!  I’m quite certain that, if we started living for several centuries, we’d adapt and begin to look at all that additional time as additional opportunity to do more that we don’t have time for now.  Sure, it makes some sense to stick with one career if you’ve only got a few decades to spend honing a skill set (although a lot of people have many careers/jobs throughout their lives anyway), but if you have a millennium or more, why not change careers occasionally?  On the matter of marriage, humans aren’t truly monogamous now, with our average ‘three-score years and ten,’ so why think that everyone would feel more inclined to “marry for life” if they had even more life?  (Why assume that they’d marry at all?  It’s not, y’know, necessary for either producing or caring for offspring, and the other reasons are strictly cultural.  Not all humans marry now, and lots of other mammals do a fine job of raising their children, with a mate’s help or otherwise, without any religious or government stamp of approval.)  As life expectancy increases, we see more and more senior citizens retiring from their first career and then taking up a new one, not because they need the money but because it’s something they always wanted to do, and now they can, because they have the time.  Back when people lived only sixty years on average, this tended not to occur much.  So extrapolate. “Do the math,” as the common expression goes…

You’d get lonely, being the only one.”  This assumes it’s an aberration rather than a species-wide trait.  If an immortal individual is unique, yes, I’d expect that person to get lonely.  Other people would probably be envious of what they saw as an unfair advantage, so the immortal would have to keep their condition a secret for fear of reprisals or whatever.  Keeping a secret that big would definitely cause… difficulties in forming social connections.  If the person managed to find someone whom they could trust anyway… Well, most people die eventually, and again there’s loneliness.

(This is so much easier to write when I’m deliberately not allowing myself to think about how any of it relates to my own fiction.  Also, I tricked some of my story characters into ignoring me for a little while, for their own good, so I need to finish this post before they come back, okay?)

You wouldn’t be able to adapt to all the changes that happen in the world around you.” Seriously, what is this nonsense?  Ask a person over the age of sixty how many changes they’ve had to adapt to in their lifetime.  We’re not seeing slews of senior citizens going insane or having nervous breakdowns because most telephones don’t require wires now or because some cars can drive themselves.  That whole “future shock” thing is bullshit.  The actual book Future Shock (I read it once, many years ago, while snowbound and desperate for something — anything — to read) talked about how technology in particular and culture in general were changing so rapidly that, in just a few years, everyone would start experiencing severe stress from trying to keep up with the changes.  That book was written in the late 1970s, I think.  Maybe the early 1980s.  I don’t know about you, but I have yet to see any changes so huge that no one can keep up… because we’re living through those changes, and the exponential curve doesn’t look steep when you’re on it.  People adapt when they have to, and otherwise they just complain about microwave ovens and that loud new music called jazz, and generally ignore what they don’t need or care about. 

Even though the title says “immortal characters,” I do think there is a difference between actual immortality and mere lack of aging (or the appearance of same — in a mayfly’s view, mice live forever with their three-year lifespans).  Immortal implies (it’s right there in the word itself) that the person cannot die; unaging just means it won’t be time that kills ’em.

This is an important distinction.

There are no immortal characters in my fiction.  (Shut up, Drake, or do you want me to start telling these nice people about your kin?  *wicked writer laugh*  ‘Sides, your death is, like, past-tense, dude.)  There are, on the other hand, a fair number of… individuals who, for whatever reason, don’t age at the same rate as their author or readers.

Oh, yeah, another silly argument against extra-long lifespans:  “Spending centuries as a child/adolescent means too much time weak and vulnerable and thus too high a risk that the person won’t live to reach adulthood.”  Well, yeah, because if humans lived for a thousand years, we’d be children for, like, nearly two centuries, right?  And gestation would take seven years…!  *sigh* That’s not how it works in the real world, where gestation periods are more linked to size than to average life expectancy. For example, the gestation period for elephants (who can live for about seventy years, so they’re a lot like humans that way) is nearly two years. Compare this to the nine months it takes to produce a human infant. If anything, a D&D-style elf – they’re smaller than humans, if I recall correctly – should have a slightly shorter gestation period, although these people are supposed to live for several hundred years. Tolkien’s elves, on the other hand, ought to have roughly the same gestation period as humans, even though these elves can live for many millennia. (That stuff online about how Kili the Dwarf is a “teenager” because his age is “proportionately the same as seventeen for a human”? Yeah, that’s bullshit.) And just look at actual, real-world humans for a moment. We live longer now than most of our ancestors did, but we don’t have a proportionately longer physical childhood; we just have a longer adulthood to come after it.

What do you think, O Reader of my blog? If you’re a writer, have you ever written an immortal/unaging character? Why did you give the character this trait, and how did it affect their lives and the way they interacted with other characters and with their surroundings? If you’re a reader (and I hope all you writers are readers, too, ’cause otherwise you’re doing it wrong), what do you think of immortal/unaging characters? Can you think of any examples where such characters were depicted especially well, or especially badly?

About Thomas Weaver

For several years, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom (editor). I'm physically disabled, and I currently live with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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7 Responses to A Long-Awaited Post About Writing Immortal Characters

  1. Interesting post! I think many of the arguments disparaging immortality reflect a lack of thinking through its impact on world-building. The perspectives reflect an early 21st-century world versus a world where immortality is actually viable. Issues like work, relationships, child-rearing, and use of resources would have been accommodated and something of a balance achieved (until they’re knocked off-balance, of course). The questions/arguments are important, though, because they encourage us as writers to deepen our understanding of the imaginary world and invest in its reality. I haven’t written an immortal character(s) yet, but it is intriguing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. alicegristle says:

    An extremely interesting post, Thomas! I haven’t much experience in writing an immortal character, but of the ones I’ve read, Tolkien aside, Zelazny’s Conrad from This Immortal and Sam from Lord of Light spring to mind. Lord of Light was a pretty enjoyable treatment of the subject on the whole, but I always felt immortality was more for flavour in Conrad’s case – although that didn’t stop him from being a very readable rogue! 🙂

    What about your own “ageless”? They’re clearly trying to edge into this post! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll try to keep this reply shorter than a full bog post, but you asked me about my imaginary friends… 🙂

      There are no truly immortal (cannot die) characters in the fiction I write (or help write — I’m including my twin’s stories in this, because we’ve been collaborating for more than two decades). There are several who, for various reasons, don’t age at the same rate as humans of the sort who are most likely to be reading my blog: There’s DD, who turned out to be a lot older than the almost three centuries he claimed when he first showed up in answer to our metaphorical ‘Help Wanted’ ad: Storytellers seeking viewpoint characters willing to get into all sorts of trouble for no pay whatsoever… There’s JG, who doesn’t want me to tell you this has been around for a little bit more than four millennia, most of which he doesn’t even remember and the last few centuries of which have been spent in fear that someone would find out that he’s not human. There’s RS, who is not at all angsty about having a longer lifespan than most of the people around him, although he admits to going through that typical phase sometime between his second and third centuries… There’s the main character in a couple of my short stories (“Ice Is Also Great” and “A Dangerous Thing to Bear”) who, although quite young (only twenty-three, in “Ice”), has great-great-nieces and -nephews who are twice his age or more.

      I think what draws me to write about people like this is that their psychology is so complex. (*types and then deleted lengthy blather about psychology, and Zelazny, and “unaging” characters — and Corwin’s snarky comment about Freud*) Normal humans are complex, too, sometimes, but with less time for those complexities to express fully… I don’t know. I probably shouldn’t delve too deeply into this topic right now, or I’ll end up drinking even more coffee and revealing all my imaginary friends’ secrets. Save some of it for the books, right?

      Like

      • alicegristle says:

        Intriguing! I’m going to hazard a guess. Is the main character in “Ice” a time-traveller or an astronaut? Or am I completely off the mark and he’s something else entirely? 🙂

        Aww, I would’ve loved to hear some lengthy blather on Zelazny… 🙂 Some other time? Pretty please?

        Liked by 1 person

        • He’s neither. He’s a young man travelling as far away from his family (or at least the expectations some people have for him because of his family) as he can get, and he ends up on a planet (well, moon, technically, in orbit around a gas giant in a double-star system) called Wabe (which is a totally different literary reference, but whatever), a world with a “short, unsteady year” and a colder climate that Earth’s; only the equatorial region is warm enough for human habitation.

          The main character in “Ice Is Also Great” is named Frost, after poet Robert Frost. (His grandfather was a fan of Robert Frost’s poetry, except perhaps “Mending Wall”… I could say why, but as his author, I’m gonna make him say it for himself. Did make him say it for himself, in a scene that will almost certainly use it as a flashback in “that novel.”) There’s all sorts of irony in giving this character such a name, not the least of which is because he’s a redhead. (He gets that from his other grandfather, mostly.)

          And yes, I will try to write that other post, when my thought processes are somewhat more linear than they seem to be today.

          Like

  3. I love this post! I have a couple of long-lived (not immortal) species in my book. Because it’s on a species level, I have slowed down their reproduction to deal with that – also, they don’t have many psyche issues surrounding it, because there are others like them. It’s how they interact/react with/to humans, and how humans interact/react in return.

    Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t link a favorite article of mine discussing immortality. This article is written from the point of view of the only immortal human, like if it was a genie wish or something, and it’s talking about TRUE immortality and agelessness, over hundreds of thousands of millennia…
    http://www.cracked.com/article_18708_5-reasons-immortality-would-be-worse-than-death.html

    Liked by 1 person

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