Monday, September 23, 2013

Making Immortals Interesting

A long time ago, when I was still fresh to the author mantle and light-headed from being added to Goodreads (my page is here if you're curious), I began my first ever blog. It was called "Notes From the Editor's Desk", and it was meant to provide a humorous look at all the things editors have to look at that writers might not even know they'd doing wrong. It was short-lived, but while it was around it was liked by several people. Not only that it gave me a chance to be snarky, and to say the things I wasn't allowed to say to writers I was editing. Well, now that this blog's been up and running for a while I'd like to bring back the spirit, but hopefully garner a little more interest than I did the first time around.

All that said, we're going to tackle an immortal question today. Namely, what the fuck do you do with them?

Immortal as Lover

We've seen this trope from Tolkien to Twilight, and yet it never seems to creep other people out the same way it does me. A character whose age is measured in centuries somehow falls in love with a person who lacks experience, along with the ability to shrug off time, and it is very rarely questioned. Vampires, elves, demi-gods, djinn, demons, angels, and the list goes on and on.

Because this just screams long-term commitment.
This is, at least for me, where the suspension bridge of disbelief snaps and my imagination takes an Indiana Jones style tumble into croc-infested waters. On the one hand, sure, it's a nice sentiment that love might stretch across gulfs and unite two souls. But when Hugh Hefner does this we call him a dirty old man. In purely human experience anything more than a few decades one way or another tends to make people look askance, and wonder how long that older partner is going to dote on his latest play toy before moving on.

That's kind of the problem with immortal couples when one partner is very obviously outside the bicentennial club. Unless both characters have similar longevity, or the immortal in question is very young, chances are good that what we are seeing is simply a passing fancy. Because when one lives for several hundred years, humans are kind of like kittens. They're adorable, they're cuddly, and you can have some good times, but one day you turn around and they're just giving up the ghost. That's how time moves when you're ancient, and the more times you've gone through the process, the less and less attached you're capable of becoming.

Possible Fixes

While I don't advocate people do this, there are ways to make this more believable. Two were already mentioned; make both partners immortal, or make your immortal a younger member of the breed. This can make the inevitable loss truly heart-wrenching, rather than just more run-of-the-mill grief. However, if a writer insists on going the Lolita route with this, the best possible fix is to make the connection believable.

Why do people fall in love? Well, once their brains have calmed down and gotten all that pesky dopamine cleaned out, it's because of respect, similar feelings and opinions, shared activities, and what they add to each other's lives. Have the younger character win the immortal's interest and admiration by standing out in some way. If you have an elven general who wrote the book on tactics, have her out-flanked by a younger, but talented human. The competition and respect for skill creates a starting place for a meeting of the minds, which might lead to a meeting of the hearts. Remember it should be because of what a person does, not because of what they are. For Twilight fans, smelling good doesn't count.

Immortal as Time Capsule

Of all the ways to depict immortals, this has to be one of the most ham-handed in existence. Writers essentially treat characters like a snap shot of their last heyday, and the immortal has refused to progress further for some unknown and unknowable reason. Sort of like your grandparents.

In my day everyone wore brown robes, and we were happy.
Think about your grandparents for a minute though. Sure you probably had to explain Google to them a few dozen times before they could do a search without finding a hundred porn sites and a thousand viruses, but I'll bet you they figured out how a DVD player worked just fine. They probably dressed in fashions that made sense for this day and age, and they probably spoke in modern vernacular. I'd lay you odds they even did weird things like read the newspaper and watch the latest in television programming.

This is where the time capsule immortal sort of falls apart. In order for a sentient individual to remain so firmly planted in the past there cannot be any change in its surroundings. One of the main reason Dracula wants to go to London is that it's the future, and he's sick of being the lord of a dying past. He adopts English speech, English dress, and while he's exotic and foreign, no one remarks on how 3rd century he is. He successfully blended in with the Victorian era despite having been alive and slaying since a time when the newest cultural development was the crusade.

How to Fix This

The easy way is to take that desire you have to make a quirky character who will act as a mouthpiece for charmingly out-of-date statements, and crush its windpipe with a cinderblock. That is a bad reason to make a character, and doubly so if he or she doesn't actually contribute to the story at large.

Next, decide whether or not the character is capable of changing. It's been suggested for vampires in certain role playing games that they are frozen in the moment they were destroyed, which makes it hard for them to adjust. But even if that's the case, camouflage is important to someone who lives forever. So, if the character can't change, then he or she needs to go somewhere that fact won't be noticed or remarked upon. Wild mountains, crumbling castles, isolated frontiers like Alaska or Siberia make sense. If you're in downtown New York wearing ruffled sleeves and carrying a sword cane though, people are going to notice. People like the authorities, which could blow apart any sort of cover.

Not all immortals live in modern fantasy worlds. In fact, some of them live in worlds of their own. This is quite possibly the easiest way to make time capsules believable. A wandering sidhe prince, a plane-hopping demigod, or an ancient wizard with a pocket dimension all his own don't have to abide by your customs. In this case the strange differences the audience sees are more culture shock than anything else. Immortals are free to display unusual knowledge like proper spoken Latin, or out-of-date skill sets like broadsword fighting. They might even feel more comfortable surrounded by the art and architecture of their times. Just remember, everyone is shaped by their environments and cultures. Even if they're the ones setting the standard.

Immortal as Deus Ex Machina

We've seen this one a lot too. The Great and Powerful Whosey-Whatsits will know what to do, if only he/she/it/they were here. Hell, the entirety of the character of Dr. Who practically is this trope. That doesn't mean you're allowed to slap it into your story and claim it's groundbreaking.

Everyone forgets that the Tin Man has to watch everything die. After they gave him the capacity to love.
How to Fix This

Immortal characters can, and should, have knowledge or skill far beyond the mortal ken. Elves aren't born with the ability to shoot three arrows simultaneously and bulls-eye with all of them. They got there the same way anyone else did; practice. 150 years of practice just happens to go a pretty long goddamn way. However, it's important to remember that assholes, rejects, the socially outcast, and the downright curmudgeonly make it to old age as well.

How do you think the immortal got to be immortal? Careful planning and sheer determination is good, but cowards can live forever as well. Just remember that any character who is reduced to a set of stock abilities, or a singular purpose is probably not going to be terribly interesting. Sure Lancelot was the guy who had sex with the queen. He was also the strongest of all Arthur's knights, a brutal Gaul, and he enjoyed playing the flute as well. Everyone, even immortals, should be real. Just like real people, not everything about them is positive.

Final Thoughts

Immortality is a very, very messy thing. It is quite possibly the oldest MacGuffin in human history, stretching back to the Epic of Gilgamesh. That said, immortality is kind of like alternative history that's able to walk and talk; you have to figure out every little detail in your head to make it work. Is the immortal also indestructible? What powers does it possess? Is it a ghost in the shell that reincarnates, or is it a single being that was genetically modified through either chance or science to defeat age forever? And lastly, perhaps most importantly, is immortality a requirement to make the story work or is it just a thing you wanted to slap on for a coolness factor?

For those interested in past "Notes From the Editor's Desk" entries, either go to the page on the right, or click this link here. If you're interested in keeping updated with yours truly, follow me on Facebook, or jack yourself in at my Tumblr, where I welcome any and all questions or queries for other elements to add to this newest section of The Literary Mercenary. As always, thanks for stopping by.

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