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The Immortal Challenge

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, June 18, 2022
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The idea that an individual (or many) have managed to escape death has always been alluring to creators. being able to live through history, being a constant in an ever-changing world, never having to die, can have its perks: you have innumerable chances to live the ‘good life’, you can learn more than anyone ever has before, you can be different professions that require a lot of training, you can live everywhere in the world, and you can wait out a life sentence. It has its merits. It's plot gold.

But it's so rarely done right.

I've always had a weakness for character designs or plot devices or themes that touch upon humanity's existential dread, be it from the death perspective or its lack thereof. And still, lately, when I hear of character designs involving immortal people I inwardly cringe (looking at you Marvel).

A lot of so-called immortals fail the basic premise of their character design: being timeless. Having more experience than all the humans alive combined (if they're a few millennia old). What I usually see is ‘modern’ folk with the experience and maturity of 20 or 30 year olds being average. And unkillable. And with some montage or flashback where they wear togas or something.

Authors/scriptwriters often forget to create a personality and character that can convince us has been forged over centuries. A person that knows they won't die and they will outlive everyone around them will not react in the same way others do in any situation. What is important and what is meaningless will be vastly different than the average person. When they hurry and when they don't will be different. What they find worth fighting for is going to be different.

And who/how they fall in love (if at all) will be different. A person that has lived for centuries will consider a 90-year-old young, just like we consider an 18-year-old young but a toddler thinks they're ancient. Consequently falling in love with someone is going to be tough and/or require someone special, who can somehow feel not too young to the immortal person.

The immortal is more likely to have mentor-student relationships or master-minion relationships than a romance. They might even not have a close relationship at all, but keep people at a distance, only interacting by necessity. Or, depending on their personality, they may have a circle of friends they surround themselves with for various reasons- if they are secretive about their nature, they will be playing a ruse so distance will still be kept.

The point I'm trying to make is that writing an immortal person should reflect their age. That doesn't mean they should behave like an old person, but their perspective should absolutely coincide with their unique concept of time, temporariness, importance, experience with people/nature/society, and general knowledge of the world.

Otherwise, make an immortal that has started life in the present day, and is looking at a life of centuries but hasn't yet lived it. After all, the plot and the character design only require them being hard or impossible to kill.

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PaulEberhardt at 2:48PM, June 19, 2022

I've sometimes regretted making my main character several centuries old just because I had one or two ideas for her in historic settings - oh, and because she's a witch. In the end, I figured that she'd always take pains to adapt to the time she lives in and, being an excellent observer, would mostly succeed with only a few glitches. Also, I closely watched old people who I deeply respect (most of them have passed away since), and found that the qualities all of them had in common were not taking themselves too seriously, restraint, and a calm, natural air of authority that's just there; they would never boss us youngsters around nor imply in any way they're superior or wiser, you'd just find yourself doing what they want from you and knowing that they are. I've always found that very tricky to portray. I've always tried to show that through her relation to her great-grandson who looks older than her and her twenty-one-year-old apprentice, but I'm not sure how well I succeeded.

The doodler at 9:36AM, June 19, 2022

I read an interesting take where the guy has a late-20s mentality on the surface (as a side effect of having an eternally late-20s body) but when you get deeper that impression falls apart -- one thing was that he's got a skewed sense of how recent things were. Like, he's still torn up about wars or destruction of civilian population centers that happened centuries ago, because as a proportion of his life so far they're really recent. He also has trouble finding a sense of community of "these are my people" because he keeps outliving countries and whatnot, so he deals with that (accidentally? subconsciously?) by gravitating to long-lasting political entities (the Roman empire bit it in the 1400s, after all) or cultural groups with a lot of cultural continuity over a really long period of time.

Ozoneocean at 11:50AM, June 18, 2022

Generally though a lone immortal would experience too much and be too disconnected from others to maintain the strong herd mentality thinking of a young person or to have their simplistic ideas of how everything works. If they became connected to others at all they'd most likely get very motherly and protective, maybe to an extreme degree because they know how fleeting and fragile life can be for everyone around them.

Ozoneocean at 11:46AM, June 18, 2022

In the book series Don't Bite The Sun and Drinking Sapphire Wine by Tannith Lee, everyone in the future is immortal but they all stay with a young 20s mindset- and the reason for that is that their world is so advanced and automated that it looks after all their needs like a parent, so they never need to "grow up"... Embedding immortals in those contexts means that them thinking like a young person forever works.

Ozoneocean at 11:42AM, June 18, 2022

I HATE immortals being depicted as teens or thinking like callow 20 year old. It doesn't work. It's soooooooooo stupid. The only way an immortal will stay thinking like a young person (rather than just pretending to), is if they're in a family type relationship with other immortals- THAT keeps them in a young role. No matter how old a person is they tend to automatically assume certain roles with people or in hierarchies. In that was the movie Twilight actually does things right: Edward is a young stupid teen repeating school over and over for decades, it makes zero sense... Then you see that he's part of a family group of other immortals and it starts to come together.

Ozoneocean at 11:36AM, June 18, 2022

Musing on the idea of immortality the notion that it's a negative thing is purely a trope of literature and nothing else: We're all mortal, no one can live forever or HAS lived forever so there's no way to evaluate the experience, but we all have a real relationship with death- one of he ways authors reconcile with mortality and help their readers do so too is to make immortality flawed. Really though there are far more positives than negatives (as you'd expect from a fictional superpower), and many of the negatives are simply artifacts of mortality stretched and superimposed onto immortality- like getting board with life, slowing down, living with pain or discomfort, etc. The only real one is the pain of losing people, but that's something most of us experience anyway as mortals, it won't be turned up to 11 for immortals. What immortals gain is TIME which is a hugely valuable resource.

Ozoneocean at 11:24AM, June 18, 2022

@Andreas, that's pretty cool

Andreas_Helixfinger at 5:48AM, June 18, 2022

One immortal character I've come across that I fined to my liking is the sword & sorcery character Kane in his first novel titled Bloodstone by Karl Edward Wagner. A man cursed with immortality, who bares the frame and handiness of a barbarian warrior, but he speaks like a noble and a scolar who is familiar with ancient courts and schools of magic, having ancient, magical entities as his acquaintances. Being beyond seasoned mastermind he is capable of simultaneously manipulate two warring kingdoms and gain control over an alien artifact that grants him formidable powers, nearly sacrificing the entire world in the process. Yet he does all of this not for the end goal of power, but a chance to have a brand new thrill in his immortal existence, having to seek out more and more extreme situations and conjuring up more and more elaborate plots just to feel thrilled and excited about life again.

usedbooks at 4:11AM, June 18, 2022

Random thought: immortal guy has a pet turtle. When asked about it, he explains, "I used to have wives but you get so attached to those things, and it broke my heart that they just don't live very long."

usedbooks at 3:59AM, June 18, 2022

I also feel like the most plausible immortals scenarios are the ones where the deathless character lives as a recluse with all the knowledge and items he has amassed or there are multiple immortal beings who hang out together and don't involve themselves much with mortals. Any affairs with mortals are superficial, like playboy/girl flings with attractive folks who share no common interests. It's not like that kind of relationship is uncommon even among mortal people. It's just not the subject of idealized romance stories. (Because the wealthy socialite going through girlfriends/wives like they were Kleenex isn't romantic.) I think "love" would be less of a romance and more how you love a pet. Of course I love this creature with its two-year life expectancy. I want to protect it and hold it, and we have a bond. I know it will die in a brief time. That makes me sad. I will then love another. After enough heart-wrenching deaths, I may try to give up loving short-lived creatures.

usedbooks at 3:43AM, June 18, 2022

Oh, and there's the premise of Good Omens. Not immortal humans but two preternatural otherworldly beings. They've been incognito among mortal humans for so long (since the beginning) that they've developed a great love of humanity and reject their own kind.

usedbooks at 3:33AM, June 18, 2022

I'm put in mind of the Twilight Zone episode "Escape Clause" where a man makes a pact with the Devil that he's immortal/invulnerable but once he's done with being immortal, the devil claims his soul. He proceeds to put himself in deadly situations for the thrill of surviving them but gets bored. Decides he wants to be executed, but the court takes pity on him and gives him life imprisonment.

marcorossi at 2:55AM, June 18, 2022

In some sense, also the idea that someone who is immortal has a "forever teenager" mindset, superficial because there is only something important now, but nothing important in the long term, is interesting (though clearly not what Marvel is doing).

Corruption at 1:40AM, June 18, 2022

When all you have loved have withered and died, dare you love only to feel that pain again? Do you shut off your emotions, or do you throw yourself into decadence and mindless joy to avoid feeling such loneliness? And how do they feel of their immortality? Do they accept and embrace it, or do they seek death? I remember seeing the TV series Witchblade where a hidden villain was Casius, the Roman soldier cursed to immortality. He was trying to get the Spear of Loginious to try using it to kill himself. Do they bind themselves to a cause following it because it gives them a focus in their life, and possibly go fanatical in following it? Do they hide away like in Highlander, and sometimes accrue wealth over the ages to support themselves in private? Do they see man's current greatness and not feel joy for they know they will remain to walk among it's ruins when this civilization falls like all the others, or do they feel joy at knowing humanity will not let anything hold them back?


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