Monday, April 22, 2013

Forever is a very long time

If you'd oblige me a bit of a long winded rant, I'd like to take a moment to talk about immortals. Not any particular immortals, (though my love of the After Dark variety is well documented). I mean immortals in general as they appear in a genre fiction, and my beef with them.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for immortal characters. The ideas and implications of immortality in all its myriad forms are absolutely fascinating to me (and apparently most of the world). You could even say that immortals never get old (HARHARHAR). But over my years of reading through the hundreds of varieties of immortals currently available, there's always this nagging annoyance. Namely, I hate how none of these immortal folks actually seem to act their age.

Paranormal Romance (hitherto referred to as PRN) is by far the worst offender with this. It's actually kind of hard to find a PRN series that doesn't involved immortals in some way, but unless these immortals are the villains, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the warrior who's fought for a thousand years and the thirty five year old man he looks like on the surface, and that's always struck me as wrong.

Years and years ago, I watched a surprisingly good anime called Scrapped Princess (seriously, if you ever get a chance and can get past the initial immaturity and ridiculous proportions of the female characters, this series is totally worth your time.). There are several immortal characters in the show, and at one point, two of these immortal characters, one who's been on Team Bad Guy for a while and one who is seemingly waffling toward Good, have an argument that seems to the viewer and the other characters to be needlessly antagonistic. 

When the other characters ask why this is, the waffling-good immortal replies "We have been together for two thousand years. You can not begin to imagine the depth of hate and love between us."

This line has stuck with me long after the rest of the show fell away, and as I became a story teller in my own right, this idea of the weight of time between characters, the intensely complex layering (both and good and bad) that would happen to any relationship if it was strung out for that long, came to form the core of how I approach immortal characters.

You see, forever is a very long time. Think about yourself ten years ago. You were a totally different person. Ten years from now, you'll probably think the same thing. This process of change slows as we get older, but unless we're experiencing arrested development (the psychological phenomenon, not the awesome show), we will keep changing and maturing until we die. So when you have a character who is 500 or 1000 or 2000 years old, you have a someone who has gone through 50/100/200 of these changes, and I think it's safe to say by that point that they have evolved completely off the deep end of what we mortals can comprehend.

Needless to say, this is usually not how immortals are written. Such an individual would appear crazy to the rest of us, and actually crazy heroes are very difficult to write. Because of this, most immortals seem to be eternally stuck in early middle age, especially hot immortal dudes who head up PRN books, many of whom seem to live together in what Smart Bitches call "Frat Houses of the Damned" until the right mortal lady appears to show them what they've been missing over the last dozen centuries.

I understand why this trope exists--immortal men swearing eternal love are hot and sell books like crazy--but it still bugs me because I can't help thinking that if there were a race of vampires or whatever, the thought processes of their immortal members would be utterly incomprehensible to a modern love interest.

Perhaps the only example of an immortal who actually acts like an immortal I've read was Michael from Nalini Singh's Angels' Blood, because Michael? Dude is messed up. And weird, and very very intense. I actually really liked him for that, but at the same time it made him a very weird and difficult hero, especially at the end of the book when he realized he was in love. This discovery of love felt very rushed to me, not because it wasn't played up, but because dude had so far to go to get back to the level of humanity where romantic love could exist that I don't actually think it could be realistically covered in one novel.

I try to keep all of this in mind when writing my own immortals, because it's a very delicate balancing act to create a believable immortal who isn't so far gone as to be completely unrelatable. Of course, I'm not sure how much this matters since there are dozens of series with "immortals" who are little more than 35-year-olds with ancient war PTSD issues and some zeroes added to their age, but it matters to me. I'm not even saying immortals have to be mature (I'd never say that seeing how my favorite immortal of all time is Regin the Radiant), just that I appreciate some kind of reasoning to explain why they're not. Some sign that an author put thought into "why is this dude still going clubbing/living alone with no hobbies at 3000 years old?" It doesn't even have to be a good reason, just give me something.

And on another note, has anyone ever thought about how sucky having one fated mate forever would be in reality? I mean, sure you're eventually going to find one true love, but until then you can't even date because you know any relationship you enter is doomed. I mean, you could find a dude, fall in love normally, live with him for 800 years, which is 16 times longer than a 50-year "till death do us part" life long marriage between mortals, and yet your relationship would never be anything but a fling because you both know that the moment one of you finds your fated mate, it's over. That is REALLY FREAKING SAD, YA'LL. Just sayin'.

Some thoughts for a Monday. Thanks for reading!

- R


Anonymous said...

Very much agreed! I find this very distracting when I'm reading. Evan a 100 year old man would have nothing in common with a teenage girl, never mind someone much older. Even if she were very mature or somewhat older, I'm sure her concerns (or his, if the genders were reversed, etc) would seem stupid and vapid to someone who was immortal.

Jeez, I find it creepy when a 30 year old is interested in a seventeen year old. When I read about someone hundreds or thousands of years older in that situation, it just seems deranged and yes, very immature.

But I'm easily distracted by things like this. :)

Maure said...

I cannot read Paranormal Romance usually because I get so frustrated by that issue. What I think an immortal would be like, is, first and foremost: weird. Very, very weird. Especially if they're a vampire or something of that sort - staying up while a lot of the world is asleep really does things to the way you interact with the world after a while.

Also, what if you were an immortal who had LOVED another century, another country, and then it was simply swept away and changed? In the one idea I have that involves vampires, one of them is extremely, deeply depressed because he was in love with feudal Japan and had to see it fall. I've never seen issues like that brought up.

Or, in the few I've read, the FMCs show interest in the history of the person. Unless it's 'oh, tell me about how you became a fallen angel!' I want to see a girl who goes 'How long have you been alive? HOLY SHIT, where were you during (such and such historical event/period)? Can you tell me abou it?"

Elaine said...

Thanks for sharing, wonderful post. This is something I've been thinking about. Some of my key characters in my WIP aren't immortal but they've been around for ~1500 years so its been a while. I'm trying to make their pov more distinct and apart, but as you've said we can't even comprehend what its like to be around that long.

One element about the relationships, I'm definitely playing with that in my WIP. The more long lived races have a much more morphic and time bound relationships with an understanding these things don't last forever. But relationships aren't just love matches, but close war buddies, or master-apprentices, pseduo parental. Its something I'm looking forward to exploring more.

Jenna Bird said...

I'm right there with you. I have tried to enjoy any books in the Paranormal heading (the majority of them appear to be romance) and the thing that throws me the worst? 20-30something Immortal Characters behaving like twitterpated teenagers. They are emotionally immature and socially immature... it makes me NUTS.

I have, running around off the page to date, one immortal character (it happened unintentionally, at that) - and I've played with lil short stories about her in various time frames, and she's NOT like other people. I can't even imagine her in the way so many other immortals are written.

planethalia said...

I love Regin the Radiant! The Immortals after dark series usually does a pretty good job of subverting the average immortal hero tropes. I think as ordinary mortal humans, it's pretty hard to wrap our heads around agelessness. I mean, I have a hard time comprehending what I would do in ten years let alone a hundred.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with the point of the post there are a couple of details that I think are being overlooked. First, you're assuming that non-human immortal characters would evolve over time the same way that human characters do and this is a broad assumption. The beauty of fictional races is that the writer can determine how they deal with immortality since there's no way to prove them wrong. One of the reasons I've always liked elves.

Second, you're assuming that maturing happens simply due to the passage of time and I don't agree with that. In personality and character I am little different from the person I was 20 years ago. Sure, I've learned things, I have more experience and knowledge, but the core of who I am is essentially unchanged. What has changed is the aging of my body. I can't eat the foods that I used to, I have to pay attention to what I eat, how active I am and things I never had to worry about before. I can't physically due what I could 20 years ago, my body suffers from the ravages of diseases and illnesses I didn't have then. It is that change that has greatly affected how I interact with the world around me. If my body stopped aging 20 years ago I doubt I would change significantly in even 50 or a hundred years. So, I'm not sure it's fair to say that an immortal would evolve in the same way just because they have been around longer.

David Jepspn said...

I couldn't agree more, the whole twilight romance thing to me is just unrealistic, a person who had endured so much time in the world would be for all intents and purposes removed from it, think how your grand parent might struggle to relate to modern techology and that is only in their life time, and living through the decades of its creation.

Then add to that the lack of connection to the world about us we all enjoy, no relations of friend to ground you, and I think that you can see how any immortal might appear odd to say the least, perhaps aloft and difficult to relate to, at the worst they would be utterly baffling.

Great post Rach, keep them coming.

Kelsey Beach said...

I really like your perspective. I had similar thoughts when reading reviews of Patrick Ness's "Chaos Walking" series, which takes place on a world where men's thoughts are broadcast for all the world to hear but women's are not. Readers criticized the main character (a boy) for being cruel towards the first girl he ever meets. But think what it would be like if you were surrounded by people whose thoughts you could read and then suddenly encounter someone who seems empty and utterly separate? He lived a completely different existence from you and me. The same thing goes for the immortals. We are trying to judge them using our normal experience when they have lived a different kind of life (many many lives, in fact).

Thanks for the insights. I'll keep this in mind if I'm ever writing immortal characters.

Shelly Wilson said...

Interesting and well put, though I have to say: why would an immortal evolve at all? They are, at least in the case of vampires and such, frozen in time physically. All things psychological are actually physical changes - the impact of lifestyle, environment, experiences, etc. Doubly true if you don't count something like a soul (whether by your own belief or the conventions of the immortal in question).

If anything, the cliched "wisdom" of the ancient immortal seems incongruous. I would expect a physically 18-year-old vampire to be always just that, and so on, if you follow it to its logical conclusion.

But then, admittedly, you take away what is truly interesting about an immortal, at least to me, which is exactly your point: speculation on their internal growth. What's the point of having a character who has lived for 2000 if they never change in any way? For that matter, what's the point of any character who never evolves?

Sharon said...

I like your perspective, but I think Anne Rice did a really good job with her vampires and immortals. You sense this timelessness about them and what motivates them is different from what motivates us mortals. Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire LeStat are good books to read.

Anonymous said...

I agree 100%. And @Shelley Wilson brings up a point I've considered.

But that would mean the character was pretty much incapable of change.

I think it's a shame so many really potentially interesting angles are ignored by authors.

Unknown said...

I've often thought about this myself. Sometimes the entire thing is simply brushed aside ("oh, you're older than most countries. That's cool."), but other stories have at least some answer for the character. I found a few common themes in the stories I've read/watched with an immortal and/or long-lived character.

First, they don't mature like humans do or their minds are simply different. Elves, dwarves, and long lived aliens often have this trait, where you aren't really grown up until you've at least reached your first century. This way, a 250 year old character is at the same maturity level as a 20 year old, implying that it's not that strange for the two to become romantically involved. Also, I get the feeling that the minds of these races are equipped for centuries or millennia of life, so the years don't weigh so heavily.

Second, when some long-lived characters act their apparent age, it turns out to be just that-an act. Vash the Stampede is like that through much of Trigun. He seems to be an extraordinarily lucky young fool, but when he needs to cast off that persona you can see the worlds greatest sharpshooter beneath. Another example is David Eddings' Belgarath, who seems the irascible old man for most of his interactions. Garion comes to the belief that his Grandfather downplays his near immortality and hides from himself because being the Eternal Man gets extremely lonely. Closer to the PRN genre, the werewolf Bran in Patricia Briggs books is older than anyone cares to guess, but restrains his power while acting like a younger man.

Third, some characters seem to come to terms with their long lifespan, and often live as a very wise 20 or 30 something. Again from David Eddings, Polgara seems to enjoy being the aunt of generations of her family. I suppose that when everyone treats you like you are a certain age, you would tend to accept that age as a part of your identity (although I think there is a limit to how far that can go).

Lastly, the character could fail. Humans, after all, are not made to live forever, and I find it interesting when a story explores how a character can react after such a long time. A character in Brent Weeks's Night Angel Saga spent nearly 700 years in a fallen world keeping his promise to a dead man, and the centuries ground him down until he gave in. Perfect Shadow talks about that, how such a long time without any connections can break a man. Maybe not ideal for a PRN, but very good for a somewhat darker epic fantasy.

Daniel Ionson said...

Yep- you're right on target. Everything from the Highlander to the dozens of crap vampire movies/shows have that flaw in the writing.

Unknown said...

I think this issue may be immortal itself--or at least dates back to the creation of pantheons and has been going strong ever since. Immortality has always seemed to grind progress to a halt right at the angstiest, most reactionary point in the god's/demigod's/whatever's development.

Not saying that we shouldn't do it differently; I love trying to get inside the heads of angels and mountains and whatever all, but the trouble is that you're right. They're not likely to love in ways that we recognize as love, or even connect in ways that we recognize as connection. And there's where it gets hard to have them on the hero's side, because we don't want to be frustrated by a "good guy" with no perceptible connection to anyone on their own so-called team. And you're certainly not going to get any satisfactory romance out of it!

I guess I've always figured that in reality, a thousand-year-old would be something like the Doctor: going through cycles of bitterness, guilt, hardening, softening, and, yes, infantility.

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