Immortal Characters: Better to Live Forever than Die Young?

Everyone loves the idea of immortality, right? Never having to worry about getting sick or deteriorating like everyone else does. You’ll look young and pretty forever. Sure, you might still be able to be killed via violence, depending on the type of immortality we’re talking about, but it’s still a pretty sweet deal.

Of course, anyone who’s seen a vampire movie or read a vampire novel where the vampires are the broody, romantic types knows that immortality isn’t all fun and games. You live forever, you never change, mortal friends age and die, etc.

Then, as a writer, there’s a whole other issue to worry about: Do they make good characters? Vampires, werewolves, gods, plain-old immortal humans… You pretty much know right away that they’re not gonna expire any time soon, and it can be a great source of drama and angst for character development. I mean, who would want to see friends and loved ones age and die while you’re perfect and flawless and gonna be that way for a long, long time? Maybe even forever?

Just, there is such a thing as too much drama/angst.

Then, if you’re going the vampire or werewolf route, there’s also the blood-sucking or fur-covered problem.

But all of these are just traits. The main issue that I worry about is this: Not enough tension. The stakes (hehe, vampire joke) wouldn’t be high enough, because how can you worry about a character who can’t die? Or can only die through a very, very obscure method or something.

Stories run off of the reader’s ability to empathize with and worry about the main characters. It’s why no one wants to read a book with a boring or unlikeable protagonist (*cough* Twilight *cough*).

You grit your teeth and don’t want to watch when the lovable idiot goes off to follow the strange noise in the horror movie. You get a bit nervous the first time you watch the Two Towers, and Aragorn goes over that cliff. I know I was crying during Deathly Hallows when Snape Died (spoiler alert? Does it count as a spoiler if it’s Harry Potter?).

Yeah, Snape’s a bit of an asshole. And he killed Dumbledore. But he’s our asshole!

That’s what readers are going for. Human characters. I’m not bashing aliens or anything like that, but I mean that they have to feel human, familiar, vulnerable when the time comes for it. Because no matter how badass a character may be, they still have to be at risk when the villain’s holding a sword over their head. Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer may have been the chosen one, but slayers weren’t immortal, and could very much be killed like anyone else.

Immortal characters, at least with what I like to call “perfect immortality,” aren’t at risk. They’re the Gods, or Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood, who simply do not die. Either they can’t be killed in the first place, or they come back every single time. So, why should I care? He’s survived everything up until now. How is this any different?

Now, it might work if you have a used-to-be-immortal character and he loses his immortality. Fine. But that doesn’t count. Because used-to-be-immortal isn’t the same as immortal-at-the-moment.

It’s a fine line, between ruining a story with immortality as a fix-all for all the issues your protagonist could possibly face, and simply having it as yet another facet of a character.

The other kind of immortality is more Lord of the Rings Elves kind of immortality, or “imperfect immortality,” as in they don’t ever age or die of old age or sickness, but they can still be killed through injuries and violence. Most vampires, werewolves, witches, immortal humans, etc. in movies and books are these. Stake through the heart will kill most vampires, silver blade will kill most werewolves, that sort of thing. Otherwise, we’d be screwed, right? If vampires had perfect immortality, we’d go extinct.

And humans going extinct is a whole other issue when you’re writing a vampire story. Do the vampires starve to death even if they have perfect immortality? Do they turn on each other? Do they all find other food sources? But that’s an issue for another day.

I think it’s all about balance. For one, I don’t think perfect immortality can be done well. Unless you’re writing a god character who can’t be killed because of story reasons, or as a villain. Nothing like an unkillable villain.

But if you simply must have an immortal hero, I think imperfect immortality is the way to go. It gives all the cool factor of never getting old, and the time to pick up all those hobbies and miscellaneous skills, but the character is still at risk and the reader still flinches when the silver stake they get stabbed with gets too close to their heart.

Then there’s the case where some evil thing, most often with perfect immortality (though not always) is sealed/locked away somewhere they can’t be any trouble. And then some idiot (most often the hero) comes and wakes/frees them.

Some examples: The Mummy (1999), Hellboy (2004), Alien (1979), the Balrog from Lord of the Rings (woken when the Dwarves disturbed it), and Smaug from the Hobbit (two-parter: lured by the gold and thus “awoken” the first time, and awoken again when they retook the mountain).

Can immortality be written well? I think so. It all depends. If you make life too easy, just because they don’t have to worry about time, and might not have to worry about anything else, of course it’s going to be boring. This is one (of many) issue I have with the Twilight series: yes, they’re immortal. Yes, Bella gets to be immortal at the end of it all. Hooray. But none of them fought for it. They just got their happy ending handed to them on a platter, and nothing happened after a bunch of build-up that went nowhere. It felt like a let-down and an easy cop-out.

Give characters challenges, and they will rise to overcome them. But fail to challenge them, and neither the writer nor the readers will know what they’re really capable of.

Ok, that was a bit more poetic than I’m used to. But you get the point. I love my characters as much as the next writer, but I want them to work for it. Things are always more rewarding when you have to fight for it. Maybe that’s why the underdog is still a classic character archetype.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s