Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Immortal Characters and How They Relate to Mortals

Salutations, curious congregation. I've been having a lot of feelings about immortal characters lately, and part of this blog entry was inspired by Jenna Moreci's 10 Worst Romance Tropes video, and if you're not already watching her you should check her out because she's hilarious and has a lot of good advice.

In the video one of her gripes was about characters being hundreds of years old and yet falling for 21 year olds. Now, if you've met me, you know Mayfly-December romance is one of the tropes that really works for me, and while this blog entry isn't going to focus so much on the romance aspect, I do want to talk about immortal characters, what that means for them and what that means to me in terms of the other people around them who might not live as long.

RPers in the audience, this all applies to your elves and vampires as well. There's so much overlap between general writing and playing games that I'm not even going to try to separate this one.

Content Warnings: The usual healthy dose of irreverence, probably some swearing, and the looming threat of e x i s t e n t i a l  d r e a d.

So immortal characters. There are a few ways to handle something like this, and I want to pick through a few of them. Let's put on some background music and get started.

As far as your immortals go there are a few things to consider up front. What is causing this person to be so immortal? Sometimes it's their species, as in the case of the immortals in Highlander, the elves, Gallifreyans, feykind, the list goes on. Sometimes, it's a human that ended up caught in some magical nonsense like in the Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel or any given vampire (though I have seen vampires fall under 'it's just my species' and that can work just fine as well).

Long-Lived Species

If it's just the species, you have to consider their natural life span and where they fall along it. For an elf, being 200 is about the same as being 20. They live for many many years, but they don't experience that time the way a human  would.

Think about a dog and how they age. If you grew up with a canine companion,  you might have noticed that dog getting old and wise and grey around the muzzle when you yourself were a mere teenager. You experienced everything that dog did, but those years didn't make you wise because they didn't weigh the same to you.

A lot of this has to do with bodily chemistry. Your body was giving off different hormones in different doses than your dog's did. Did you think you acted so stupid as a teenager out of inexperience? Well...partly. But a lot of it was due to the endorphins you got from different things than you do now. Unless you are currently a teenager, in which case, I'm sorry. It doesn't stay this crazy forever.

Consider what part of your character's life they are in comparatively. This applies to shorter lived species like Dragonborn as well. A lot of it is going to be physical and of course there will always be outliers; older folks that refuse to grow up (lol hi), and younger ones that are wise beyond their years. But there's a difference between performative youth and the real thing, and a difference between a level-head at a young age (or heaven forbid having to grow up too fast) and actual experience.

I'll put a pin in that and get back to it.

Immortal Stasis

Many vampires simply get locked into the age in which they were bitten. In Twilight (yes, I know) the Cullens go to High School over and over again and don't seem to have a problem with this because it's where they pass. I have to imagine that would be incredibly tedious unless there was some kind of lock in at that point causing them not to develop farther.

Consider also, however, that an immortal in stasis, one that wasn't always immortal but is now for whatever reason, is also probably going to be locked into cultural beliefs at the time. Five hundred years ago, or hell even one hundred years ago, being 21 was being firmly an adult. Look at how the characters in  Game of Thrones treat age; they're expected to marry young and that's considered grown.

There's a bit of a creep factor in that, to a modern audience, but it might not seem out of  place at all to someone who grew up in the 1600's or earlier. They might even have a difficult time catching up. This makes character growth difficult, but not impossible. You might be aiming for 'not fully understanding the new norms but accepting them' and that's totally okay.

Your character might catch themselves treating people who by all rights and means should have a babysitter like they're old enough to pack their things and go off to war. The other characters in the setting should have a thing or two to say about that, in that case, but remember the learning curve.


There's a game I play in fairly regularly in which one of my characters is an immortal fey being. She was woven out of the living magic, and never actually had to grow up. She is now as she's always been; a young adult. As a result she has a tendency to think of all humans as children until they've proven themselves otherwise.

I don't actually have a rubric for this, but mostly it has to do with their willingness to take care of others and the amount of weight they put on the 'me first' mentality. Being an adult sometimes means parenting people who are not. It gets really obnoxious at times. Not everyone is okay with it. As well they shouldn't be.

An ageless character isn't going to have context for chronological age until they've learned it. That means who they consider to be an equal is going to be fully performative. It might rub some people the wrong way. But it's going off of a different rubric. The important part is to decide what that is, and run with it.

Ancient Being of Extreme Power

This character is old as balls and knows it. They might not be working on mortal morality. At one point @StrahdVonZ on twitter made a post about how when you live long enough, the mortals that pass away are kind of like your'll miss them, sure, but you can always get another one. (I tried to find the actual tweet, it was a very long time ago and I wasn't able to find it).

Consider how much you love your pets, though. That knowledge that this life is ephemeral and this being you love is going to die does not mean you won't also love them with your whole heart, it just means you know it's coming and you won't fall apart so badly you can't put yourself back together. It's another level of grief.

Does that mean you can't lean in to the ancient being working on different morality angle? Of course not. Not everyone loves their pets. Some people have dogs and use them to keep their livestock in check and those are working animals and not always treated the same way those of us who live in the sub-urbs do our pets. And even if they do, there's always going to be a rift there.

It can make for some really interesting dynamics if you ask me.

Normal Person, Long Ass Lifespan

Highlander tends to flux between this and Immortal Stasis. The amount of time these immortals have been around surely weighs on them. It corrupts some, and others fight to hold on to themselves throughout the years.

A normal person that for whatever reason has been around for hundreds of years is going to be wrestling between their experience and the hormones they're having and whatever age they're trapped in. This is one of the most fun ways to play it, because this person is simultaneously 27 and 400. Live that long and you have almost certainly seen and been through some serious shit.

Losing people is going to have a clear effect on this character's psyche. Think about what kinds of coping mechanisms they'll develop in order to deal with that, but remember most people do need other people. Socializing is a need. People are pack creatures. We need intimacy on some level or we start to fall apart. That intimacy means different things to different people.

On one hand, this could involve locking everybody out to prevent yourself from hurting, and in that case it will be a lot harder for people to form real bonds with the character. On the other hand, it could result in the acknowledgement that life is short and it would be foolish to squander what time you have with them. Just like anyone else.

It's interesting to explore and it would be a huge waste to ignore it.

Age Is Relative

Remember that pin? We're pulling it out now.

Age is relative. You could be forty and have lived a privileged lifestyle and be comparatively very young. I have a character in one of my games who is biologically seventeen but she's been through so much shit that she chafes at people treating her like it. Experience counts.

A common mantra for this character is, "I haven't been a child in a very long time."

There are situations where people have to parent their parents and they end up growing up too fast. This has an effect on the psyche as well. Not being able to trust people to be adults is one of those things. Not being willing to bend to authority is another. It can come off as looking very immature in some characters, and just being weighed down in others.

There is no one size fits all for this, but remember to consider your character's experiences when you look at their behavior. How much responsibility do they have? What have they endured? How have they coped with that?

And when it comes to a character like this, consider their behavior and the way they come off when you think about how your immortal character interacts with them.

Fortune Favors,
Megan R. Miller

P.S. Torchlighters. Demon summoning, mobsters, the zeitgeist of the 1920's. Meet me in labyrinth city, the book is only 99 cents and it might be a good time for you. I'm done trying to sell you things now, see you Tuesday <3

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