The Immortal Question

For me the best part of writing fantasy tales is the scope it provides to play with ideas. When I sat down to write the Rose of Amzharr a theme I really wanted to explore was immortality. It’s a pretty common thing in fantasy books. Afterall, so many stories are rooted in ancient history or lost times, and so often there is at least one protagonist who is in the story from its very beginning. Not only that, but gods, spirits and demons are also regulars when it comes to casting both heroes and villains of most other worldly dramas.

It’s not surprising that immortality has always been a feature of both fantasy storytelling and mythology. Afterall, so many plots revolve around the interplay between humans and superhumans. When considering what a being more powerful than a human might be like, the capacity to defy aging is a rather attractive ability for them to have. It opens the door for characters to accrue power, knowledge, and wealth far beyond that of any mortal, if only because they have had more time in which to do so.

From a story telling point of view there is another clear advantage to being able to fashion mighty heroes and fiendish villains who can withstand the test of time – it avoids the need to worry about timelines, which were probably less of a contentious issue in the days before social media. More importantly though it means that popular characters can simply go on and on without the need to create new ones.

Of course, immortality is all very well for those characters who have a busy diary, but a question that’s increasingly bothered me over the years is what if you’re immortal and you’re not busy? It might sound a bit antagonistic, but I’ve always believed that good fantasy writing is about making the bazaar and the far out relatable and finding new ways to explore existing stereotypes. Part of that process, for me, is about flipping the script and asking what will make my characters a bit different, whilst still remaining accessible.

Now you could argue that immortal characters should always be busy, after all they are often intended to be the stars of the show, but the older I get the less I find that to be a satisfactory answer. When we’re young I think it’s much easier to identify with immortal go getters out to make the world a better (or sometimes worse) place, because we feel we have a shot at doing the same sort of thing. But as I get on a bit and become more jaded, I start to understand how those most admirable intentions of our youth get blunted and seep away. Ambitions to rule the world have long since cooled, and I’m pretty pleased with myself if I know what’s going on around me from one day to the next. As my age increases, so to does my understanding that we all experience limits, both internally and externally, and that starts to shape our world view and what we choose to do. Interestingly, or maybe ironically in this case, age and mortality are two of those limits. I find myself asking how would the limits we stumble across as we age translate into the immortal experience?

I’ve found it particularly interesting to see how other writers and film makers consider in their work whether life eternal is all it’s cracked up to be. The first time I started to think about this was watching Dogma (a funny, but thoughtful consideration of some of the issues around Catholic beliefs and traditions by Kevin Smith). In the film two angels are kicked out of Heaven and are faced with spending eternity on Earth, and when the world ends having to sit outside the pearly gates forevermore. So how do they spend their time? Watching daytime tv and couples reuniting with each other at airports after time spent separated. There is something wonderfully poignant and desperately sad about this, all at the same time.

The next big thinking moment on the subject for me came whilst reading Brian Catling’s amazing trilogy The Vorrh. Similarly, to Kevin Smith’s vision, he writes about a number of angels who have been excluded from divine service. However, set between the two world wars there is no daytime tv to keep them occupied and instead they literally lie down and do nothing, letting the world grow around and over them. Once I started to think more deeply about these stories, I found myself with a question to consider – it’s all very well being an immortal with purpose, but what happens when that purpose is lost, or taken away?

Over the years it’s led me to ask a whole series of other questions about how immortals, particularly where they are part of a society of immortals, would be impacted by the life events that frustrate and restrain us real life folk and, occasionally, cause us to question our very reasons for existing. To put that into narrative terms – what happens to the elf that really wanted to be a mage, but just couldn’t get the grades no matter what they tried. Surely, they can’t all become super villains, or even not great villains – don’t any of them just spend eternity sat in their parent’s basements feeling a bit down? And if not – why not? How does elf society support these individuals? Disappointment can be a real demotivator for someone with a limited lifespan, why would it not be much worse for someone who has to spend the rest of forever feeling that they just aren’t good enough? I should make it clear that I’m not suggesting I want to read stories about elven mental health provision, but I think these are legitimate lines of consideration when developing immortal characters.

The theorising doesn’t just stop with the underachievers – what about the overachievers? What about the hero who slays their arch nemesis? What if there isn’t another arch nemesis whose as good? Surely, they’d get bored and spend far too much time thinking about the glories of the past with a bucket of ice cream in their lap and a tear in their eye. So, what happens to our hero after a few years of ice cream consumption and very little exercise?

I genuinely don’t ask these questions to be flippant – as a storyteller I’m intrigued, and I think that’s so important when it comes to moving fantasy story telling forward. So how does this relate to my own efforts in The Rose of Amzharr? This thinking has definitely shaped the way that I’ve started to build my world and my characters. It’s created some really interesting philosophical questions for my main character Gerald, who mysteriously stops aging but would have happily embraced old age and an uneventful passage to the afterlife. It’s also driven some interesting dynamics between long-time friends who risk being driven in different directions because of the impact of their differing lifespans.

The best thing about this theme is that there is just so much to explore, and the book represents the tip of the iceberg. I’m looking forward to exploring the relationships between immortal and mortal populations in the future, and how they differ to the nature of relationships between immortal and mortal individuals. It has also driven out another very important issue that deserves at least as much consideration, namely the relationship between immortality, injury, and death. Writing fight scenes has meant the impact of injury on immortals has already started to come up. I have decided that different immortals are able to manage pain and injury in different ways, but that’s far from the topic covered, so it seems sensible to leave it there for today.

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