Tips For Writing Better Immortal & Long-Lived Characters
Seeing an ageless elf or ancient vampire behave exactly like a 16-year-old makes for a pretty cringeworthy story that will oft as not strain suspension of disbelief. Here are some tips for writing characters who are either modified humans or work mostly like humans, but for whatever reason are much older than they look by garden variety human standards.
This article is written primarily for immortal and long-lived characters for whom the following is more or less true:
- They're either modified humans or members of humanoid species that biologically function in a manner extremely similar to humans and are nearly, if not completely psychologically identical to them - EG, pop culture fantasy elves, pop culture vampires, Asgardians, Gallifreyans, etc.
- They are adults, or are at least supposed to think/behave like adults.
- They have not spent their entire lives up to this point completely isolated from human/human-like culture.
Table of Contents
- Sex & Romance
- Prudence, Diplomacy, & Recognizing Risks
- Every moment counts!
- Mindset & Ethics
- Fashion & Wardrobe
- Avoiding Pretentiousness
- In summary...
Sex & Romance
First, the older someone is, the lower the likelihood that someone could plausibly be a virgin for no other reason than "I just never got around to it" or "I never met the right one before." And someone who has been around longer than most people have been alive has had a lot of time to meet all kinds of people, so assuming this person has a desire for sex, a drive similar to the average human's, and isn't completely hideous, being a 100+-year-old virgin makes pretty much no sense. You want a character to be a virgin, fine - but at least give a good solid reason for it. Maybe the character just has no desire for sex, or maybe the character took a vow of celibacy and castrated xirself, or maybe the character is just terrified of the whole idea of sex.
Speaking of sex, your long-lived and immortal characters should have a pretty good idea of how it works, whether or not they actually engage in it, because - let's face it - sex is everywhere. People talk about it. They write stories and how-to guides about it. They look for other people to have it with. Due to the sheer omnipresence of sex, your characters should have picked up a substantial amount of knowledge about it. Assuming they've have been around for any length of time, it's unlikely that they'll will be too shocked by much of anything, having likely learned that there is absolutely nothing that someone out there won't try.
Your characters also shouldn't be showing much in the way of genuine romantic interest in teenagers. At best (read: the smarter and more mature teens, or the ones who are "wise beyond their years"), they would most likely see people who, though not exactly children, still aren't adults yet and have some significant growing and maturing to do before they could possibly be considered serious relationship material. If anything, these teenagers are more likely to trip your characters' parental instincts.
For many other teens, they'd would see... well, the best way I can put it is thus: Imagine someone who throws boogers at random people and laughs hysterically about it, constantly makes duckface at you, and won't stop talking about Justin Bieber. Sure, maybe you could play it cool and use your centuries' worth of romance skills to have a quick fling with this person, but odds are you'd be so put off that you'd just want to get away.
Having been around for so long, they should have developed a keen sense of what kinds of traits they like, what kinds of traits they can tolerate, and what kinds of traits they absolutely cannot stand. Being incredibly long-lived or immortal, there's no rush (reproductively and romantically-speaking) to take a chance on a long-term relationship with anyone who doesn't fit their ideal or anyone they aren't sure about. Your characters can (and probably should) spend several years with their partners before deciding to make this type of commitment.
On the other hand, if someone does rush into a relationship, it's unlikely it will last long because these types of relationships are primarily based on infatuation and therefore have very short life-spans. There's nothing wrong with a character rushing headlong into a relationship in and of itself, but please, no more eternal and undying romances that flare up weeks, if not days after the characters meet each other.
Also remember: a long-lived person has probably seen many spunky artists, courageous heroes, struggling students, ambitious entrepreneurs, charming coquettes, bashful bookworms, and just about every other type of person you can imagine pass by. Unless you're writing someone who has a short memory span, or has met something really alien, or is just a lying cad, the words "I've never met anyone like you before" should never escape xir lips. Anyone who has had anything resembling a normal amount of socialization should have met any number of people who are at least similar to the one in question.
In fact, because they've met so many people, they might even often appear quite difficult to impress, and possibly even cynical at times. ("No, really, I can assure you that you're not the only one to prefer books over boys; I've met dozens like that" or "Lolly Popstar is just a cheap imitation of Soda Popstar; Soda danced just like that fifty years ago!")
Prudence, Diplomacy, & Recognizing Risks
If your characters have been around for a long time, then they shouldn't be too likely to engage in any unnecessary high-risk behavior (per their species/abilities), as these are not conducive to a long life. They should also have a fairly good ability to recognize danger and risk and be able to exercise prudence when faced with them.
For example, hitting up and going off with seedy strangers in scuzzy taverns, rushing headfirst into a battles they're ill-prepared for, or playing around with highly-dangerous creatures for fun are probably things that should be quite low on their priorities. Not to say that they must all avoid all risks all the time, but they should definitely use good judgment in most instances.They should also have a fairly good though not necessarily perfect) sense for spotting people and deals that aren't legit or are a bit off. For this last one, you'll have to develop a bit of a sense for it yourself - see my page A Beginner's Guide To Spotting Cranky Websites, as well as The Cult Test and Propaganda & Debating Techniques by Agent Orange.
Something else that's absolutely vital is being able to play nice and cooperate when necessary and not go off in a ragefit the first moment someone is slightly obnoxious or a little obstinate. Being an unpleasant ass significantly reduces one's lifespan due to it making other people more likely to ignore you when you need help - or even try to kill you. If Vampire Bob continually goes bogarting the best blood and acts as if all other vampires are beneath him, the other vampires are probably going to get pretty tired of him after awhile and may find themselves conveniently too busy to back him up when the vampire slayer arrives in town.
Every moment counts!
Many stories about immortal and long-lived characters sweep over decades or more without anything of any importance happening to the character or without the character changing in any significant way. If you really think about it, it's hard to imagine how this could be possible for many of them.
In the case of any immortal/long-lived characters who rely on humans for survival and need to be able to blend in with them (EG, many vampires), they'll need to to keep current and adapt to changes in culture and technology - and in order to do that, they're going to have to go places and meet people. Same goes if the character works any kind of job - which a character might just have to do in order to afford a home, clothes, and/or food.
They'll also need to find some way to stave off boredom and loneliness. While it can be easy to imagine that one can get along indefinitely without entertainment or company, just try it for a few days sometime and you'll soon see it's not so easily done. Then consider that prisoners in solitary confinement very often end up depressed and self-destructive. Thus, it becomes difficult justify anyone whose mind works more or less like the average human's being able to tolerate years of solitude and idleness with no ill effect.
While it might be tempting to justify nothing happening in their lives by saying that they aren't affected by boredom and loneliness like others and simply withdrew into solitude, or that they went into some sort of hibernation or enchanted sleep, this solution is also fraught with problems. Do they have enemies? Consider that it took the CIA only ten years to find Bin Laden. Do they have investments? Consider that Enron went from one of the most profitable and fastest-growing companies to complete bankruptcy in a matter of months, something people would have found laughable prior to February of 2001. Savings collecting interest? Money in savings accounts loses its value due to inflation. Now think about how much could happen in twenty, fifty, or even a hundred years. Then add to that new things they'll need to learn upon re-entering human society - and the longer they've been away, the harder it will be to catch up. Assuming they have no living contacts to get hold of, they could find themselves penniless strangers in a world without the knowledge or means to find jobs and integrate into society again, let alone someone to go to for help. And if they've been away for several decades, stop and consider: you know how grandparents often ask for help figuring out why their computers won't work? Consider that they were around when computers were first becoming commonplace in businesses and universities. It would be even worse for someone from a time when the very notion of a computer was next to unheard of. So, any characters who rely on humans and human society for anything should really try to remain at least somewhat active in it.
Also, as society changes and evolves, they're likely going to find their beliefs and mores challenged at some point. This will require them to either reassess what they they believe or to at least find a way to cope with these changes.
Add to all of this the simple fact that life throws curveballs now and then (EG, natural disasters, economic downturns, revolutions, wars, pay cuts, getting laid off or fired, house falls apart, car breaks down, falling out with friends, etc.), and it becomes quite difficult to imagine how these characters could go for so long without meeting anyone nor doing or experiencing anything that would leave a lasting impact on them or change their status quos somehow.
Mindset & Ethics
With varying degrees of intent on the part of their writers, many long-lived and immortal characters are actually very poorly adjusted. Sometimes it makes sense - such as if the characters haven't yet had the time and/or need to come to grips with the ramifications of living that long. But sometimes it doesn't - such as when the characters have been in any number of situations that should have forced them to confront these facts and yet they still haven't figured out how to deal with them.
One such way in which characters are often poorly-adjusted is when they're poorly-equipped to handle death and change. Again, sure, it makes sense if the character hasn't yet had time nor need to come to terms with it. But those who have been around to experience (or even cause!) a fair amount of death should have some way to cope with it, else they'd barely be able to function.
Someone might come to accept that things in life come and go and that everything ends sooner or later. This person might enter relationships prepared to accept this inevitability. While loss should still hurt and the person would still grieve and mourn, by accepting it as something bound to happen, it won't hurt quite as bad or feel quite so unfair when it actually does. Another thing a well-adjusted person would do is remain open to meeting and getting to know new people, knowing that while these new people will never replace the ones who have passed on, they will be just as memorable and endearing in their own ways. And in general, the person should remain open to trying and doing new things. Such a person will be much better prepared mentally to move on and find happiness again.
An experienced, responsible, and well-adjusted person should not be jumping to turn or change over just anyone, even if the scenario is "desperate" or even if they've been together a few months and think they like each other. There's a multitude of reasons for this, particularly if there's no going back once changed.
First, there's very likely a huge element of commitment and responsibility involved. At minimum, a newbie is going to need to learn the ropes of being something quite different from before. If these long-lived or immortal people have any kind of society or culture, the newbie will likely need to learn its rules and customs. (Preferably, this should be done before the change, so the newbie can make an informed decision over whether the rules are worth it.) Any "sire," for lack of a better term, who'd be unwilling to teach these things to the newbie would be equivalent to a deadbeat parent.
Then there's the possibility of things not working out as planned. Sure, it's easy to imagine being together for eternity with your partner during the infatuation stage, but that's no guarantee that the relationship will last forever, let alone the first few years. Optimally, one shouldn't be rushing to change the other before they've been together awhile - ten years would not be amiss! (Also, a teenager who can't bear the thoughts of aging up ten years before taking the plunge is likely extremely vain, insecure, and/or impulsive, and for those reasons alone would not make good long-term relationship material!)
There might also be the question of whether the person being considered for turning can uphold any associated responsibilities. For example, in any work with a masquerade (IE, supernatural creatures keep themselves hidden from humanity), whoever does or approves the turning should be relatively sure that the convert isn't going to blow their cover, whether intentionally or accidentally. It could easily take years of observation before a final decision could be made.
In the case of someone with a chronic or terminal illness, a responsible character will bear in mind that this will be far, far more than a simple cure for whatever ails the character and that the aforementioned issues should be taken into consideration. Furthermore, if the character is not yet an adult and the change will halt the aging process, the implications of that should be considered as well - is it really a kindness to force someone to live a as a child forever, eternally locked out of adult life experiences?
This is not to say that characters should never rush to turn or change others or that they must always act upon cold logic and follow stringent rules if they do, but rather that you should bear in mind how these actions will reflect upon your characters and that others would not be incorrect to perceive them as reckless and irresponsible.
Fashion & Wardrobe
Many immortal and long-lived characters end up being dressed in clothes that don't really make a lot of sense when you think about it. There are two main flavors of this: characters who dress in extremely old clothes, and characters who dress on the cutting edge of human fashion.
To start with, let's go over why old-fashioned clothes often don't make a lot of sense. First, clothes will wear out simply from being worn and washed. Also, as especially old clothes are made from natural fibers, they'll be especially vulnerable to bacteria, insects, and fungus. Mice and rats can and will ruin clothing by chewing off bits to line their nests with, as well as soiling the clothes with urine and feces. Sunlight will also damage many textiles and materials. Basically, any old article of clothing that isn't treated like a museum piece will wear out eventually, and anything that's worn regularly likely won't survive a decade.
While there are places where one can purchase old-fashioned clothes, these are special interest businesses and the clothes will cost much more than otherwise. Furthermore, anyone who wears old-fashioned clothes everywhere will look like an oddball to most others, which isn't a good thing if it's in the character's best interest to blend in.
Now, to deal with characters who are veritable fashion plates. There are plenty of instances where this can make sense, but the ones addressed here are characters who, though not entirely unfamiliar with regular humanity, still live on its fringes - if not a little further out. These particular characters have their own lives and problems to worry about, which makes it difficult to imagine when or why they would be keeping up with human fashion so closely. Sure, if they need to pass as human it makes sense for them to know that jeans, a t-shirt, and a jacket will get them by, or that if they want to look a little fancier they might want to go with slacks and a button-down. But many of the finer points would be easy to miss - such as exactly how much makeup is considered acceptable, which colors are in, and which trendy accessories and clothing items are worn together and when. This goes extra for any "scene" or subculture fashion, which will be harder to observe due to being less common.
Another thing to consider is that someone who has been around a long time has probably figured out that changes in fashion are both quick and unpredictable, and that what's hot one year might be considered unwearably tacky just a few years down the road. So, someone who doesn't spend a lot of time directly interacting with humans might not want to bother learning about and buying something that's going to be useless a few years down the road anyway.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with having characters who are just really interested in following fashion trends - but remember that they'll need the time and means to follow it somehow. Also keep in mind: if they have especially low opinions of humanity, they really shouldn't be too keen on following human fashion trends any more than they have to. Someone who has decided that a group of people are essentially trash is going to see just about everything they make as trashy, and so isn't likely to going to go around emulating it beyond necessity. However, one exception might be where someone wants to look "better" than the human rabble and so deliberately chooses clothes associated with high status to send the according message. (And hopefully, doesn't end up looking like a joke by choosing clothing from the wrong era!)
When playing or writing long-lived or immortal characters, there are a few traps that writers fall into that makes their characters (and sometimes even their entire works) come off as very pretentious or snobby. Which, hey, if that's their intent then that's fine. But unfortunately, many of them aren't supposed to be that way. So here are a few tips to avoid making your characters and stories look thus:
Don't write about how you can "see the ageless wisdom" in some character's eyes or similar. If you want a character to seem wise, try to write a character who gives thoughtful insights and advice. (And don't try to pass off Captain Obvious statements like "well, you can't have everything" or "life isn't always easy" as some kind of Great Ancient Wisdom.)
Watch out for pointlessly petty behavior. For example, going on about how foolish and weak humans are (unless actively trying to demoralize them), or complaining about having to use inferior human tools when absolutely nothing else is available. Remember, being harshly judgmental will make your character look like an unpleasant brat to many.
Watch out for excessive angsting and bellyaching. Especially of the "life is endless darkness and pain" variety, even in poetic format. It makes your characters look less like people who have been around for ages and more like whiny teenagers.
Beware the purity trap. Not unique to immortal or long-lived characters, but it happens often enough to merit a mention. See Why "Purity" Is An Overrated Character Trait for why being "pure" does not make your character all that.
Avoid making your immortal/long-lived protagonists preternaturally attractive. Nothing says "I am a shallow and superficial person" like making your immortal/long-lived protagonists inhumanly beautiful, too - unless you make it clear in your works that looks really aren't all that.
Don't overstuff your characters' histories with famous people and events. It makes sense for someone who has, say, worked as a court mage for a particular royal family to have known a lot of the family members and seen a lot of the drama they got into, and maybe attend a few events hosted or produced by famous people in the local area, or meet famous people the royals invite over. It does not make sense for someone to have serendipitously run into scads of famous people scattered all over the world with no connection to each other, nor for your character to coincidentally end up in dozens of unconnected historical events.
Keep your characters' influence on history minimal. Because having your immortal/long-lived characters turn out responsible for the bulk of human history and invention is pretty pretentious. Give the humans their due.
Avoid overstuffing your characters with glamorous or "pretty" skills. EG, skills like singing, playing musical instruments, creating art, writing poetry, or amazing fighting skills, particularly those involving romanticized weapons like swords or knives. There's nothing wrong with some of your characters having some of these skills, but remember that it also takes a lot of very mundane skills to get through life.
Avoid falling into the royalty/upper-class/super-rich rut. Thanks to works like Dracula, a lot of people tend to imagine long-lived/immortal characters as being upper-class type folks. But there's no rule saying you have to do this. Unless it's absolutely essential to the plot or is an integral part of what kind of a person a character is now, consider a different background.
Don't make the character any older than necessary. Would your character have to be a vastly different kind of person or miss out on something crucial to the plot if xe was 500 years old, rather than 5000? Or would the only real difference be the number of things the character has to brag about? If it's the former rather than the latter, consider knocking your character's age back.
- Your characters probably shouldn't be completely naive about sex, nor should they be rushing to tie the knot - let alone with a teenager.
- They should be able to watch out for and avoid obviously-risky scenarios most of the time, and they should be able to get along with people long enough to work with them as necessary and avoid cheesing them off.
- Avoid having huge chunks of your immortal and long-lived characters' lives pass by without anything important happening to them.
- A well-adjusted immortal/long-lived character should be able to cope with death, move on, and not be jumping to turn everyone with a pretty face or a sob story, as there's a lot of due diligence to be done and responsibility involved.
- Old clothes will wear out, so it's a little odd for a character to run around wearing antique clothing in the modern era. It's also a little odd for characters who aren't completely intimate with human culture to be decked out in cutting-edge fashion trends.
- If you don't want your characters and/or story to seem pretentious, try not to overstuff your immortal/long-lived characters with too many "cool" or glamorous traits. Don't stuff their histories chock full of historical figures and events. Don't have them take credit for humanity's achievements, good or bad. Don't have them whining about life being darkness and pain.
Also, check out:
Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades (If your character is an immortal living among mortals - and has to keep this hidden)
Common Plotholes In Vampire Fiction
Tips to Create Better & More Believable Fantasy & Science Fiction Species
Tips To Write Better Royalty, Nobility, & Other Upper-Class & Important Characters
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Things You Need To Do In Your Science Fiction Or Fantasy Story
Pointlessly Edgy Tropes To Reconsider Using
On Writing & Roleplaying Wise Characters
On Writing & Roleplaying Mysterious Characters