Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Immortality in fiction is fascinating, because it’s a way to vicariously cheat death. When I started to think of all the different ways in which a character can be immortal, the list was a long one, but the directions in which such a story could proceed were almost as numerous.

So what forms does immortality take?

Negation of aging/damage/injury

Sometimes it can be caused by the protagonist being immune to injury or disease, or simply recovering from this kind of thing very quickly. A short story that had originally been printed in Asimov’s featured a heroine whose body quickly repaired any damage it took – basically, she was a regenerator.

Since she was tired of living, she kept putting herself into situations where she would be killed, but her physical capabilities kept rising to the occasion. I’ve forgotten the title of the story and the author’s name, but it was an excellent read – especially the end, where the heroine’s gift is finally defeated (or is it? Da da dum!).

The character’s protection from aging or sickness could also be a feature of their race – Tolkien’s elves, for instance, or vampires. Though a race where few if any individuals die naturally might well end up outcompeting any rivals and threatening its own resources or food supply.

Or such protection could be a gift only a few individuals have. The characters in Erin Hunter's YA series Warriors are cats, but only the leaders have nine lives - literally.

Another way to deal with injury or the effects of age is to pass these on to some receptacle (a la The Picture of Dorian Gray) or scapegoat. Provided this was always available to a character, they could technically stave off death for a long time.

Transfer of mind/personality

This can be a lot of fun, because there are so many ways such a transfer could take place. It can also provide a few surprises for other characters, if they don’t realize or recognize that such a transition has taken place.

In Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Doro can “jump” into another person’s body, taking it over entirely; the host stops existing at that point, and Doro lives on in their body. He also does this involuntarily if he’s injured, instantly possessing the nearest human body, which means he can’t be killed or even attacked. It’s one way he keeps his (human) subjects under his control.

This might be seen as a negative – basically, a mental parasitism that ignores the needs or wishes of the host. Or it might be a positive, if that’s the only way to keep alive a brilliant scientist or a great humanitarian (I like the irony there).

On the other hand, a transfer could be made to something non-sentient or even non-living which has been developed specifically for that purpose. When I first read the Wild Cards series and made up a few new Aces for fun, one of them was Rider, who created mindless clones of herself through a mitosis-like process where these budded off. Said clones were then stashed in various long-term-care facilities over the world, and whenever Rider was killed, her consciousness would transfer itself into one of them.

In James Herbert’s Fluke, the main character slowly comes to realize that he was once a man who was murdered and whose mind is now in a dog’s body. And in John Saul’s Shadows, a child’s mind uploads itself into a computer at the end of the novel.

The character’s personality usually stays the same in such situations, but one thing I enjoy about Doctor Who is how the Doctor’s personality doesn’t get shuffled from one regeneration to another. Instead, he changes significantly each time. This probably won’t be feasible in a single story or novel, but it was one of the ways the TV series stayed fresh.

There are probably many more ways in which characters avoid going into that good night – and a near-infinite number of stories that can be told as a result.


writtenwyrdd said...

Immortality is generally given to paranormal beings, as you note, and to me it seems the draw of these characters can be manyfold and both good and bad.

The first draw to me seems to be the type of immortality that is transferred to a normal human, a la vampirism. Immortal but with some serious drawbacks as well as advantages. Depends upon how you twist the vampire trope, to ugly and evil, or to beautiful and sexy.

Then there's the immortal who's a baddie but a goodie, sort of a vampire or other being that's evil, like a demon...but saved by love, or changed somehow to fight for good. All angsty and torn or with the bad boy thing going yet still a good guy. Mostly the trope of romance heros, but nice.

Ghosts who can't go on are immortal, but they are relatively helpless most of the time and can't go on without resolving some issue. Not too often these guys are the protagonist, though.

And so many other types of immortals, like Octavia Butler's, Tananarive Due's (My Soul to Keep) and others.

Personally I like a longer life but not immortality for my characters. Maybe because my own sense of how I'd do as an immortal makes be believe I'd give it all up after a few hundred years. A person can only take so much change without becoming set in their ways!

Paige Jeffrey said...

I think if you are going to use immortality in your manuscript, one then has to come up with a way to offset it - in other words, there still has to be a cost or something at stake for the character at a personal level.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

The one thing about immortality is that it clashes with reproduction. A race or creature than can live forever and reproduce at a sufficient rate can and will overwhelm other creatures by sheer numbers.

I decided on my second WIP that the vamps (yes, my vamps are different) do reproduce sexually, but the survival rate for the mother is as low as 20% (1:5 survive the pregnancy) and on top of that the embryos feed on each other while on the womb, so while pregnancies almost always create more than one viable embryo (twins, triplets or more) rarely do more than one survive.

The combination of these factors keep vamp numbers relatively low.