How Many Immortals is Too Many?
Extremely long-lived races or beings abound in paranormal romance and fantasy. Vamires don’t age. Werewolves regenerate, so why should they age? Elves live virtually forever in most mythologies. It’s not a topic that comes up often when you talk about demons, but there’s not a lot of reason to think they would either. Even wizards often do it. For every kindly old Gandalf-like wizard, there’s one who has mastered the trick of eternal youth. And even Gandalf may be deceiving – death didn’t really slow him down much.
The immortal being who falls hard for a mortal and somehow shares their immortality with their new-found love makes a great story – after all, most of us would like to stay young forever. I’d certainly like to have my twenty year old body back. Coupling that with true love is a winning combination.
The flip side, of course, is the immortal who gives up their immortality so they can share their life with a mortal lover. That’s gushingly romantic, but not really a good story line to use in a romance, because in the end it’s tragic. They’re going to die, and if you start the story immortal, that’s not a happily ever after ending, no matter how beautiful and touching a proof of true love it is. So you don’t see this line often in romance, except as a dark moment which will be overcome by the end of the book by some unexpected intervention which makes both of them immortal after all, the universe being impressed by the depth of their love and sacrifice.
So, one way or another, we end up with immortals. That has implications that good world building really requires thinking about . I have immortal, or nearly immortal, races in the world of my fantasy novel, Embracing the Dragon, and keeping that passably realistic requires a lot of thought.
Take Elves, or their cousins the Tengri. Both are effectively immortal, unless they’re killed by something. There need to be some limits, or we’d be up to our necks in Elves. The major limit I’ve given them is an extremely low fertility rate. Children are rare, and very, very precious. But we don’t want the race to die out, so they have a very high sex drive to make up for the low fertility. When you think this through, it leads to a lot of cultural details. Monogamy is extremely uncommon – on practical grounds, the more partners you have, the better the odds of getting lucky and getting pregnant. There’s also less concern with paternity – if a child is rare and precious, and you’re getting to raise it, the fact that it didn’t come from your seed isn’t all that important.
Now, when you add shorter lived races, such as humans into the picture, it gets much more complex. Immortals like Elves are loathe to get involved with a short-lived human, because you blink and they’re gone. Getting attached is asking to get hurt. Ways of dealing with it vary. Some simply stick to their own people, ignoring their human neighbors. Others take a rather bigotted view, regarding humans as not much above animals, and not something you’d even consider getting invovled with. They might be good for a one night stand, but you wouldn’t bring one home and keep it. Neither of these are very attractive as primary characters, but they do exist in the world.
For a long-term relationship to happen between an Elf or a Tengri and a human, the only palatable option is to extend the human’s lifespan with magic. That comes with a price too, but it’s the human that pays it, not the elf. It’s a very mixed blessing, and this is something I don’t see given a lot of consideration in many fantasies.
Consider this – if someone told you tomorrow that they could make you live forever, you’d jump at it, right? But here’s the down side – it’s just you. Watching your parents grow old and die is something you’ve expected all along. It’s the natural course of things. But if your life can be extended, their could too. Maybe your lover would take care of doing that for them too, if you asked. But how far do you carry it? What about your siblings? Or your kids, if you had them by a previous relationship? Or your best friend? Or your other lover, the mortal one? Even if your magical lover makes everyone you’re close to immortal too, what about the people they care about, who aren’t close to you? How far out can you spread the magic? If there aren’t limits, you’ll end up with everyone being immortal, and you need something to prevent a population explosion.
Either you or your lover, or maybe both of you, have to choose who lives and who dies. That’s a huge potential source of conflict. And it gets worse – what if you want to keep someone alive who doesn’t want the gift? If you’re ethical, you have to respect their right to choose, but that’s a huge source of pain too, to watch someone age and die, knowing you could save them, if they’d only let you.
In the world of the Devourer War, the way the thing usually plays out is that the person who has an Elven lover preserving their youth, or someone who is a mage who is simply preserving his or her own, tends to withdraw from the normal humans. They live among Elves or other mages, and form their friendships and attachments there. The alternative of watching a string of friends and lovers age and die, and making those hard decisions over and over is too painful in the long run.
Of course, if you’re writing a romance where the mortal is just getting involved with the immortal, they’re not going to think about all this. A story where the hero spends all this time wringing his hands about how sad it is that all his friends are going to die on him would be no fun at all. Danny, my hero in Embracing the Dragon, is still in his early 20’s. He’s said yes to letting his lover and liege lord Aran keep him young, without really thinking about the consequences. It helps that they’re in the middle of a war, and he thinks it’s much more likely that he’ll die by having his head eaten by a demon or a Devourer long before the question of old age enters the picture. A hundred years from now he’ll have learned these lessons, and withdrawn from Earth into Elven and Tengri society.
One of the other things that make immortals both interesting and challenging to write is the different perspective they have. A 20 year old human is all about now. A year is an eternity. To a Tengri, who has lived for 15,000 years already, a decade of delay in achieving a goal is a brief setback. Mordellir, the Tengri who wants Danny as a lover is entirely prepared to wait and mount a long term campaign if he needs to. He’s been seeking his reborn lover for thousands of years. Another decade to solidify the relationship now that he’s found him is a small matter.
That would be unsatisfying to us, being short-lived humans ourselves, so I make events conspire to move things along much faster than that. However that doesn’t change his ability to plan for the long term. That’s something I need to keep in mind when I consider his motivations and his reactions to events. A very long-lived character is not going to have the same kinds of reactions to events as a 20-something human. Getting into Mordellir’s head is much harder than Danny’s.
In this excerpt Danny has found himself unexpectedly in private conversation the Emperor Mordellir, and the relationship they shared in previous incarnations comes to light. Danny’s reactions are complicated by the fact that he’s enough of an empath to sense Mordellir’s feelings, which make his own that much harder to manage:
“Yes.” Danny paused. If he kept going now he was really jumping off the cliff. Mordellir waited, saying nothing. Finally he jumped. “Does the name Demeth the Half-Breed mean anything to you?” He waited anxiously for Mordellir’s response.
Mordellir stiffened. “It does. But what do you--” He studied Danny intently. At first he felt suspicious, then Danny felt a dawning sense of wonder and joy. “Emrys? Is it truly you?”
Danny had no chance to answer the question before Mordellir caught him in a joyful embrace. “Gods, I can’t believe I’ve found you again. I sought and failed so many times that I feared your soul had been destroyed. It never occurred to me you might have been being reborn on Earth.”
Danny stood stiffly in Mordellir’s embrace, not returning it. At first it was a simple matter of shock. The idea of the Emperor spontaneously hugging him was just so far outside anything he’d imagined that he had no idea what to do or say. The immediate shock passed, but he still had no idea what to do next. He couldn’t afford to get entangled with Mordellir. But could he say no successfully to the Emperor? Mordellir could take back custody of Ayara, if Danny offended him too badly. Would he use that leverage to get his way?
Mordellir drew back slowly. “Forgive me. I should not have done that. You don’t look happy about this. What’s wrong?”
Danny sank back onto the couch. “I’m not happy. I can’t deny that those old memories make me want you. But we’re not the same people. I’m King Aran’s senior Liegeman. You’re the Emperor of the Tengri. We can’t just decide to be lovers. There are too many complications, too much politics.”
“Daniel, if I let politics stop me from having lovers, I’d be completely celibate, and that would be ridiculous,” Mordellir retorted.
“That may be true for you, but it’s not the same for me,” Danny tried to explain. “I’m don’t dare to trust you. I have too many of Aran’s secrets. I can’t gamble with those, no matter what promises you might be willing to make me about not prying. I know damned well that being Emperor is your first priority. And what kind of lovers would we make if we can’t trust each other?”
“I should have expected you to feel that way,” Mordellir sighed. “Those memories of Emrys taught me the meaning of trust. I should have known that you’d still want that. And you’re absolutely right. You’d be a fool to trust me completely the way you did before. The good of the Empire is always going to be my first priority. That’s not something I can, or will, change. All I can do is try my best to avoid letting us get into a situation where I’d have to choose between you and the Empire. Can we manage to be friends, at least?”
Of course Mordellir is not really about to settle for being friends. He’s just old and cunning and patient enough to see that it’s not time to press the matter. He’ll woo Danny and wear his resistance down with time. If you want to see how the plan works out for him, you can buy the book here:
Embracing The Dragon
Danny O’Riordan’s life was complicated before the vision of a past life forced him to admit he was bisexual. There’s a war going on, and being Liegeman to Aran, the Elven King of Avalon puts Danny squarely in the middle of the politics of two worlds, Earth and Avalon. Adding a romantic relationship to the mix could be explosive.
His lover from that previous life has been reborn as Mordellir, the ruler of the Tengri Empire. The Dragon of Heaven is the most powerful person in his world. Will he want Danny back once he knows he’s been reborn? If he does, how far will he go to get his way?
Kathryn Scannell writes M/M erotic romance and fantasy stories. When not writing she makes her living doing database management, programming, and general IT support for an environmental consulting firm. She has a BA in German, a BS in Computer Science, and a head full of facts about odd things. She lives in NH with her wife Beth and their four cats. When not writing or reading, she participates in the Society for Creative Anachronism and a variety of role playing games.
You can find her on the web at http://www.kathrynscannell.com and http://kathryn-scannell.dreamwidth.org
My other work is available here: http://www.torquerebooks.com/index.php?main_page=index&manufacturers_id=272&zenid=b7bc94a246a83f8c00253ae2edbfaa76
-- Lynda Again
Very thought provoking article, Kathryn. Thanks so much for being with us today!