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The Problem With Immortality

This doesn’t seem like a very real headline. The problem with immortality? What problem with immortality? I know that I, for one, would love to be immortal. *bares neck for any vampires that might happen by*

But in fiction, immortality is a huge problem for stakes. If your characters are immortal, they can’t die, and therefore one of the worst things that could befall someone is out of the question. When your characters are immortal, stakes plummet.

The same goes for scenarios that are larger than life. It’s very hard to wrap one’s mind around a global apocalypse, when you really think about it. Think about those charity ads for starving children. If we hear the same mind-numbing statistic of “XX million children are starving in the world,” it’s almost too much to process. And it doesn’t stir our hearts for long. But those ad campaigns that highlight a particular child in a particular place and tell us their story, those are the ones that engage us into putting a specific face on world poverty and hunger.

So if you have an immortal character running around screaming, “The world’s going to end! Gaaah!”…I don’t know if you’re going to get the kind of reader-hooking reaction you want. The stakes you say are present (death/end of the world) are too big, and therefore they start to mean nothing, after all.

Let’s say you are writing a story about an immortal character or the end of the world. Should you put down the quill and sulk because it’s hopeless? No. The trick is to build in a framework of things (probably people) that your character cares about more than life itself, and put them in very real and immediate danger that is much smaller, more menacing, and more specific than some malformed looming apocalypse.

Through your character’s relationships to these people and their willingness to risk all for what they really care about, we will start to get invested in their story. After all, immortality is one thing, and it’s pretty boring, turns out. But the event that threatens to make immortality shallow and meaningless for your character? That’s what I’m interested in. And an apocalypse isn’t scary to me because it’s too huge. But the thing your character can’t bear to leave undone before the world grinds to a halt? That’s what I want to see.

Writers keep hearing advice to up the stakes, but it is possible to make your stakes too high and impossible to care about. If that’s the problem you’re battling, give your characters other more immediate things to despair over.

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  1. Annie’s avatar

    I think Doctor Who is a good example of an immortal character with stakes. There’s the potential for him to die too quickly to regenerate (although highly unlikely if the tv show wants to continue); and he has major stakes in his companions and the people he meets. We get invested in their safety, too, as he travels around the universe.

    Next time a more literary reference, I promise.

  2. Julie Daines’s avatar

    Exactly! No one cares about saving the world. We care about saving the person we know and love, i.e.: the main character.

    When Frodo has to destroy the ring, we aren’t sweating because all of middle earth will be wiped out, we’re sweating because if he doesn’t freaking hurry, Aragorn will die!

  3. Raven Marlow’s avatar

    Great points. Thank you! I completely agree on many levels. I’ll keep this churning in my head for a while yet. I have this funny little image in my head of the world blowing up and the immortal character with eyes wide “Now where do I go??”

  4. Shannon’s avatar

    The last episode of Angel. Seriously. Brilliant. Work.

  5. DonnaH’s avatar

    LOL@ Julie’s comment!

  6. Beth Hull’s avatar

    “When your characters are immortal, stakes plummet.”

    Get it? Immortal, vampires, stakes….

    Never mind. Good points, all.

  7. Carolyn’s avatar

    It’s like the quote misattributed to Stalin: The death of one man is a tragedy. Death of a million is a statistic.

  8. Gwen’s avatar

    I think Raven’s hit on an interesting idea. What happens to the immortals after the world ends? Do they wander a desolate wasteland that used to be Earth? Do they spiral aimlessly in space? Do they sleep all day to fill in the endless hours? Are there others of their kind?

  9. Sparksol’s avatar

    I’m reminded of Lemon Demon’s The Saga of You, Confused Destroyer of Planets. A little song about an immortal who destroys the world he’s on, and floats on to another.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YysNTlGQtm4

  10. Nicole Drake’s avatar

    Steven King’s Dark Tower series has so far delt with these topics beautifully. I am only on Song of Susannah but have been on the edge of my seat almost the whole way through the series. The first book was slow and you can tell he wrote it when he was young but it’s a necessary foundation to such a large story. (although it is not for children- it’s still very inspirational)

  11. Ishta’s avatar

    Ooh, good point! I think I may have raised the stakes too high in my YA WIP – I’ll think about how I can address it. Thank you!

  12. Kari Cowman’s avatar

    I love these posts! The apocalypse is upon each and every one of us. We are all on the slow march towards death. We don’t want readers to have a nervous breakdown, we just want them to relate and feel a part of the story. Big events are static; birth, death, heartbreak; it’s the little things that comprise a life…

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