It turns out there are a lot of immortal characters out there.
I didn't appreciate this point until after I added to that large collection of the undying with my own submission, Immortal. (I know: no points for title originality.) I would describe the book to people, post-publication, and invariably get back "Oh you mean like..." and then they'd name their favorite immortal this-or-that. The Man from Earth, perhaps, or Lazarus Long, Enoch Root, Ra's al Ghul, or Jack Harkness. Or every single vampire anywhere, ever.
I wasn't inspired by any of these characters, in part because I didn't know anything about them at the time -- okay maybe a few of the vampires -- and in part because I wasn't interested in finding out how other people handled the subject. I was interested in immortality itself, and what it might mean to have been alive for a really, really, fantastically long time.
"But that's not how he would act"
I think the allure of the subject matter has a lot to do with curiosity about what we might be like -- as a species -- absent the inevitability of death. To that end, I wanted a character that was as relatable as possible.
There's this common thread running through most stories, where immortality grants the recipient access to a sort of hidden wisdom or knowledge that makes them somewhat inscrutable to ordinary mortals like us. The idea being, I suppose, that we continue to gain knowledge and experience throughout our lives, presumably improving ourselves along the way. But what if (and I appreciate the nihilism of this viewpoint) this is all there is? What if there is an upper limit to self-improvement and we all reach a point where we don't improve ourselves? That we are and will always be the sum of our flaws?
What would that kind of immortal man be like?
My answer to this question was a sticking point with another author, who I won't name. I had asked him if he was interested in providing me with a blurb, and sent the first three chapters to help interest him. He responded with, "but that's not how he would act" and then provided a long list of the kinds of things someone that old (my narrator, Adam, is about 60,000 years old) would have solved. By his reckoning, someone that age as that would be largely without flaw.
"This is my immortal character," I said. "When you write one you can come up with your own rules."
Okay, no I didn't say that, I just thanked him for his time. But I sort of wish I had.
This is also not my immortal character
Most fictional immortals can be broken down into one of three categories:
- Vampires. Adam's not a vampire. (I have to say this a lot.) I don't think vampires make particularly good immortals, because their defining characteristic is always "I am a vampire" and not "I am immortal". Also, most of them make terrible immortals, frankly. If you're 100 years old and lusting after high school girls, you probably have emotional issues.
- Resurrectionists. I sort of made this word up, but work with me. A resurrectionist is an immortal character that dies but comes back to life again. It covers everyone from Jack Harkness and Doctor Who to Highlander and (based on the previews) the main character in Forever, which is the latest thing out there that has people saying "hey, it looks like they made a show based on your book." I don't personally care for this angle, partly because I'm interested in the humanity of immortal characters, and fear of violent death is an important component of that humanity. Resurrection also requires a magical explanation, and I'd rather keep magic out of the story.
- Gods. Being a god is a great explanation for why a character is immortal, but that's also a magical explanation that requires additional details--what kind of god, where are the other gods, and so on. Like vampires, an immortal who is a god is a god first and an immortal second, which takes the story away from the humanity of an immortal and into another direction. They aren't even human. (Incidentally, if you switch "god" with "alien" this whole paragraph reads the same.) Technically, Adam (SPOILER ALERT) is a god, but he isn't immortal because he's a god. He's seen as a god because he is immortal.
What a real immortal man might be like
The character I did end up with is sarcastic, bitter, extremely clever, and possibly an alcoholic. It seemed to me if I reached a point in a never-ending life where I realized this was it, I'd probably have a drink. I'd probably have a lot of them. (This was one of the problems the aforementioned author had with the character.) Adam is also an unapologetic killer when he feels he has to be, a philosopher when the mood strikes, a leader when there's nobody else, and a coward when running away offers the best chance of survival. He's just about as human as I could make him.
But that's my immortal character. What's yours like?
The third book in Gene Doucette's Immortal trilogy, Immortal at the Edge of the World, will be available October 2, 2014, following Immortal and Hellenic Immortal. Also look for The Immortal Chronicles, a series of short stories including Immortal at Sea, Hard-Boiled Immortal, and Immortal and the Madman