Making immortal characters feel real to your readers

My little Sauron sitting next to his eye... Yes I do own these!Many of the most fascinating characters in fantasy are immortal–the vampires Lestat and Armand immediately pop into my mind–but so are many of the most shallow characters, especially villains(I’m looking at you Sauron). I myself struggled for years to find the true voice of Riana, the cursed demigod who is the main character of Moonshadow’s Guardian, the fantasy novel I’m currently preparing to self publish.

There are countless examples of immortal characters who have all the feelings of a cardboard cutout or who mindlessly serve a single purpose even when it’s doomed but it is possible to write an immortal character your readers will like, even love. You just have to be prepared to put in some extra work. This article will explain how to develop immortal characters who have lived several hundred(or thousand) years.

The Challenges of Writing Immortal Characters

Writing a truly believable character is difficult even when your character isn’t immortal but immortality brings its own set of challenges:

1. A longer history means more world development

If your character has been alive for one hundred years you need to know what life was like in their world one hundred years ago–and something about how they lived during all the years in between. If your character has lived a thousand years or even ten thousand years the same thing holds true.

This means you need to do either extensive historical research(if your novel is based on a historical period and especially if it’s in a real place) or extensive worldbuilding(if you’re creating your own world). You probably won’t add a huge portion of it to the backstory even if the immortal character is your main character but you need to know it. What your character knows and remembers will have a huge impact on their personality. The more time you spend getting to know them, the more you will understand them and how they would think/speak.

2. It’s way more tempting to make them Mary Sues/Gary Stus

Most immortal characters also have some kind of special powers, usually related to the reason why they’re immortal. It’s always tempting to overdo these powers, to have the characters quickly win every battle, but that ruins the tension of the book.

Another thing you might be tempted to do is create an immortal character who has lived for eons and spent literally their entire life devoted to one thing. Unless your character is forced to do this one thing or was created specifically for that purpose(and designed to enjoy it) they will eventually want to do something new. Your immortal characters should have spent at least some time doing other things. Or had doubts about the one purpose they’ve always served.

It is true that we form most of our personality and long term beliefs in our first 10-20 years of life but almost every person goes through periods of doubt and upheaval. If your character has been alive for two or more human lifetimes they’re likely to have experienced at least twice as many periods of upheaval. Immortal characters who are supposed to be similar to humans in almost every other way but who never even doubted their purpose are kind of hard to believe.

3. It’s also really tempting to just fill their past with torture

Our goal as authors is to make our readers feel with the characters and frankly the easiest way to do this is to give them some past suffering to think about. And writing an extensive backstory is hard, which makes it really tempting to kill off all the people your character cares about quickly and have them spend the rest of their lives as sad hermits until your story starts.

This does work once in a while but as a general rule of thumb all of your characters should have periods of happiness they can remember–and an immortal character should probably remember at least a few more happy moments than your average mortal.

A good character feels the full spectrum of emotions(unless the story is about them not feeling the full range of emotions) and always has.

How to thoroughly develop your immortal characters

Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who is lucky enough to get a well rounded character arc.
Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who is lucky enough to get a well rounded character arc.

Properly developing an immortal character is very similar to developing a regular character but it will take you longer. I like to start by building an overall timeline noting only the ten or fifteen most important events in the character’s lifetime. Often the events will slide into place as soon as I’ve written the first one down but sometimes I have to ask the characters questions, usually things like “what was your worst memory”.

Once I’ve figured out these fifteen defining events and where they sit on the character’s timeline I can dive deeper. I write scenes about most of these events, always working in the first person POV(point of view) of the character I’m trying to develop. Sometimes I’ll write two scenes about a specific event, one from the POV of another character, to see how it affected different people or how other people see the immortal character.

As you research the history of the setting you’ve chosen or develop the history of your own created world you should also tie these into your character’s life. By this I don’t mean have them directly involved–your immortal character shouldn’t be involved in every single historical event during their lifetime–but they should have an opinion on at least the biggest events both local and worldwide. Even antisocial people who never go out except to shop hear the occasional rumour and develop an opinion on it.

Your character’s age will probably also impact the way they use language. Immortal characters will obviously have to keep up with changes in language to be able to communicate with people around them on a daily basis but they might adjust slowly, always speaking like an old fashioned person. Or they might adopt new slang immediately to avoid attention, especially if they’re the type of immortal who doesn’t age. Developing some slang for them to use–whether it’s old fashioned or extremely new to your world–will give your character more depth. Of course, you can overdo this pretty easily, so be conservative about where you sprinkle that slang.

Final Tips

16 Quick CharacterDevelopmentExercisesThe best thing you can do to properly develop an immortal character is take your time. You should develop more details about your character and your world before, during and after every draft of every story they’re in. Be willing to spend countless hours wandering through your world with your characters–both the immortal ones and the regular mortals.

If you’re still not sure where to start(or you’ve worked through the aspects of character discussed here) you should do the 16 quick character exercises I posted last week.