a wrinkle in time, ageless characters, angels, brian jaques, characters, characters with magical or supernatural powers, creative writing, elves, faeries, gods, immortals, j.r.r. tolkien, limits, madeliene l'engle, mary sues, redwall, star wars, story dynamics, the lord of the rings, writing
Recently, Liam, Head Phil (over at This Page Intentionally Left Blank) made a post entitled Ageless Characters. Now, this post was on writing believable children (as in, a twelve-year-old who seemed to be twelve and not sixteen or six), but the title got me thinking.
Occasionally, and especially if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, you will come across characters who are ancient (like Yoda!), and it will be necessary for the other characters to interact with them as equals (as in Legolas and the way he relates to the rest of the Fellowship.) Yoda is not immortal; Legolas is. However, on both counts, they are far older than anyone else: Yoda is 875 odd years older than anyone in the central cast, except in the prequels, when he’s more like 850 years older. Still, what’s an odd two and a half decades?
Meanwhile, Legolas is probably at least a thousand years older than anyone else in the Fellowship, and most people wind up treating him like an equal. Whereas, everyone respects Yoda. Then, too, Yoda develops over time like anyone else, but he’s been around so long he doesn’t really seem much older. Legolas is the same, to an extent. Yoda seems older than Legolas, but then, elves do not age like mortals.
So, what’s the secret?
I guess it just depends on what you’re writing.
When you’re writing an immortal such as an elf, they will often treat mortal characters (such as humans) as equals. They do not look down on humans, and though they tend to be wise and have heightened senses, these attributes should never be overwhelming. They tend to be humble, and can be overwhelmed. They are also aware of this. Their powers (if any) can not be overwhelming.
Nobody likes a Mary Sue.
When you’re writing an immortal who happens to be a Greek-Pantheon-like god (or other fallible being with more overt power than a human,) it helps for them to be arrogant. And obviously, even painfully fallible. And obviously, and painfully unaware or ignoring of the fact. Perhaps there is room for a character arc here, even if the “god” is not your main character. (Personally, my favorite pastime is pounding sense into the head of some arrogant jackass who styles himself or herself a “god.” Nothing more fun than smacking them into the ground and informing them that power is granted, not earned or owned. Perhaps I sound cynical, but… well, this is the way I see the world. Arrogance is an enemy. There is only one God, and men can not style themselves as gods without retribution for the act.) Perhaps these characters are more powerful than ordinary men. But they must be fallible. If their powers seem infinite and are by nature hard to limit, character flaws are the way to go.
Angels and faeries are more similar to elves than to gods, but they tend to have more power showing than elves. However, unless we’re talking about villains (a corrupted angel is called a demon or devil, by the way,) they will also be humble, and very much aware (constantly!) of their subservience to a higher power.
This is the point where we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. Immortal characters are often difficult to write because they have superhuman–perhaps even supernatural–powers, but, by the Laws of Good Writing, they must not be infallible. No character is perfect. That’s the first rule of world-building and character arcs. Every character must have flaws, and all-powerful characters are no fun. Besides, everyone loves a humble person. (I dealt with this problem in my story Bound to the Flame, with Rowan. He is more powerful–being gifted with magic and having preternaturally honed senses–than any other character in the book, partly by necessity–though I haven’t exactly revealed the reason why yet…. In this view, his disability–his crippled leg–was a boon to me. Not only did it make him seem imperfect–I mean, how many authors nowadays are willing to write a cripple?! He can’t kick behinds in the normal sense!–but it gave me an edge on his character flaws as well. His temperament is quiet and disciplined, without being weak. He’s not a procrastinator. However, partly due to his disability, he can be impulsive, even reckless, and occasionally over-estimates his own strength and gets himself in over his head. He allows himself to be easily provoked in some circumstances, he’s emotionally insecure, and he even picks fights sometimes. And all because, due to his disability, he’s driven to succeed, to prove himself, to prove that he can be more than just a helpless, useless cripple. If he was not disabled, all the character flaws I listed above would be out of character, but due to that one tiny fly in his ointment, they fit perfectly. It adds another arc in besides the character one, too–Rowan learning to physically as well as emotionally live with his limits. The simple beauty and genius of this single plot point awes me. It’s so perfect, I can’t help but question if it’s even mine, poor scribbler of trite drivel that I am.)
Long-lived mortals are a different color of horse altogether. They tend to be rather comical, occasionally–think of older Rollo from Pearls of Lutra or Mrs. Whatsit from A Wrinkle in Time (I know Mrs. Whatsit is not, technically, a mortal, but she is very much like a mortal character with a very long lifespan.) They tend to think along different tracks from younger characters. Sometimes, they tend to sleep a lot. 😛
But they are also wise, and young people should look up to them for guidance. Do they? I don’t know. Perhaps you’re writing a novel about empty-headed young rebels who don’t think enough to know they should listen to their elders’ council.
But anyway, the youngsters who are wise themselves will look up to their elders. Since these elders are mortal, they tend to have an entirely different set of limitations (and don’t often have powers), and due to the fact that they are elders, it’s not as hard to make them less than perfect. Yoda was not infallible. (And he “talks backwards”, too. :-P) Now that would make an interesting story… a character with superhuman/supernatural powers guided by one who doesn’t have those same powers…
After all, as authors we push the borders quite a bit, don’t we?