Sunday, April 3, 2011

World-Building: The Narrative Risks Posed by Immortals and their Culture

I recently watched Daybreakers, a rather disappointing vampire flick. But, Daybreakers did present the proposition of a culture of immortals, in this case the aforementioned vampires. Over the next several days I thought more and more on this topic: a culture of immortals.

A culture of immortals is a very tricky world-building proposition. Authors and screenwriters have approached this topic from a number of different angles but all attempt to answer the central problem a culture of immortals creates: a depletion of resources. This was the central motivating force in Daybreakers...a lack of humans and by extension a lack of blood and thus starvation.

Assuming you answer this issue of resources, you then encounter the second issue: a reason for existence. Most members of mortal cultures compete for resources for a variety of reasons. The great equalizer in this competition for resources is time...the mortality of the culture’s group members. A culture of immortals would be free of this constraint. Given unlimited time to collect and save any resources in excess of a subsistence level, everyone could be wealthy in time, especially in a culture with banking and compound interest rates. So, what would immortals live for? Competition? Scholastic pursuits? Love? War?

Any world-building of a culture of immortals needs to account for these two critical issues. I disliked Daybreakers because it posited these two problems and instead of providing an answer devolved into Hollywood action sequences and a happy ending. Honestly, not many authors or screenwriters do much better.

The inability to create a dynamic culture of immortals is why I think such cultures tend to be parasitical in nature, they cannot exist on their own. Whether this be via the tropes of a lonely wanderer who drifts in and out of the mortal world or static secret societies waging an eternal conflict.

In my experience these parasitical cultures of immortals are controlled by two factors: psychology and conflict. Psychology is utilized in a few ways but tends to manifest as either crushing boredom or depression/madness. After centuries of existence it seems in the minds of most writers an immortal would simply go numb...drowned in the ennui of existence. The alternative is that centuries of mental trauma would simply cause the consciousness of an immortal to fracture.

Conflict is the other popular choice and can materialize in two primary ways: internecine conflict and persecution. Immortals are often depicted as warring with one another in a endless battle. The immortals involved are defined as much by the war as anything else, it is the reason for existence. Persecution is the other popular option and can co-exist with internecine conflict. Persecution is fairly straightforward; the immortals are the target of non-immortals who feel threatened. This often, as with internecine conflict, is the driving purpose of the culture.

The end result is that most cultures of immortals lack depth. They are defined by self-perpetuating cycles that allows no cultural growth. They are never dynamic. Their parasitical existence forces them to be passive while the mainstream mortal culture assumes the active role.

So how do you build a culture of immortals? I don’t know. In my opinion, immortality isn’t rational. I only know that they present enormous pitfalls for writers and immortals need to be incorporated into a story very carefully. Immortals can easily become a narrative anchor, slowing down the active and dynamic quality that is crucial to any story. Why are they needed? What do they add? These and many more questions need to be answered and these answers carefully considered.

So, I ask a question of my readers? How would you build a culture of immortals?

Image Source: Daybreaker's Official Website Media Downloads

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