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C.C. Hogan

Dealing with Ancient Characters

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So, what have you been up to the last five hundred years?

I love getting under the skin of a #character for the first time, seeing how they think, how they react, what private thoughts they have, even where they are ticklish. I know Fantasy is meant to be about huge magical explosions, dark, mysterious thoughts, and rooms lit only with candle light and strange blue auras, but actually, I am far more interested in how the people wrapped up in the world think when they cut their finger, or go for a piss, or see a girl/boy/dragon that they fancy.

It does get trickier when they are, perhaps, five hundred years old!

Think about it, if I set a book now in 2015 and my protagonist was 500, then they would have been born in 1515. No internet, no cars, no flushing toilets, no carbon fibre and a very different sort of miss-spent youth. Although humans and human psyche has not changed perceptively in thousands of years, we have changed our social environment several times in that period.

Talk about a generation gap! My mother is of a completely different generation to me and despite the fact we are both human and she is still alive so has continued to grow and change over the period, she is still wedded to the lessons of her youth as I am wedded to mine. This is not about age difference, but about what has happened over our specific lifetimes. If I look at the "youth of today" who are much younger than me, I see no real differenced between us. They listen to the same music, they jump their friends all over the place,  they like the same sort of cinema (not just Star Wars), they talk the same rubbish (just on the internet rather than down the park) and they get angry at the same things. But my mother and I are completely different.

She was brought up at the end of the Edwardian era before teenagers were given their wings and the subjects of songs she listened to and her ideas of sex and drink was radically different to mine. She was not encouraged to be political, as a girl had less opportunities, and worshipped the more senior members of her family. Indeed, she thought of elders as more senior to her, which we are less inclined to now. 

Now, in the last eighty plus years, her opinions have changed, or at least modified, but she hasn't suddenly become a child of the sixties or seventies or two thousand and tens; she is still a child of the thirties. 

So, back to my five hundred year old, do I have to look at the same issues as when dealing with a ninety year old? Quite often when I read fantasy, ancient magicians either have the same personality traits as the younger characters or the author gets round the problem by making them completely different to any other human for no obvious reason.  Yes, they have lived longer, but if we assume that at least part of any character is shaped by their environment, then they will have been affected by the same issues as a twenty year old; just a lot more of them and over a longer period of time and with a starting point in a potentially radically different era.

For instance, in one story I am playing with, the oldie was born at a time of religious oppression. In the modern day, religion is a lesser, more benign thing, but he is very, very cynical about it, unfairly so, because he hated the religion of his youth. That makes sense to me; his opinion is wrong, but it is shaped in a different time.

You are as old as you feel

This is the other problem, how old are you physically? I am getting older and bits of me no longer behave as they should. As a consequence, my outlook and objectivity is tempered by what I am capable of - whether that is climbing a mountain or looking at a good looking woman. But if you have someone who can live 500, 1000, even more years, then one would assume that they must stay physically strong throughout that time otherwise they would die easily from flu, breaking a hip and so on; old humans are much more vulnerable to disease and accidents. So, my female 500 year old is probably still fit, healthy and attractive. More to the point, she is probably attractive to the average 25 year old man or woman, because that is the age you are the strongest and can best survive what the world throws at you.

As a result, I have a person with huge experience (allowing for how good their memory is), in the body of a twenty five year old. That changes things a lot! How many things did you mess up at 25 because you were strong, fit and beautiful but completely stupid?

Then there is that wisdom thing. Why is it always assumed that someone who lives a ridiculously long time is wise? Certain things you must be getting right like crossing the road without getting run over, but that does not mean you are suddenly a genius and walking encyclopaedia. Think of all those people you know now who not only could not name you more than one senior politician, but really do not give a crap as to what is going on in the world unless it is in a Soap Opera? In two hundred years time, they are not going to be a great authority on the twenty first century, unless it is about the history of Soaps.  Nothing wrong in that either, but it should be taken into account when dealing with your 500 year old - they wont know everything because it might not have interested them, they never heard about it or didn't give a shit. 

So, putting all that together leads me to conclude that old characters are a potential minefield of booby traps. At the moment, my 500 year old is getting a crush on a young soldier because her body is telling her to and she is about to be as stupid as she was four hundred and eighty years ago.

Some people, as we all know, never learn.

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