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What Is Your Definition of Immortal?

[poll id=”203″]

In reading a book recently involving a group of “immortals” killing each other, I wondered what immortal meant anymore. To me, immortal means to live forever. Immortal is the opposite of mortal or death. But immortal beings can often be killed by other immortal beings so long as you burn them, cut off their head, pull out their heart, etc. What does immortal mean to you?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

25 Comments

  1. SarahT
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 12:54:54

    Great poll idea!

    I know immortals in books are frequently killed off by various means. For me, though, the word means to live forever.

    Although I voted for the first option, the second comes closest to the prevailing use of immortals in fiction.

  2. katiebabs
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 13:05:17

    Living forever with great skin, body, clothes, a ton of money and a sex drive that never quits.

    Also, I have minions doing my every wish and desire.

  3. Melissa Blue
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 13:07:26

    I went with can die, but not naturally. My answer is influenced by books like Interview With a Vampire and the old legends of how you could kill vampires i.e. stake to the heart, beheading, etc. It keeps a balance of life and death even for immortals and makes for good reading knowing the character can die just not by “mortal” means.

  4. Anida Adler
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 13:08:25

    Strictly speaking immortality means not killed at all by any means. But it’s so long to say “exceptionally long-lived” or “can only be killed by a flying saucer beheading them every second Tuesday of the month in a leap year” that I’m not too bothered if the term immortal is used for those who can’t die except if they’re killed in some specific way.

  5. Maili
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 13:20:06

    Awesome poll topic. IMO, an immortal lives forever, even when dismembered.

    I remember a popular folklore childhood story about an immortal who remained alive – with all his limbs and pieces of his body separated and left in boxes that were hidden at various spots across the world – for centuries.

    A 17th-century gentleman heard about this legend and went on a quest to collect all those boxes and when he did, he put the pieces of the immortal together in return for a right to immortality. I can’t remember how it ended, but the story made it clear that immortality was an extreme (religious?) form of eternal suffering.

    The nearest thing to an immortal today would be Wolverine of X-Men because of his regenerative healing ability, but he’s not an immortal, though. If he suffers enough heavy injuries that causes his regenerative healing ability to fail racing against time to repair his wounds, he’ll die.

  6. Lisa Paitz Spindler
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 13:31:18

    When I think of immortal, the first pop culture reference I think of is Highlander. The only way Immortals in that story world could die was by beheading.

    For me, it really depends on the story. Like vampires, I’m OK with the rules changing from story to story so long as it’s internally consistent.

  7. Jennifer K.
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 13:55:22

    I tend to think immortals can die, they are just obnoxiously hard to kill. Though technically the word does mean ‘can’t die at all’ if I had to be immortal, I’d much rather just be hard to kill, than guarenteed to live forever with no way of offing myself ten thousand years from now when I’m bored, and the rest of humanity is dead and gone. Hence my preference for immortals who can die, even if it’s hard to kill them.

  8. Rebyj
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 14:10:29

    Live forever, can’t be killed! Funny how fragile life is in fiction for immortals. Ward’s BDB books I often thought were weak immortals because all the bro’s had dead parents. Looks like some of the former generations would be alive to give immortaity some meaning.

  9. Silver James
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 14:24:23

    Technically, I have to agree that immortal means living forever. Gods/goddesses are immortal. But when dealing with literary themes, immortal heroines/heroes/villains become just so many Mary Sues without some Achilles’ Heel.

  10. Monica Burns
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 15:06:35

    @Melissa Blue:

    by Melissa Blue October 8th, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    I went with can die, but not naturally. My answer is influenced by books like Interview With a Vampire and the old legends of how you could kill vampires i.e. stake to the heart, beheading, etc. It keeps a balance of life and death even for immortals and makes for good reading knowing the character can die just not by “mortal” means.

    Thank goodness for editable comments. *sigh* What Melissa said. :D

  11. ReacherFan
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 15:14:03

    I went with the middle of the road:

    Can die but not by natural causes (like old age or illness).

    That seems to be the prevailing interpretation of “Immortal” in the majority of books that I read in the paranormal and fantasy genres. Yes, there are a few true ‘immortals’ who quite literally cannot be destroyed by any means, but the majority have some weakness that can be exploited to make them vulnerable to death.

    There can be only one! LOL

  12. KristieJ
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 15:36:08

    When I think immortal, my mind flies to Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod (yes – still all these years later) They could die, but only if their heads were cut off – I don’t think anything else could kill them.

  13. Angie
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 16:49:41

    I think there’s a range, and which set of rules you choose depends on what your story needs. Someone who can’t die can make for some pretty horrific scenes — like in Children of Earth when Captain Jack (who can die but always comes back) was encased in a block of concrete. He can’t die die, so if the gang hadn’t found him and gotten him out, imagine him just stuck in there for centuries, or millenia…. [shudder]

    Or in the movie Death Becomes Her with Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep — the women can’t die, but they’re left at the end of the movie with their bodies broken in pieces. The movie was essentially a comedy, and treated the ending as something to laugh at, but to me that was horrific.

    On the other hand, a character who has the potential to live forever but can be killed has so much more to lose, that adds its own tension to any dangerous situations. So you can make use of the whole wise-experienced-ancient thing, but without falling into the pit of having a character who can never be in danger and therefore whom the reader will never really empathize with nor worry about.

    I think what “immortal” means is more a matter of what the writer wants it to mean, what they need for the story they’re telling. And if it doesn’t work, that’s the fault of the writer rather than the concept itself.

    Angie

  14. joanne
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 16:49:53

    I’ve noticed that authors (or is it those pesky publishers?) have been playing fast and loose with the word immortal. It’s bothered me some but not enough to turn me away from paranormal fiction.

    Fictional — as apposed to the one(s) you believe in, if you do — gods have always has some type of sword hanging over their powerful heads. That’s what makes them fun characters.

    Vampires in fiction have (mostly) not been immortal but that’s changed too. They’re still hard to kill. Maybe. I never tried.

    My ususal caveat: it’s up to the author and the world they write but once the rules are set please, please, pullllease don’t change them when you need a different direction for your story.

  15. Eressë
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 17:15:41

    JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion include divine beings who truly live forever. But for me the most fascinating of all are his Elves. They were immortal in the sense that the length of their lives was tied to the life of the world itself. They did not grow old or get sick and they were resistant to the elements. Yet they could be killed by poison or violent means or grow weary of life and relinquish it willingly. But death was not natural to them and so their spirits would only rest for a while then be reborn or re-housed in replicated versions of their old bodies. However, they could no longer return to mortal lands like Middle-earth but had to remain forever in Valinor, an Eden-like land. Tolkien’s Elves come closest to my idea of non-divine immortal beings.

  16. Nadia Lee
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 18:38:02

    I think of immortals as beings like Norse gods or vampires, etc. — can live forever but can also be killed using some special means, such as a special sword, steak through the heart, etc.

  17. library addict
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 18:49:34

    I voted for cannot die because that is how I would define the term and I voted before reading the comments.

    However, when it comes to books I tend to think of the Elves in the Lord of the Rings trilogy who could be killed in battle or eventually die of old age after a prolonged life. Or, as others have mentioned, Highlander. So perhaps I should have thought about it more before voting…oh well.

  18. Lizzy
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 19:39:51

    Technically, I know it means “cannot die,” but in storytelling context, I just don’t think there would be much tension if we knew the character could never, ever, ever die, no matter what. So I voted not by natural causes.

  19. Angelia Sparrow
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 19:48:58

    I tend to run with the Tolkien idea that “immortal” means “doesn’t die of its own accord, but can be killed.” Tolkien elves are immortal. Legolas is 3000 years old during LotR.

    I’ve written immortal characters who had to die and revive to realize they were. 3000 years is a hellacious life-span encompassing everything from a bronze-age soldier in the army of King David to a modern crime lord. With living that long, it’s laugh and love or go mad. And a lot of Immortals in that universe do, around their second millennium. Non-killable immortals have a LOT of baggage.

  20. silvia
    Oct 09, 2009 @ 00:18:25

    Normally I’d say “can never die”. but, dude! HIGHLANDER.

    There can be only one!

    [hee! Check out this 90’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnJt9p-sHho ]

    Not that I wouldn’t like more ‘real’ immortals in the storytelling context. But I’ll easily go with the psuedo-immortals if you serve it up to me.

    Though none of this ‘live long lives’ b.s.

  21. NKKingston
    Oct 09, 2009 @ 04:21:00

    @ Angela Sparrow: Actually, in interview Tolkien said his elves were just extremely long lived. For him, Immortal meant having enough time to do everything you could possibly want to do. Though none of them actually seem to die in LotR or the Silmarillion, it was possible.

    (Interview Link: http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Shire/5014/interview.html Unfortunately, he goes straight on to claim the Dwarves are obviously Jewish – even though he talks mainly about the deliberate language simulatiries, it’s still slightly cringe-inducing)

    I voted for Immortal as not dying of natural causes; not dying at all I’d class as Immortal Invulnerable. Mostly Gods, really. As Angie points out, you can have tension with ‘true’ Immortals, like Captain Jack and the women in Death Becomes Her, but it’s a very different kind of tension to an immortal that can be killed.

  22. Marianne McA
    Oct 09, 2009 @ 04:25:43

    ‘Immortal’ means can never die, so that’s how I voted, but in fiction I could live with immortal as meaning ‘Would never die of natural causes’ because I can’t think of another word the author could use to explain the character is quasi-immortal.
    Is there one?

  23. Marianne McA
    Oct 09, 2009 @ 04:29:23

    It will never let me edit…

    Just to add, Captain Jack does die in the end though, doesn’t he? Didn’t it turn out that he became the Face of Boe?

  24. Angie
    Oct 09, 2009 @ 04:35:45

    Marianne@22 —

    Just to add, Captain Jack does die in the end though, doesn't he? Didn't it turn out that he became the Face of Boe?

    Yes, that’s true. But for story purposes back when he was Captain Jack, in Doctor Who and Torchwood, he’s pretty darned immortal. [wry smile] In Children of Earth they blew him up pretty thoroughly, and it took days and days but he did come back to life.

    The Face of Boe died, what, thirty thousand years in the future, or fifty thousand, or something like that? I think that’s about as immortal as I can wrap my brain around. :)

    Angie

  25. CD
    Oct 09, 2009 @ 21:51:00

    I can’t think of any true immortals playing leading roles in fiction. The only ones I can think of are some of Micheal Moorcock or Roger Zelazny sci-fi/fantasy – can’t think of any more recent than that.

    It would be interesting to see how the author sustained tension when you know your central character cannot die no matter what – it forces the author to be a lot more creative. I have to say that I do miss those characters as they do tend to open the way to more interesting narratives and ideas if done well.

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