First, let’s get this out of the way…
Now that you have your meme dosage, let’s get to explaining the pun!
Obviously, this week I’m talking about lifespans. Literally the span of a life, how long you have to live. And of course, how that usually plays out.
And naturally, we’re all used to some pansy-ass elf condescendingly telling normies how short-lived and brief their lives are. But does that make sense? Are there other flavours of this? Obviously; I DID blog about this!
So, lifespans tend not to be a MAIN focus of any plot or subplot. Not unless, of course, you’re dealing with a massive gap in current or potential age. Though of course, there are times when it’s the whole premise.
They’re there as flavour, giving you an idea of how robust or experienced any given species or character is. Some decay with age, others remain in peak condition. And generally speaking, given the advantages of simply being around long enough to do things on a grand scale, most authors building worlds will try to balance it out.
But, of course, some species aren’t prone to that weakness. Some of them enjoy great life, beauty, power, wealth, and intelligence. Not always elves, but there ARE cases of catch-free immortality. And whether portrayed as perfect or arrogant, this species type has, of course, drawn a certain amount of ire from mere mortals. Without further ado, here are the flavours! By human reckoning, anyway:
- Short Lifespans: Whether only a few decades or even a few years, these guys live and die FAST. Call it a quirk of their biology, a magic curse, or their lifestyle, but stereotypically speaking, they tend to have a strong love of life (as they know it) as well as very little impulse control. Sometimes this takes the form of hyperactivity and intelligence, like Mass Effect’s salarians or perhaps some species of fairy, while in other cases, it means they’re very inventive but very destructive, wanting to just have fun and go out in a bang like most fantasy goblins. To offset this, however, not only do they have the aforementioned traits of being hyper-driven in SOME way, they also tend to breed like proverbial rabbits. They’re the sort that can drown their enemies in bodies and still keep fighting. This is not always the case, of course; sometimes they’re overpowered shock troops who can’t handle the stress of their biology and battles. Sometimes their ‘real’ lifespans are even perfectly normal; they just have a drastically lower average because of widespread death and violence.
- Regular Lifespans: So yep. A century tops, if that. In theory, the easiest to customise along ‘regular’ ‘real world’ cultures. However! Creativity crosses boundaries! That said, much like stereotypical humans, they’re also characterised by some sort of advantage to equalise the playing field, such as decent reproduction rates, high inventiveness or aggression, or an overall “Jack-of-all-trades” affinity for any advantage in the world. Their advantages won’t outmatch a true specialist, but they tend to combine it with others for new results, like say the mating of goblins, the magic of elves, and the craft of dwarves.
- Long Lifespans: Surprisingly, not ‘standard’ elves yet! With a cap of a ‘reasonable’ two to five centuries (my personal estimation), these are species which may start to look and think a little inhumanly, but still have some ability to relate. At the very least, their civilisations may be older and perhaps more stagnant, but they still share some of the growth rates and traits of regular folks. Even so, as the lifespan goes up, the population starts to shrink. Long-lived folks tend to focus on quality over quantity, whether it’s through physical prowess, advanced technology, mystical advantages, or long-lived cunning. They tend to focus on ‘the old ways’ or whatever gives them the advantage, though there are also those who are just Jacks-of-all-trades-but-better.
- Extra Long Lifespans: Let’s not mince words; this is basically for elves. At a thousand years or beyond, you know the type: They have a hidden civilisation, ancient while ‘primitives’ were still discovering fire and the wheel. They’re full of uncanny advantages, taking the previous tier’s traits to even higher levels, sometimes without drawbacks (though the ‘dying elven civilisation’ trope is also popular). Their key defining trait is the mindset that comes with their lifespan. While some, like Mass Effect’s asari, are benign in their ‘we will wait it out and see how things look in a few short centuries’ outlook, others use it as a badge of pride, lording over lesser species or seeing them as far below their notice. Hubris is often their greatest flaw. A common plot point for them usually involves either looting the ruins of their civilisation, uncovering a Macguffin from them, or rousing them to get involved in a situation.
- Cosmic Lifespans: So there’s all that, but they can at least be framed in terms we can understand, even if that spans the length of history. But these are beings beyond even that, scaling according to creation itself. Whether celestial or galactic, these tend to be godlike beings, usually effectively immortal, dating back to the origins of the setting. Typically, these are godlike beings and all the descriptions and catches that come with it, far-removed from the affairs of mortals. But as Doctor Who proves, even the astounding can be humanised.
So that’s the list! But HOW are they used in-universe? All in all, I believe you can neatly divide how people react to short- and long-lived beings along two lines of thought.
Oh, You’re One Of THOSE
The most obvious answer, of course, is to treat unusual lifespans as completely normal.
Now, this may seem like an obvious choice. After all, WE’RE used to what it feels like to have a normal lifespan, right?
Turns out, this is trickier than one would think.
See, it’s not enough to simply have a species live to be 20 or 2000 and then have them just be exotically coloured and scaled humans. Or, for that matter, for humans and other ‘normals’ to nonchalantly go “531, eh? Lookin’ good for your age.” You need to know the WHYs behind them.
The first thing you can learn about lifespans and their reactions is this: It immediately tells you about the world. And for that to become normal, it needs actual thought and consideration.
Culture and history are among the pillars of worldbuilding. And when it comes to lifespans, that means a challenge in unique mindsets for those living through it, and creative innovation for those witnessing it.
For those living through it, consider what goes on in their lives based on the species you created, the places they live, and the cultures they have. Why do they see it as normal? Does it influence their culture and mindsets, or is it just one factor of many? It’s certainly easy and often acceptable to normalise them like any other character we can think of, but it’s also worth taking the extra effort to build unique outlooks for your non-human characters. Not just in going ‘everything is normal,’ but in how they approach life.
For example, there’s the acceptance of death: Long or short, do they see it as an equally normal fact of life, making them seem almost apathetic to loss, or do they cherish existence and mourn with great anguish at any death? Does that attitude to death make them incredibly laid back, living each day like it’s their last, or obsessively cautious? Is this attitude BECAUSE of their lifespan, or DESPITE it? Those with short lifespans could wonder why anyone else would want to live so long, or they could even wonder why they waste so much time on unnecessary details like “revenge” or “safety”. Meanwhile, what about long-lived ones? Are other species like short-lived pests if they see themselves as normal? Do they think their life means they can take it easy, or that they should spend that time doing what they want or serving a greater good?
And what about humans? Why and how do they see it as normal? How do they have the familiarity of nerds who’ve seen every kind of creature and scenario? Did their civilisations develop alongside these other ones long enough for it to become normal, did they all develop at the same time? Why are they Ron and Hermione explaining every wondrous thing to Harry? Why are they unsurprised when the baby unicorn they brought home outlives five generations of their clan? Did they learn about unicorns from experts, or have they learned about it firsthand earlier?
Wait, You’re HOW OLD?
And then there’s the other side of the coin: Reacting precisely the way ‘normal’ people would. And just like normalising lifespans, this applies equally to both ‘average’ species and ‘abnormal’ ones.
This is easy enough to write it from a human’s perspective, of course. But the tricky part comes from when you apply that reasoning to the OTHER species in question. Sure, you might be able to have a more relatable opinion about it, but WHY do they think that way? How did they get to that point that they, too, think 20 is too short and 2000 too long? Is it something in their internal culture where their subjective inner desires clash with their factual biological truths, or a reaction to something outside of them? Some look at other species and envy them, while others might be acutely aware that something was done to them and it’s wrong.
So the whys might be different from case to case, but I do think that should sum up the heart of these reactions. But before you think this duality is the only way to handle lifespans, hold the phone. These reactions can coexist in various combinations at all levels even in the same story; Some cultures will find elves to be utterly awe-inspiring, while the human colony beside them is used to Old Man Faelondis who STILL wants them to get off his lawn.
Similarly, there is the case of when someone is FORCIBLY taken out of their lifespan average and given a new one. For instance, a Human Wizard of the same age as an elven one (aside from probably not being in the same age group culture-wise) will likely have a different take on his long life and what it means for his relationships. Or more famously (or is that cult hit-ly?), Highlander’s immortals: Ordinary humans until they find they are effectively immortal, having to cope with losing loved ones, adapting to the world, and facing the threat of imminent beheading.
So that’s what I have to say about lifespans! And more to the point, it does say a lot about worldbuilding: There’s ALWAYS room for more twists, and each of those is potential depth.
But more than showing off how much you thought about your setting, or how unique you made it (for instance, OUR dwarves speak with a POLISH accent!!!), figuring out the reactions will let you figure out how you wanna write interactions.
Even a little thing like what’s normal or not, or what one species takes for granted that another highly values, can be an elegant way to deliver information and characterisation without having to sit down and talk about it.
After all, the rule is show, don’t tell. Like if that ‘show’ lets you know from the start that Gender Switching Girdles are a pretty common problem.