Q&A

How Do I Handle Immortal Age Differences in Romance?

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Hello again! Do you have any advice about relationships between mortal and immortal characters? I know Twilight got some flak for the relationship between 104-year-old Edward and 17-year-old Bella. Would it be less creepy if someone around Edward’s age dated, say, a recent college grad, or perhaps someone a bit older than that? If that could work, do you have any advice for that sort of pairing? Thanks again!

-Tony

Hey Tony, great to hear from you again!

In my experience, age itself is rarely the issue in immortal dating scenarios—it’s just an easy bit of trivia for people to latch onto. In most of these cases, while an immortal could technically be very old, they are effectively frozen at the age they were bitten, or whatever process made them immortal. Edward has been on the Earth for 104 years, but he’s been 17 for 87 of them.

Instead, the problem usually has to do with maturity, power, and behavior. The real issue with Twilight’s romance is that Bella has no power in it and Edward is a major creep. That’s a bit more complicated to explain though, so people fixate on the age difference.

Any time you create a relationship based on unequal power dynamics, there are going to be problems. Looking back at Buffy’s relationship with Angel in the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you can see a similar problem at work, and it has nothing to do with Angel’s immortality. Buffy is the slayer, so physically she’s on the same level as Angel—in fact, she’s more powerful than he is. But Angel seems to have been frozen as a guy in his 20s, and he acts like it too. So we have a girl with a 16-year-old’s emotional maturity dating a guy with a 22-year-old’s emotional maturity. It may have slipped by when the show first aired, but it’s not great in a rewatch.

The takeaway is that when considering any romantic relationship, but especially one involving an immortal, remember to keep the power dynamics equal. That could certainly be easier if you age up the mortal character a bit. But if you want to have an immortal high schooler, you can do that, they just have to act like a high schooler.

Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!

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Comments

  1. Dave L

    Another problem, though maybe not as bad, is that the human may want to spend their lives together. Meanwhile the immortal has had dozens, if not hundreds, of relationships, and expects to have plenty more after the human dies

    The human may feel like this is just a fifty-year fling for the immortal, may expect to be forgotten after a hundred years or so

    At the very least, the human might worry about becoming old and being w/ someone who looks fifty years younger

    • Cay Reet

      That is a pretty important aspect, I think.

      Twilight solves that problem by making Bella immortal, too, but not all ‘immortal love stories’ have that option. Even if the immortal partner remembers all their past relationships, there’s the knowledge that the immortal will outlive the mortal partner. That’s another good reason to have romantic relationships between two immortals instead.

      • Shadowdance

        Yeah, the most extreme example I can think of is the romance of Aragorn and Arwen from Lord of the Rings: she was 2690 *when he was born*…

        And the issue of immortality was solved by making her take the Luthien’s choice and becoming mortal, but the age difference is still astounding.

        • Alicia

          I had never thought about that before. I feel like someone who was over 2,690 years old wouldn’t want to date a mere mortal under 100 years old. I imagine the sort of stuff you like to talk about on your 2,690th birthday is different from what you would want to talk about on your 30th birthday.

          • Jeppsson

            I had this exact discussion a while ago with friends, and we thought the same thing. It seems unlikely that a super old person would have that much in common with a young one.
            Aragorn is the distant descendant (like 60 + generations, if I remember correctly) of Arwen’s cousin. Like, she’s been around for much of his family’s history! Even if there’s no power dynamic problem in the sense of her being oppressive, it just seems like it would be hard to make the relationship work because they’d have such different perspectives.

      • Tony

        Good Omens is another example of making the two partners immortal (and yes, Gaiman has said that the relationship between Aziraphale and Crowley is romantic, even if their different concepts of gender means that the relationship can’t be straightforwardly categorized as “gay” or “straight”).

  2. Kit

    It’s worth noting as well that if the immortal has been around while the mortal was a child, that screws up the power dynamic, even if they only get together when the mortal is of age. It’ll always feel like grooming, no matter what hoops you try to jump through to justify it.

    • Raillery

      Although not featuring an immortal character, The Time Traveler’s Wife had a similar situation.

      • Tony

        Something similar also happened in Twilight, with Jacob recognizing newborn Renesmee as his soulmate and the story treating it as totally cool because the kid will be fully grown in a few years.

  3. Nathan Parker

    I remember on an episode of the original Sabrina the Teenage Witch they played this trope for laughs. One of the aunts (Zelda, I believe) was dating a “younger man”, and all throughout we hear about it and how her sister thinks she’s making a fool of herself. When we finally meet him at the end, he’s in his 60s. Considering that Sabrina’s aunts are actually centuries old it makes sense, but it’s easy to forget because they still look young.

    • Alicia

      That’s a great subversion of expectations!

    • Jeppsson

      Haha, they did the same joke in What We Do in the Shadows (the movie, not the TV show). One of the vampire guys talk about this young woman he’s fallen in love with, and there’s jokes about him being a cradle-snatcher because she’s SOOOO much younger than him, etc. In the end, it turns out that she’s this wrinkled old lady, like ninety or so.

      • Nathan Parker

        Jeppsson, I remember that one. I found it amusing. They also did it on a fairly recent Simpsons episode.

  4. S.T. Ockenner

    I think that once someone turns 60, it doesn’t matter if they date other 60 year olds, 90 year olds, or even, heck, 10000000000000000000 year olds!

  5. Wiggins

    I thought that Octavia Butler handled this (major age difference between characters) fairly well in Parable of the Sower. Granted, neither character is immortal but you’ve still got a teenage romantically involved with someone who is near retirement age.

  6. Darian

    Re: Oren’s point about emotional maturity — if you do that — that is, have the immortal stuck at the mental age of whenever they became immortal — then you end up with a situation where they will probably break up once the human matures emotionally past the point at which the immortal was “frozen.” Which is a problem if you’re specifically writing a romance, since readers usually want those relationships to end on a note of optimism (happily ever after / happy for now). I would instead write the immortal as capable of emotional growth, even if it then raises other problems in showing what they can actually offer one another or whether they’re able to understand one another well enough to stay together for a long time. I think those issues are interesting to explore.

    Alexis Hall addresses both of these aspects of immortal romance in his Kate Kane Paranormal Investigator series. (Two different immortals.) It’s not finished so I don’t know how the latter relationship will turn out yet.

    Romances with an obvious power imbalance are very difficult to handle well, but I have seen a few. It all comes back to what the story shows they can offer each other. The more powerful one needs to offer more than money, luxury, or protection. For the less powerful one, it needs to be more than “they are hot” or similar things like compatible kinks. Nobody is THAT hot that the powerful one couldn’t get it elsewhere. They can offer those things, of course, but not ONLY those things. There has to be some deeper need they fulfill for each other, as well.

    • Darian

      The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox is a rather good book about a full-length mortal/immortal romance, a human involved with an angel for 55 years. It has been a long time since I read it; I remember liking it but haven’t yet read it a second time. Wikipedia says there is a sequel now (about the angel).

    • Bellis

      I’d solve that by making it so the immortal only starts maturing due to the power of true love* that they only now found with this special romance. Ok that’s cheesy I guess, but it could be part of the phantasy. It’s still bittersweet and tragic that the immortal will outlive the mortal by centuries (unless one of them changes their mortality status).

      *or willingness to face their own flaws for this human and grow up instead of acting superior due to being immortal, whichever way you want to put it

  7. Kenneth Mackay

    Lawrence Watt-Evans ‘Taking Flight’ deals with a boy who sets off to find his true love, as a result of believing a fake soothsayer, and develops a relationship with an immortal 16-year-old girl. At first he is greatly impressed with her, but as the book progresses he comes to realise just how immature and selfish she is, and that she will never mature as he is doing.

  8. Esq

    An interesting variety is that you can have the mortal-immortal relationship end in a relatively normal amount of time for a non-marriage relationship, several months or a few years about. The mortal would see this as the time of their life, it is basically a fling to the immortal, and then the mortal gets into a relationship with mortal B. Mortal B has to deal with being in the shadow of somebody they might not be able to compete with in legacy. That would be my cynical take on the matter. A more positive spin is that the relationship with mortal B ends up being better than the immortal because the power dynamic is more equal even if mortal B can’t do any special magical tricks or something.

  9. Ace of Hearts

    I always find it odd to imagine that Edward still has the mental maturity of a 17-year-old. Sure, he may still have the body and hormones of one, but you’d think that he would at least learn some things from a century of life experience.

    The “mental maturity” issue is also why I find the romance in Old Man’s War disgusting, even if both characters are technically adults.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, it seems weird to think that Edward is mentally still seventeen. Physically, with all the hormones and what-have-you, that I can see – he’s physically frozen in time as a vampire, that’s a pretty common trope. But he’s been living for a long time, he’s seen things, experienced different times and places, he should have evolved mentally.

  10. CDark

    The physicality of a long lived race paired with a short-lived one actually came up in the D’rizzit novels once he took up with Cattiebrie. She was very aware the she would get old and frail long before him, and worried that he wouldn’t find her attractive and stop loving her because of it. In return he asked her if she would stop loving him if he suffered an irreparable disfiguring injury, or mutilation of his appearance (it’s been a minute but I think it was burns?) She answered “No.” That she would love him still because of who he was.
    I think it would be a fascinating arc that, rather than be distressed, the shorter-lived partner could find solace in knowing they would be loved and cherished and cared for until the day they die, never worrying that the immortal would die before them. That this most precious gift might be offered to another after they pass. Could be a feel-good heart-breaker

  11. AnjaDV

    The one thing that the Eragon series does well is the realistic take to a barely adult human falling in love with a 100+ year old elf. She basically sees him as a child and their relationship never gets romantic.

  12. Muskrat

    In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the writers seem like they may have eventually realized Angel and Buffy’s relationship was problematic. Joyce confronts Angel (as the more mature of the two) about the unhealthy nature of his relationship with Buffy and he reluctantly agrees with her, leaving Buffy. Of course, that could have just been because they wanted to do a spin-off show centered on Angel, but there is at least a kinda-sorta acknowledgement of the problem.

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