How lifespan affects the fantasy viewpoint

Among humans, a long life is generally considered a good thing. We pity insects that only live for days, or flowers that bloom only briefly. And we’re often awed at the thought of trees living for thousands of years.

Lifespan affects viewpoint. Hundreds of years ago, when disease and hazaards kept the average human life expectancy low, it was considered important to marry and have children as soon as possible, or to make a name for oneself. But as first-world conditions improved, lifespan lengthened and now, people have more time to accomplish life goals. Our development process also shifted: we developed the concept of a teenager, a transitional stage between childhood and adulthood with a different set of expectations. This isn’t an option in a harsher, shorter lifetime, where children have to assume their adult roles as quickly as possible.

At any rate, the current life expectancy for an Earth human is about 67 years. Some die sooner. A handful live to see their 125th birthday. But if alien beings came to visit and asked how long a human lives, we could probably say that 70 or 80 years is typical, and we arrange our lives accordingly.

One of the strengths of fantasy writing is the ability to discard norms. When we can have characters with a span of hundreds or thousands of years — not redwood trees, but cool things like dragons or immortals — why wouldn’t we? That adds many more options to the “what can be done in a lifetime” list. And it allows us to reflect more broadly on how a life’s time can be used.

While I developed the Aligare world, lifespan difference was always a big part of the social structure. It only made sense to me that these 3 races would be allotted different amounts of time. Aemets, korvi and ferrin are aware of each other’s typical lifespans, and they acknowledge that “old and wise” means something different depending on what kind you’re born as.

[Llarez the korvi] wasn’t Aster’s kin by number of years. How foolish of her to suppose otherwise. Llarez of Arkiere was surely thirty years old, or forty, or fifty. Some measure of time that made an aemet wither with age, but let a korvi only begin their bountiful long life.

Ravel, a story of Aligare, Chapter 1

Aemets: Their lifespan is about 50 years — similar to the life of a human in difficult circumstances, but aemets don’t have long-lived outliers like humans do. 45 t0 50 years is old age for an aemet, and living for 60 years is rare enough to be thought impossible. That means aemets don’t have time for a teenage phase. Children begin shadowing their elders at age 5 or 6, observing the adult lifestyle and transitioning in. A 12 or 13-year-old aemet is physically mature and is expected to be a responsible person with a chosen job field.

What about Rose Tellig? In Remedy, she’s a 14-year-old aemet leading her village, but she’s often referred to as young or “a child”. That’s more of a reaction to how much responsibility she’s been saddled with. A village’s mage is typically someone with life experience and confidence, which are the tools needed to manage a scary, complex event like a plague outbreak. Even though Rose is technically an adult, she’s out of her depth. In particular, Peregrine often thinks of Rose as a poor, overwhelmed kid — because Peregrine is a 169-year-old korvi who has seen what sickness can do to a community.

Korvi: In line with traditional fantasy dragons, korvi have the longest lifespan of the Aligare races. They can reasonably expect to live 200 years, and outlying individuals might live much longer than that. When Peregrine thinks of himself as a crusty old man, he’s being a bit overdramatic, although his loss of flight muscle makes him feel farther along in his life cycle than he actually is. Korvi heal well and are typically healthy until the very end of their lives.

Since they have centuries ahead of them, young korvi mature at a leisurely pace. They’re physically mature at about 15 years old, and they spend another 20 years or so in a teenage-like phase where they’re still finding themselves. Many travel the land, busking or doing odd jobs until they find their calling. Even beyond that youthful time, korvi are prone to trying new walks of life just because they can.

Ferrin: Ferrin live about 20 years. Between that and their small physical size, ferrin mature rapidly. Their kittens learn speech and social cues in a few months, often leaving home before their 2-year point of physical maturity. In Remedy, some 9-month-old kittens help with the simpler aspects of caring for sick people. At that age, they’re able to follow directions and sense the seriousness of the situation, although their level of tact could still use work.

Ferrin keep their ability to rapidly learn throughout their lives, but they tend to be jacks of all trades and masters of none. With a lifespan so short, becoming an expert or a leader would mean passing the position on every few years. Awfully labour-intensive. It makes more sense for ferrin to assist the longer-lived races with whatever they’re doing. In their social roles with other species, you might say that ferrin are children and adults simultaneously.

Humans can have a hard time relating to each other when we’re just a generation apart. It changes things to have different measures of time under our belts. So fantasy can take the possibilities even farther and it’s something I’m always glad to explore in my writing.

One Comment on “How lifespan affects the fantasy viewpoint”

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