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A common trope with immortality is that the immortal character hides their true nature by faking their death every so often and pretend to be one of their descendants. They end up adding a "III" or "IV" to their name and claim to have a "strong family resemblance".

It works well for male characters but what I found while writing a female immortal character is that it would be a lot harder to do given that in Western cultures family name is typically patrilineal rather than matrilineal. Therefore, having the same woman with the same name pop up throughout history would be extremely suspicious.

My question is how can my female immortal hide her immortality?

  • They are sterile due to the nature of their immortality so having their extended family hide them and pass them off as a distant cousin isn't an option.
  • They aren't interested in getting married and losing their family name. In story this is because they were married once and never got over the loss. Out of story it's so the reader doesn't get confused by the character constantly swapping names depending on the time period. Therefore, the "black widow" thing where the female immortal marries a mortal and simply outlives her husband isn't an option. Plus it would raise a lot of red flags that whatever mortal she married has a wife that never ages and can't produce children or heirs (which was often a juicy piece of local gossip in older times). Male immortals often claim in fiction that they have a fake family that no one knew about, which they could get away with due to a lot of cultures having "stay in the kitchen" attitudes where people didn't see someone's spouse, whereas female immortals have fewer options to have a fake family unit that no one knew about to justify a new cover.
  • If the immortal tried to pass herself off as a member of an already existing family, there would be a lack of a paper trail compared to a male immortal who can more easily fabricate identifying documents from his prior incarnation. Because again, until recently most societies were very patriarchal and the societally conditioned view was that men were the ones who handled public business and bureaucracy, aside from widows and secretaries. E.g., a male immortal can easily do things like write a will saying "I leave all my stuff to my son John Notanimmortal II, who is totally not me", whereas a female would have more difficulty.
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    $\begingroup$ Even in those Western societies where the children typically take their father’s surname (not all do), the offspring of an aristocratic mother and a lower-born father will often use the higher-status maternal surname, especially if the direct male line has otherwise become extinct (someone with better memory of history please help me with an example, google is failing me). Alternatively, in the UK you can use your dukedom as a surname, if you have one, like Gloucester or Wales; this extends to unmarried daughters, which may apply in your case. $\endgroup$
    – Guest
    Aug 8 at 8:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Guest: Actually, as far as I know, in the UK you can use whatever you please as a surname; I believe that in the UK a person's name is whatever that person wants it to be, with no obligation whatsoever to use the same surname as their father or mother or husband or wife, or indeed with no obligation to be the same surname as the person used five minutes ago. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 8 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ Lee Toland Krieger's movie Age of Adeline has the immortal heroine simply buying new fake credentials every decade or so and moving to a new location. Fun movie, clever use of a worldbuilding premise to tell a romance story. $\endgroup$ Aug 8 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ Frame challenge: don't limit yourself to patrilineal societies and other asymmetries in the treatment of the sexes that have plagued our history. $\endgroup$ Aug 9 at 1:19
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    $\begingroup$ Unless you are arguing that it is illegitimate to have a story in a historical setting, that is not a frame challenge. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Aug 9 at 3:15

11 Answers 11

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She is a bride of Christ.

nuns

https://www.history.com/news/women-education-medieval-nuns-church

Your immortal is a nun. It is no surprise she has no children. It is no surprise that she dresses in an archaic style. It is no surprise she does not have male family members meddling in her affairs. It is no surprise that she can read and write and is frighteningly smart. It is no surprise that she keeps a low profile in the world.

Maybe she periodically moves from convent to convent to disguise her great age. Or better - the members of her convent know exactly what she is. And they like it.

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    $\begingroup$ Oh, fantastic idea! +1! In fact, the nunnery would see her as a miracle and go out of its way to keep the secret because it would basically affirm their faith. This works on a lot of levels. $\endgroup$ Aug 8 at 20:09
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    $\begingroup$ This is a great idea. Becoming the abbess of a cloister was one of the few possible career paths for a smart and ambitioned woman in the middle ages. See Hildegard of Bingen for example. And due to the secretive nature of cloisters it might not be implausible that the the new abbess is actually the old one under a new identity (as long as the other nuns are in on it). $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Aug 9 at 9:38
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    $\begingroup$ Changing identities may not even be needed - if the order were founded on the idea of an immortal saint and I noticed the abbess' name never changes, I'd probably assume the nuns pass on the same names among themselves to symbolically maintain the 'immortality' $\endgroup$
    – Pingcode
    Aug 9 at 10:00
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    $\begingroup$ @theonlygusti: Plenty of options! (1) Like many real-world religious communities, they’re reclusive not proselytising; they see no need to spread their faith, and instead believe in humility and devotion. (2) They have grand plans, but they know they can achieve those plans better by working in secret, not drawing attention to themselves. (3) They do tell the world, and the world doesn’t believe them — people assume “We have only one abbess, the undying St Catharine” is a poetic description of a naming tradition, and that nuns claiming it’s literally true are overly-credulous. $\endgroup$ Aug 9 at 11:12
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    $\begingroup$ Now I am imagining the Dread Pirate Roberts as a nun... $\endgroup$
    – Gizmo3k
    Aug 9 at 11:57
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I think that you should consider several points:

  1. A wide use of surnames is a relatively new phenomenon in Western cultures, especially among commoners (the practice was widespread among Romans, though, but was abandoned). Their use also differed from today. For example, in England, most surnames were occupational or locational and did not indicate inheritance prior to the 15th century. It was not uncommon at all to have several people with exactly the same name (John Smith, Richard Carpenter, etc.).

  2. Some surnames are much more common than others. For example, in Anglophone countries, the most common surname is Smith (and it can be traced far back). The same applies to names (see, for example, given name statistics for the USA in 1850-1940). Therefore, it is not really a problem to have several women with exactly the same name and surname regardless of their origin, family relationships, and marital status.

  3. Not all Western cultures and not at all times require (or required) a name change for married women. Anglophone cultures, indeed, had coverture laws that among other things encouraged the practice of addressing women by their husbands' names. But I do not recall any Western country that would require a legal name change.

    Update following the discussion on comments: In 1896-1976 German law (West Germany after 1945) required women to adopt their husband's surname as a marital or family name (Ehename). A woman was allowed to add her maiden name to her husband's surname if she desired so. I am not familiar with specifics of the German law and not clear on the usage of Ehename vs Nachname. But it seems that this law can be viewed as a legally required name change. I would greatly appreciate it if someone versed in German law could clarify this point.

    Therefore, it is possible to get married and keep the maiden name in most Western European countries. Other people in formal situations may address this immortal character using a married name, but she can keep her original name and her friends can keep using it.

  4. If your immortal was born a long time ago, name changes might be necessary to avoid unwanted attention. Names and naming conventions are not static. They change over time. Some names that are now considered to be male were once used for women (for example, in the mid-1500s Richard was a popular name for both girls and boys). Of course, you may conveniently name your character in a way that is more or less acceptable using today's standards. However, if your character was born 5000 years ago this name might've not existed at all. So, do your research.

To summarise, it would not be suspicious at all if the same woman appears throughout history with the same name and surname, given that her name and surname are common enough. She also can get married and keep her maiden name.

'Paper trail' becomes an issue only if this woman is a member of the nobility or in modern times when identity papers became common and in many places required. As technology advances, the difficulty of establishing new identities will only increase. Moreover, it might make more sense to change names rather than keep the same one.


A side note:

The name problem is rather trivial. If I were a female immortal I would be much more concerned with problems associated with my wealth. The abovementioned coverture laws did not allow women to own any property or make contracts in their names. 'Black widow' scenario is actually a very attractive option for a female immortal who does not wish to beg for food.

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent answer, but one nitpick: When/where has “Richard” ever been predominantly female? I’ve never heard of that and can’t find any mention on brief googling, e.g. no suggestion of it on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard Clearer examples of name usage shifting gender might be Ashley, Lindsay, or Madison, all of which changed from mainly male to mainly female over the 20th century. Female-to-male shifts seem rarer, presumably since sexism (viewing femaleness as lower-status) means that people are more reluctant to give names with any feminine associations to boys than vice versa. $\endgroup$ Aug 9 at 11:27
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine I did not say 'predominantly', though. Richard is an excellent example, because, the majority of people associate it with men. I edited my answer to include the link to my source. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Aug 9 at 17:49
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, if the immortal was born a long time ago would she not care at all what her surname is? Considering the attitude towards surname for the majority of her life. She may consider the modern obsession with surnames to be "cute" and silly. $\endgroup$
    – slebetman
    Aug 9 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Otkin Hmm... "requirement" is a too weak word for what actually happened. Women were continually kept under a legal guardian: the father until marriage, the husband after marriage. Divorce meant social exclusion. The only way out of this was becoming a widow, age thresholds didn't exist. Oh, and the guardian (father or husband) could terminate any employment contract she might have signed - which meant nobody wanted to hire women, unless the husband was known to be so poor that he desperately needed the money and wouldn't do so. Not a good time to be a woman... $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Aug 10 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Otkin Nachname. Ehename as a concept is relevant only for civil registration office (Standesamt), thre is zero reason to use Ehename in everday life. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Aug 16 at 2:16
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Claim to be a niece. Her brother agreed to send her. With some trickery, she can have the niece stay for a time looking after her frail old aunt.

Just say you are your brother's child. In fact, this is easier than claiming a daughter, because her growing up away from you is expected, though some "visits to my brother's family" would be wise.

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    $\begingroup$ Plot twist: the travel to the brother's family that ends up bring back the niece... actually brings back a frail old aunt, that the protagonist will take care of until she dies. $\endgroup$ Aug 9 at 9:45
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Don't put down roots

You're assuming the immortal is a major society figure who would be widely known. There is no reason why this would be the case. If the immortal has the sense to avoid settling in one place for any length of time, they can easily stay under the radar.

Romanis have been wandering Europe for a very long time. Most of them left very little lasting impression on the communities they went through. They quite likely would all know, but they wouldn't tell a gadjo. Even if it slipped out, it would just be written off as a tall tale from a gypsy trying to con a gullible mark.

Similarly, until the 1800s it was normal for there to be travelling traders bringing luxury goods around villages. If the immortal simply avoids going back anywhere she's visited for a century, anyone who could have remembered them would be dead.

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    $\begingroup$ It needn't even be a century. If the immortal keeps her apparel, hairstyle, etc. updated with changing trends, 40-50 years would probably be sufficient that even if she were seen by someone she'd met the last time she went through, they'd believe they are looking at someone who looks "just like a girl I used to know", but who couldn't be that girl, because she'd be in her sixties by now. $\endgroup$ Aug 9 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ @DanHenderson Fair point, but still, you don't get old by taking chances. :) $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Aug 9 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ @DanHenderson It beats the alternative, which is a stake through the heart. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Aug 23 at 20:21
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A Few thoughts:

There are various ways to go about this, depending on the finances of the woman, ethics, etc. (let's call her Mary Shelly). The lack of records is trivial through most of history, and records can be faked or are incomplete.

  • She claims to be a widow: If Mary Shelly shows up in town, claiming to be the widowed granddaughter of someone who died without descendants around, and she buys the "family" home, who will question it? The woman has a different last name, which OBVIOUSLY is a married name, right? Hey, what do you know, the old guy DID have a granddaughter named Mary, but the real granddaughter died in childbirth ten years ago in a different region, or died at birth, then the records were forged.
  • She's good at faking documents: Given time and experience and planning, she creates a shell game of falsified documents showing she was from lots of places. Every time a child dies, or a family moves, records of an extra child named Mary show up. Who cares? And who is looking for a forged identity that was forged twenty years ago? For a female, a matching last name is irrelevant - a forged marriage certificate of Mary Schmitt marrying John Shelly (who died in the war) gives her a perfectly valid identity.
  • She has a family of accomplices: Mary has informally adopted a family (or raised orphans hand-selected to resemble her), who either share or take on the Shelly name. They may even believe they ARE related to her, and cover out of loyalty. They may have real members of the family that share Mary Shelly's name. She owns all the lands and homes, and they move to another town every 20-30 years when she tells them to. The family/orphans get the benefit of wealth, and all they need to do is move to a new town when told and leave records and reports of a spinster/widowed Aunt/niece/sister who manages their affairs when they are away. Given a couple generations, who will remember her? And if they do, any resemblance must be a familial relationship. Members of the extended family might not even need to be in on the secret, so a distant "niece" of hers in town married to a local boy doesn't remember Aunt Mary, but is told by the family not to ask questions about where the family wealth is from. An extra 500 pounds of dowry and everyone loves Aunt Mary.
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James Blish wrote a story "Beep", Galaxy, Feb. 1954, and expanded it into a novel The Quincunx of Time, 1973, which I happened to mentioned somewhere else today. And by another coincidence I also happened to get a book which includes "Beep" out of box yesterday.

One scene includes the line:

If a women is going to go in for disguises, there are always two she can assume outside her own sex: a young boy and a very old man.

So if that is accurate, perhaps your immortal woman will sometimes impersonate young boys and old men.

If she lives in the same place for centuries, and tries to build up a fortune over the centuries, she might extablish a "family" consisting of several women of various ages who strongly resemble each other, and several young boys and old men, also with a strong family resemblence. And because they are so reclusive, only one at a time will be seen by their few neighbors. And occasionally it might be announced that a older family member died or that a baby was born, though that "baby" won't be seen until years later when it is much bigger.

I also note that in some societies eunuchs were common, so possibly she could impersonate an eunuch at times, explaining why she makes such a feminine-looking "man".

I believe that there been a few other questions about immortals hiding.

Here is a link to one of them that might have more ideas you can use:

https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/158845/how-would-a-young-girl-boy-about-14-who-never-gets-old-survive-in-the-16th-cen/158861#158861[1]

Obviously a writer of a story where person A discovers that person B is immortal will want person B to keep their immortality a more or less closely guarded secret. In different stories the immortal might be more or less relaxed or paranoid about their secret being discovered.

And obviously a story set in the present or past can't have someone who is known to medical science to have lived for centuries. Unless it is in an alternate universe, of course.

But if someone wants to write a science fiction of fantasy story - set in a different society than ours - where the protagonist is immortal, they might want to consider whether an immortal might want to keep their immortality more or less a secret or make it more or less public.

There have been many people who claimed to be far older than the oldest medically accepted human, and as far as I know few of them suffered from being considered by many to be extremely old.

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Routinely adopt a daughter from an orphanage

You have what you're considering a problem: you'd have a hard time showing lineage as a descendant. But instead of considering it a problem to solve, you can lean into it, making it useful both as a way to pretend to be someone with their Name + Roman Numeral Number format, and give potential investigators a reason to believe it's just a legacy name. As a bonus, said investigators would then be tracing down among incorrect leads following unrelated family lines.

In a village, go to the orphanage, and adopt a daughter. Raise them, and be sure to get lots of family portraits/paintings/pictures over their growing up period.

Once they hit the age of majority, reveal to them that they were adopted, and let them go and try and find out who their past family was - if you know what their name was before that, tell them that and let them change their name legally when they leave.

This has a few advantages - you'd get to know their personality, how they think, and dress, and you get to adapt it before you try to take on their identity. You'd also have 18 years to learn their mannerisms to be able to adopt them yourself, and change with the culture so that you don't seem too old-fashioned at any given time.

Ideally, you'd want them to take the name change either just before you fake your death and take their identity, but you'd want to have a historical record of being that orphan when you remake your identity.

You may need to move around to keep the charade up a few times from some older people who might find it weird that you don't quite sound like your adopted daughter, but you can surely return at a later point to the same house, effectively inheriting your old home, and repeat the process.

This gives you not just a lineage that could be traced, and an explanation as to why you look the same as your mother/grandmother/ancestors (That is, that they were your single parent who raised you), while also leaving anyone trying to chase down your lineage into a dead-end as they track down orphanages and find that "Jane Smith IV" has no genetic relation to "Jane Smith III", but that their commonalities are that they were all adopted and had other parents who had sent them to an orphanage.

Hopefully you don't need to have a backup plan in case your adopted daughter ends up dying before you can take on their identity and have them change theirs to the one they had before being adopted or sent to an orphanage, but in that worst case, you can try again with a newly adopted daughter, and increase the numbering system a bit more.

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She is Korean, surname: Kim

Almost 22% of South Koreans have Kim as their surname. Unrelated Kims marry Kims all the time, and there's no shortage of multiple generations of repeated female names. Nobody would bat an eye.

It's not immediately apparent, but you're likely going to have a bigger problem with their given names than their surnames because women's popular given names actually change faster than men's. Consider this: how many little girls do you know named Gertrude, Esther, Mildred, or even Louise or Ruth? Not many I'd bet. And yet all of these were once very common (as attested in my family tree).

In the west, the typical author's solution to this is to use biblical names which are "always" acceptable (likely to change from now into the future though). However even there, Esther and Ruth seem like pretty dated names these days. "Mary" still works though, and for a western female is probably the best bet for an immortal name that won't raise eyebrows anywhere or anywhen (or it's national equivalent).

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    $\begingroup$ The real name can be a long ornate multi-syllable (or even multi-part) name, and she can pick a single syllable or diminutive form based on that, having many choices from which to match the current culture, while still feeling that it is her "real" name. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Aug 10 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz What name retention vs transformations are or are not acceptable is up to the OP to decide of course. There are many possibilities and no concrete correct or incorrect here. $\endgroup$ Aug 10 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ Whether Mary works or not depends on the immortal's birth date and location. If this immortal was born in 2000 BCE, Mary is a very unlikely option (if possible at all). Likewise, if she was born in Sweden prior to Christianisation Mary is very unlikely. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Aug 10 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin Mary was a popular name in Semitic cultures even BCE, especially considering preceding variants like Miriam. But yes, as previously indicated, where and when matters, and there aren't that many cultures whose given and surnames have lasted for that long. And it's going to be hard to come up with another female name that's still in common use after 4000 years. $\endgroup$ Aug 11 at 13:11
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If your story takes place in a pre-modern society, this is surprisingly easy. In most societies age was not accurately recorded, often someone older than 40 would be said to be 100 and people wouldn't question it.

Those who are close to your character eventually die off due to old age, and people just think of the character as "old". If they do manage to have a friend for 40 years, perhaps they may question why the character doesn't appear to be getting older, but it's likely they'll just accept it. There's speculation this is what happened with Jeanne Calment, those who knew her simply died off or forgot or weren't taken seriously.

So long as the character doesn't have a strong public presence over a hundred years, people simply won't notice the anomaly because you need to have records spanning a great deal of time.

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The more thoroughly documented a society becomes, the harder this will be, but one way that this problem could be handled has been used in fiction previously: your (forged) identity documents show you as coming from somewhere where it just so happens that it can't be verified (e.g., a city destroyed in a war, an isolated rural area where "the old Smith place? That burned to the ground back in...", etc.). Once you have a couple of basic identity documents (e.g., a replacement birth certificate), you can "rebuild" your identity a few pieces at a time, somewhere far from where you supposedly came from.

Friday, by Robert A. Heinlein, uses this; the title character, who happens to be a lab-grown 'artificial person' (not an android) has papers showing that she came from a destroyed city (Seattle, I think), and during the course of the story, either Mexico City or Acapulco is destroyed in a dispute between the government and a multinational corporation - and in discussing artificial people, Friday says something to the effect that 'a lot of people like me will be "coming from" ...' whichever city it was.

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Gender fluidity

Spend part lf your time as a female, then part of your time as a male, in that order.

Then the male identity "dies" and the immortal disappears. Some time later a woman shows up that looks a lot like that male identity and carries the same full name and looks as the previous female identity.

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    $\begingroup$ This doesn't appear to answer the specifics of the question, like how does the character retain the same name throughout the centuries. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Aug 8 at 23:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Corey I did an adjustment there to make it clearer. $\endgroup$ Aug 9 at 1:13

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