Using Reincarnation in Fiction

Rhymes with Orange

Now, I’ve talked about resurrection in the past because that’s a very common spell and quest in fantasy.  This time, I’m going to talk about reincarnation being used in fiction, which is not the same thing.  I’ve seen some people use it as if it’s resurrection, but this is not a person coming back as the same person or thing.  They return as a baby that is either the same species or a different one entirely.

For example, an Elven warrior is killed.  If resurrected then he comes back at the same age as he was when he died.  He will be the same person.  If reincarnated, he is put back to the beginning of a new life.  Maybe he returns as another elf or maybe he’s a gnome now.  He might even have a new mind and not know about his old life.  There are a lot of variables that I’m going to try to get into here.  Hopefully I manage to touch on all of them.

The How and Why?

If you’re going to use reincarnation in your world then you need to decide if it’s a spell or something that always happens.  A spell means a caster is required and you must determine how common it is.  Once you claim that this is a rare spell, people will expect it to be difficult.  The opposite happens if you say it’s common because then the audience will wonder why it doesn’t happen to everyone.  Maybe it does and a main plot point is that every character was someone else in the past.  All of this stems from world-building and there is a lot of leeway.  Reincarnation isn’t used that often beyond the very common ‘you were my lover/friend/savior in a past life’ revelation.

Unlike resurrection, reincarnation doesn’t eliminate the fear of death.  They do NOT come back as the same character, so they are still effectively removed from the story.  You can’t have the heroes go into battle with a powerless newborn who happens to be their reincarnated ally.  The reviving of powers is usually something that occurs over time.  You can have it done at birth, but that brings up a bunch of problems.  The biggest of which is still that newborn being taken into a climactic battle where it needs to be carried by another hero and has absolutely no armor.

What to Change Them Into?

This is a very difficult question.  Since they cannot come back as themselves, you need to create a new form for the character.  We tend to think of other civilized beings because we want them to remain in the story.  Many times it will be combined with a fast-growing thing that turns them into an adult.  Another option is that they are awakened in a reincarnated form that was already walking around as a backup.  These tactics can backfire easily since it would make more sense to to resurrection.  If you’re simply going to give them a new form that can continue the story then there isn’t any reason to beat around the bush.  It comes off as the author wanting to play around with another species, but couldn’t be bothered to insert a new character.

Never forget animals when working with reincarnation.  A key part of it in real life is that you work your way up an organism ladder.  Not the actual term, but you become a ‘better’ creature if you lived a good life.  You can backwards if you’re evil.  This can be avoided if you make it clear that reincarnation only happens with certain species, but that dilutes the overall concept.  Still, it does mean your heroes will stay as the higher organisms and villains will be pushed back to insects.  Not that some insects aren’t deadly, but you can’t be that threatening if a hero can take you out with hairspray and a rolled up newspaper.  It’s your choice on how you want to work this system, but most don’t bother with animals unless it’s a special case.  Usually, it’s a dog or a mount that has the spirit of a loved one under certain circumstances.

What About the Memories?

This is a big sticking point because there has to be some connection to the past life to make the reincarnation important.  If they were brought back and it’s nothing more than a passing comment then there’s no point.  Same goes for not remembering who or what they were before death.  It has to reach subplot levels for the reincarnation to have any impact on both the story and the world.  This is where the memories of the past life can be useful because they create conflict.  You now have an individual who is remembering events that involved them, but really didn’t.  They can question how much of their current life is their own and how much came from the past.

There are two ways to go about this.  One is to have someone else remember the old life and be a ‘teacher’ to the audience and other characters.  This can be annoying in some fashion, but it allows you to explain how the past life worked without overwriting the new character.  This also helps in making it clear that there are two different beings involved even if reincarnation is involved.  You don’t lose the individual for a character who really isn’t around.

The second option is to have the memories return over time and have them merge with the new character.  You leave the personality alone, but they start to remember previous information.  It can be treated like them recalling pieces of their childhood, which can hold positive and important information.  Yet, it is nothing more than their past and it doesn’t alter their future beyond helping them along.  This is a difficult balancing act because you need to keep it as information only instead of emotions.  The new character can remember being in love with someone, but it gets rough if they fall in love.  All of this is if you want to retain them as separate entities from the first life.  If the point is for them to be revived as their old self then you don’t have to worry about any of this.

Those are the main points of reincarnation that I wanted to make.  Guess I condensed it enough.  So, what do you think?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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32 Responses to Using Reincarnation in Fiction

  1. Our DM reincarnated a party member as a Bugbear once. I don’t think we delved into past memories, though we did basically treat him like he just had a different body. Missed opportunity.

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  2. L. Marie says:

    I haven’t used this, but you’ve provided good advice for it.
    Would you consider Neo in The Matrix someone reincarnated?

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  3. I had this idea to have a reincarnated character but it became so complex that I gave up. You have a nice primer here. Thanks.

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  4. I’m afraid my reincarnation attempts would merge into possession at some point. Almost a Jekyll and Hyde concept.

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  5. V.M.Sang says:

    A very interesting post, Charles. The best novels I’ve read which have reincarnation as a central theme are Katherine Kerr’s Deverry books. Each book has the same souls in a different age. They keep on being reincarnated until certain lessons have been learned. Since they remember nothing of their past, that’s a little difficult! But one character, cursed by the gods to live until he’d made recompense for an earlier mistake, links and helps them.
    There is reincarnation in my own Wolves of Vimar series, but it doesn’t impact the story. However, if a soul is considered too evil to learn, the gods will destroy that soul. Hasn’t happened yet, but it might.

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  6. Jaq says:

    Great post. It was especially interesting to me because I’ve studied reincarnation on a serious level, even having regression hypnosis, and I’ve just released a book called The Chase for Choronzon where two reincarnated magicians chase a gatekeeper demon through time. As they’re magicians, they get to keep a lot of memories but one was reincarnated as a cat, an animal he was known to hate in his previous life.

    One of the best reincarnation stories I’ve read is Audrey Rose by Frank De Felitta. A man tracks down the reincarnation of his daughter, lost to a car accident. Of course she has new parents. Really interesting concept!

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  7. Interesting points in this post. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of reincarnation, and I’m having great fun with it in my WIP, a supernatural comedy series for children.

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  8. Jaq says:

    Don’t know his reason. It’s just one of those known facts about Crowley.

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  9. Pingback: Week In Review – Joan Hall

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