So You Want To: Write A Vampire Novel
Literature about vampires has been around since the 18th century and for good reason. The vampire can be a metaphor for many things - emerging sexuality
, or even certain ethnicities. And down the years, the vampire has only gotten more popular, leading to even more interpretations.
Take for example these two quotes.
"The figure turns half round, and the light falls upon its face. It is perfectly white — perfectly bloodless. The eyes look like polished tin; the lips are drawn back, and the principal feature next to those dreadful eyes is the teeth — the fearful looking teeth — projecting like those of some wild animal, hideously, glaringly white, and fang-like. It approaches the bed with a strange, gliding movement. It clashes together the long nails that literally appear to hang from the finger ends. No sound comes from its lips. Is she going mad — that young and beautiful girl exposed to so much terror? She has drawn up all her limbs; she cannot even now say help."
"I vividly remembered the flat black color of his eyes the last time he'd glared at me - the color was striking against the background of his pale skin and his auburn hair. Today, his eyes were a completely different color: a strange ocher, darker than butterscotch, but with the same golden tone. I didn't understand how that could be, unless he was lying for some reason about the contacts. Or maybe Forks was making me crazy in the literal sense of the word."
The first is from Varney the Vampire
, published in 1845 by James Malcolm Rymer, while the second is from Twilight
published in 2005 by Stephenie Meyer
. Both use Purple Prose
, but in very different contexts. Back in 1845, the "vampyre" that Rymer was describing was ugly, monstrous, yet still had a sexual element to it. The scene where Varney drains a woman in her bedroom is written almost as if it's rape. Twilight
, on the other hand, uses Purple Prose
in its effort to show how beautiful vampires are and how they sparkle.
If you want to write a novel about vampires (or just one vampire), then follow these simple (or not-so-simple) instructions. (And don't forget to drop by So You Want To Write A Story
for basic advice that covers all genres.)
Before you start your novel.
- Our Vampires Are Different: If you're going to write about a vampire/vampires, first you must establish their behavior, weaknesses, abilities, physical makeup, and limits pertaining to them. This will prevent such continuity snarls as your vampire saying that weakness to garlic thing is a complete myth in Chapter One and having him burn his mouth on garlic pizza in Chapter Five (with the obvious exception being if it's rather hot garlic pizza). This is for you, the author, to remember— not necessarily the reader. So you do not have to spell everything out all at once or at all. However, once a vampire "rule" is established, avoid contradicting that aspect of the vampire.
- Be Genre Savvy: Decide which genre your vampire novel will be. The first vampire novels (Varney the Vampire included) were almost exclusively Gothic Horror, but nowadays you can add vampires into almost any genre. The most popular are the vampire romance and the vampire detective genres (well, technically subgenres). Don't be afraid to branch out, however, mixing vampires with different genres is always fun. Make a Vampire Romantic Comedy (it worked with zombies) or a Vampire Spy Novel.
Now that you've decided what kind of vampire novel you're going to write, here are some things to consider.
- Is it Sci-Fi or Fantasy? Depending on what kind of vampires you're writing about, your novel could fall on either side of the spectrum. If you try to explain vampirism as a disease or a separate species, it would more than likely fall into the science fiction area. If your vampires don't eat blood, but rather Life Energy, they could teeter over the brink and become the Wraith. Some blurring of the line is possible; if they were once human and became a separate species through a divine curse rather than through a virus or mutation. On the other hand, you can make your novel Heroic Fantasy, with all the tropes associated with it. The Gothic Horror genre, however, can drift back and forth - the vampire is never really explained beyond being a myth, but besides that, the rest is based around reality (making most gothic horrors take place in Crapsack Worlds).
- Overall, it is recommended you take the supernatural route, as the vampire is a creature rooted in folklore and scientifically explaining the phenomenon should only be done if you are feeling very ambitious.
- Character Alignment: Now you have to figure out what alignment your vampires are. Are they a race of Always Chaotic Evil? If you want to have a heroic vampire, however, that could fall into the pit of a Friendly Neighborhood Vampire. If, on the other hand, all vampires are Chaotic Good and merely misunderstood, that could fall into the pit of...well, bad writing. Only the best of writers can pull off making years and years of evil vampires be "misunderstood."
- Abnormal Ammo / Depleted Phlebotinum Shells: Maybe your vampires can only be hurt with silver, or garlic, or some other Phlebotinum. And, if you've got heavily-armed, knowledgable vampire hunters, they'll want to use such ammunition.
- Your Vampires Suck: How does your vampire feel about the depictions of other vampires in movies and literature? It's usually easy to make an amusing scene where he lambasts them for being painfully inaccurate, but this has now become so common it might actually be a good idea to try subverting it, by having the Vampire be a fan of vampire literature, for all its inaccuracies. If you really want to throw this trope out the window, have him be a writer of vampire fiction.
They're full of spikes
- Purple Prose: Back in the days of Gothic Horror, purple prose was all the rage. However, gothic horror slowly faded out of favor and so did a certain reddish writing. Only the best writers can now pull it off and they almost always do it as parody. Those that don't tend to fall into the Pit of Gosh Look How Pretty My Vampires Are. Take this line from Twilight for instance: "His hair was dripping wet, disheveled — even so, he looked like he'd just finished shooting a commercial for hair gel." At this point, it doesn't matter how cool your story is, it will be too hard to slog through it.
- (On the other hand, Twilight did end up earning millions and millions of dollars, so if you think you can get away with it, and have enough references of beautiful men to make up for it, go for it. We should warn you though: most can't.)
- Characterization Tropes: You've thought up a grand plot and great vampires, but there's something missing: personality. Without personality, characters are cardboard cutouts, so it doesn't matter how well-written your plot is. Make sure to add variety with your characters' personalities and study other characters to see what works and what doesn't. Which brings us to:
- The Ubiquitous Mary Sue: Please don't make your vampires completely and utterly perfect. There is a way to make your vampires not Made of Plasticine, but not insanely overpowerful. This goes for the way your characters act, as well: if your vampires consider themselves perfect, that's fine. If other (non-vampire) characters consider them perfect as well, that's where it goes wrong.
- Also, if your vampires do interact extensively with humans, do not make them prefer one human over all the others for some ambiguous reason (i.e., "there was just something different about her") this makes it dangerously easy to stumble into Mary Sue territory (as countless fanfictions will prove.) Just because your story is fiction and some of your characters are supernatural beings does not mean that the intrapersonal dynamics between them do not have to be believable.
- Related to the above, do not put overemphasis on the sexual prowess or appeal of vampires unless you are writing porn. Simply because they are undead blood-drinkers does not make them sex gods. Although this can be the case for characters with fetishes towards necrophilia and Real Life vampirism; it can nonetheless ruin the plot if it gets out of hand by inserting too much wish-fulfillment. This is not to say you cannot have a sexy vampire character; but avoid making the character sexy because the character is a vampire.
- The Vegetarian Vampire, while not an inherently bad trope, can be quite annoying. One of the main drawbacks to being a vampire is the need for human blood. Easily substituting the need with animal blood or unused blood from hospitals makes the vampire condition less of a curse and more of an easily handled problem. If the issue comes up, have some significant drawbacks to these methods or an explanation why the substitutes would not suffice the need to prey on humans. Related; if your vampire absorbs life energy/chi/psychic energy instead of blood, doing so should harm the victim.
- Vampire Vords: Use them only vor parody, never vor serious viction.
- The Broody Vampire who constantly angsts about his undead bloodlust and curses his endless immortality at every opportunity has been done. A lot. To the point where it's really, really annoying. Not that being a vampire might not suck — particularly if you're someone who doesn't want to live forever while everyone you love ages and dies and doesn't like the thought of killing other people in order to survive — but it's a very easy and potentially lazy crutch for angst, conflict and drama; the perpetually tormented vampire constantly Wangsting on about something or other has swiftly moved into the realm of cliche.
- Some existential angst is fine, just don't lay it on too thick or linger on it too long.
Tropes are made to be broken.
- The Byronic Hero: Vampires practically invented this trope, starting with Polidori's "The Vampyre" which was actually based on Lord Byron. Because of that, it's been done to death. Instead, why not make your vampire a Science Hero (he fights other vampires with the power of SCIENCE!) or an Adventurer Archaeologist? If your vampire is the villain, make him a Corrupt Corporate Executive or a Heroic Sociopath.
- Also, try deconstructing the typical heroines of vampire romance stories. Dangerous men may be attractive, but if your vampires are man-eating inhuman monsters it'd take a pretty fucked up woman to actually love one. Try making her a female version of The Renfield.
- Consider also deconstructing or subverting the traditional weaknesses — and traditional strengths — of vampires. This has obviously been done with weaknesses — the traditional weaknesses to garlic and crosses in particular have been commonly played with and subverted — but consider other elements of the vampire mythos and how they can be played with. For example, guns; it's generally accepted that a vampire is immune to gunfire, and certainly won't be killed by bullets. This doesn't, however, necessarily mean that they are immune to the damage that being shot with a firearm can do to a human body, living or dead.
- How about averting the typical cliches that vampires have to be brooding or Ax Crazy and writing about a cheery eccentric vampire that doesn't understand that his/her Transylvanian accent makes them stand out.
- It may be interesting to do something of a double subversion and look up some of the older more obscure depictions of vampires in folklore and base the vampires in your story on those (for example: giving them lesser known weaknesses, such as an obsession with numbers or the inability to cross moving water.)
- Since vampires seem to have been depicted with fewer and fewer weaknesses as time has gone by, it would be kind of refreshing to see a modern vampire story that featured vampires with some of the older more traditional weaknesses.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
If you positively, absolutely must learn something.*
- Vampire literature in the past often dealt with the dangers of the forbidden, but there are plenty of themes nowadays that could work, perhaps something to do with Dark Is Not Evil. However, beware the Fantastic Aesop and the Space Whale Aesop, both dangers when working in speculative fiction.
- If you're planning on using a Heroic Vampire, you've got a classic on your hands: the tug-of-war between the willpower and the appetites, as vividly portrayed by the vampire's internal struggle. The overwhelming desire for blood versus the fear of hurting those you love (or even innocent humans in general). And the fear that once you give in and drink, you might not be able to stop yourself. How far will you go to prevent that from happening?
- A Christian author might get even more mileage out of this theme by using it as a picture of the "old sin nature" that prompts us to do evil even when we don't want to. Could even quote the Apostle Paul ("the evil I do not wish to do, that I do... who will deliver me from this body of death?").
- Similarly, you could develop the themes of humanity, heroism, and repentance: If a vampire tries to do good in the world, is that enough, or not enough, to make him a good person? Firstly, is it any way to make up for past misdeeds? Secondly, is a vampire by nature evil and incapable of being looked on as a "human"? (Again, certain religious teachings (regeneration, repentance, forgiveness) could easily be brought out through these motifs, but they're equally as powerful in a more mundane aspect.)
- For a look at both these issues in play, try Buffy the Vampire Slayer, especially with the character arc of Spike. Overall it's a very interesting and mostly satisfying evolution with a few thematic fumbles. To wit: The show claims that Spike, lacking a soul, can't be a good guy... but then he shows off all the traits of the hero, including love, selflessness, and sacrifice. His ultimate act of "irredeemable evil" turns out to be, oddly, something very mundane that any human might have done*. And finally, a lifetime of evil deeds can be forgiven once you've gotten your soul back... well, that's a huge topic in and of itself. That show didn't suffer for lack of weighty material.
- One of the most common criticisms of vampire/human love stories is that they imply necrophilia, so why not just take that and run with it? Write a story in which a vampire human relationship is used as a metaphor for mankind's psychological relationship with death.
- Of course this concept would need to be written with the necessary subtlety, dealing with death in a mature, nuanced way, not a melodramatic, over the top, teenage-goth-girl-going-through-her-"suicidal"-phase way.
- Or, if you wanted to go a braver more controversial route, you could just go ahead and make your human/vampire relationship a metaphor for necrophilia itself and use the story as a means of exploring the psychological and philosophical basis of that disorder.
- Historically, writers have made good use of vampirism as an allegory for disease and/or sexual deviancy (playing on the fact that both sex and vampirism involve an exchange of fluids) but, if an author is to use these themes, he/she must do so with great care; if they are made too overt or are not adjusted with regard to modern sensibilities, they will only make your story seem painfully cliche and outdated.
Because Arc Words
- The color red is almost ubiquitous in vampire fiction, mainly having to do with a vampires need for blood. These displays of red can range from the obvious (roses) to something unique (perhaps a character literally wears rose-tinted glasses).
- Bram Stoker's Dracula featured the repeated imagery of red against white — red blood against white shirts and white fangs, the wolves' "lolling red tongues and sharp white teeth", red prick marks against the white flesh of the heroine where Dracula had bitten her, et cetera.
- Traditional Gothic settings (crumbling old castles, overgrown cemeteries, deep dark Uberwaldian forests) and imagery were once par for the course in vampire literature, but have been out of use among authors for so long that audiences might actually enjoy seeing them again as long as the stories taking place in them are original and engaging.
And not the kind for graves.
- A vampire detective novel... in a Genteel Interbellum Setting.
- A vampire spy novel that parodies both vampire and James Bond clichés.
- Combine the recent oversexualization of vampires with the idea of vampirism as The Virus & do a vampire story based on the disturbing phenomenon of Bug Chasing.
- Non-satire comedy
- Strip away the glamorization and make vampirism actually seem like a disease or a disability, the whole eternal youth thing can still be there, but add some other more gruesome physical symptoms that would make the audience really contemplate rather or not it would be worth it (can you say Body Horror ?)
- The primary flaw in most modern depictions of vampires is that there doesn't seem to be any down side to being a vampire or, if there is, it's very easily averted.
- How will vampires handle the Zombie Apocalypse ? Reactions may vary widely. A vampire may panic: "Oh my, these creatures are inedible, I'm going to starve if they displace mortals!". A Friendly Neighborhood Vampire may mingle with survivors and use his powers to fight off the apocalypse, receiving blood donations for his help. And if vampires and zombies are of the same nature, a more eldritch and evil vampire may discover powers to command and control these creatures. "Wow, great. An instant, never-ending army! With it, I shall carve my Empire of Darkness from the smoking ruins of the mortal world!"
Set Designer / Location Scout
- Against vampires, guns are almost certainly useless. Instead, why not try some flaming arrows - almost all vampires hate fire. If, however, it's a vampire that needs arming, there's nothing more Bad Ass than a sword or katana.
- If your vampire is susceptible to the average vampire weakness, than vampire hunters should always carry a cross and some holy water. If not, there's always Mr. Pointy.
- However, if conventional guns are useless, why not try some unusual ones? Depleted Phlebotinum Shells made from wood or church crosses are one option; the humble, mundane Dragonbreath shotgun shell is another. And if a vampire fights other vampires, Super Strength may help them to wield very high-caliber weaponry that surpasses the vampires' immunity by virtue of its sheer power and loud bang.
Anime and Manga
- The Bad Ass Vampire Action Hero: Hellsing has the absolute perfect example in Alucard. To a lesser degree, same with Seras.
- Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, a German silent film where the vampire (Count Orlok because they couldn't get the rights to Dracula) is reinvented as a monstrous rat-like creature, who has spawned a host of imitators. Definitely a must see.
- The 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi. See it just for his accent.
- Horror of Dracula, the 1958 Hammer Horror production starring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.
- Bram Stoker's Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola's reinterpretation of the novel, with Gary Oldman as Dracula and Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing.
- Dracula Dead And Loving It, a Mel Brooks film parodying everything about Dracula (and more!). Just don't ask for an enema.
- Great inspiration if you're throwing out all the old rules: Near Dark. Road movie vampires, without fancy manors or manners. Brawlin', grubby white trash vampires, yet they're still Badass sexy. Vampires who shoot guns at humans. How much louder can you yell "Screw Tradition!" than that?
- Bram Stoker's Dracula, which is practically responsible for the current popularity of vampires. It's been adapted many, many times over the years in many different ways (see film).
- The Lesbian Vampire: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla back in 1872 invented this trope and it's been used quite often since.
- The Vampire Countess, Knightshade (The Vampire Brothers), and Vampire City, by French author Paul Feval. A not-quite-trilogy of vampire novels that predate Dracula by about thirty years, and an excellent exercise in how weird vampires can be. Available in English from Black Coat Press.
- Brian Lumley's Necroscope series, and Kim Newman's Dracula Cha Cha Cha, both of which take the vampire novel and fuse them with the spy genres. The former creating a truly horrifying, nightmarish, vision of the Cold War, and the latter playing every Suave James Bond cliché for every inch of mileage it can get.
- Speaking of Kim Newman, his Anno Dracula series — essentially taking the premise that the heroes in Bram Stoker's original failed to stop Dracula — is well worth a look.
- The Night Watch series does not necessarily center around vampires, but does deal with them at length in some very innovative ways.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Out of all works involving vampires, second only to Dracula in terms of cultural significance. An absolute must-see if most of your vampires are going to be evil.
- True Blood: This show manages to combine a lot of stereotypical vampire characterizations with some more unconventional ones all with a unique (if some what convoluted) sociological and political subtext.
- Also, there's plenty of eye candy to be had for both genders.
The Epic Fails
- Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series
- YYMV: The first book is actually a pretty decent vampire detective story, which did interesting things with the 'vampires have come out' idea years before True Blood. It's only later (in Narcissus in Chains) that the series descends into bad vampire porn.
Proceed with Caution
- The Vampire Chronicles novels by Anne Rice. The first book was popular enough to get made into a movie and the first few books were even well received by literary critics, but starting with the fourth book, The Tale of the Body Thief, Anne decided to stop using an editor. The results were ... less than stellar.
- These books were ether the best the modern vampire genre had to offer or the beginning of the end for the genre (or both) depending on who you ask, ether way they are the Trope Namer (or at least Trope Codifier) for a lot of vampire tropes and played a substantial role in shaping what would eventually become what most people regard as the modern vampire mythos.
- Twilight. Although it has a massive fan base, it is listed here for the so-called 'vampires' not being like any traditional folklore myths save for the need of blood and immortality. To cement the point, the author herself even admitted to having not done any research on the subject of vampires. It also for numerous reasons has a vehement Hatedom, although we don't really need to go into the specifics; it's very much a 'love-it-or-hate-it' property, and should be taken on those merits.
- These books are ether the worst the modern vampire genre has to offer, or the greatest love story of our generation, depending on who you ask, but only ask if you are willing to listen to someone talk about the books for at least an hour straight as both the Fandom and the Hatedom are equally passionate and vocal.
- The Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries: These books are a little heavy on the camp and you can tell that the author has read a lot of romance novels but if you're a fan of both those things, or have at least a moderate tolerance for them, the stories can be quite entertaining and engrossing.