Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ten tips for writing a vampire novel

    I love vampires but, God almighty, it's =hard to do anything new with them. For years I wanted to thing I'd love to do but I couldn't think of what I could bring to the table which wouldn't be warmed over Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Lost Boys. Hell, I've even contemplated doing a Young Adult mummy novel because at least that didn't seem completely ripped off.

    It then struck me what I was doing wrong: I was trying to apologize for the genre. I kept trying to write the next vampire book in the same style as a bunch of other works rather than just presenting my own voice. I needed to stop trying to be different but just be good. Still, I jotted down some rules of what I wanted from my novel.

     The final result was Straight Outta Fangton, which is a novel that isn't my most successful but is a steady seller that many people seem to love. I think that's because I kept enough eye on what worked and didn't to achieve my goals. Here's my thoughts and I hope you would-be fangwriters will find it illuminating.

She's got enough going for her.
1:] Stop with the Mary Suedom of Vampirism

    I think part of the problem a lot of vampire media today is everyone is trying to eliminate the downsides to their condition. When you make vampires impossibly smooth awesome sex gods, you remove any reason why anyone but teenage girls would want to read about them.

    Every protagonist needs challenges to overcome and vampires have a ridiculous number of potential ones to deal with ranging from the classics like sunlight and repulsion by crosses to the more obscure like needing to sleep in the Earth of their homeland. Adding things like an inescapable need to count, which is an actual vampire weakness and not just something on Sesame Street, is a way of taking the polish off the undead.

    This leads to my bigger point with 2#.

Have a few drawbacks to dating her.
2:] Don't make vampires inherently romantic

    This includes in places where you're actually having romance with a vampire. Part of why the original vampire novel, Dracula, became exaggerated into a romance was because the repulsion of the character was part of the charm. There's nothing inherently curious about why beautiful, rich immortal sex gods get laid. You might as well question how Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie would attract someone.

    It's much more interesting to have vampires inherently repulsive on at least some level. Maybe they look like corpses rather than just pale, have innately terrible personalities, or are, you know, genuinely frightening. Make being bitten not erotic but like, well, being bitten in the neck by a wild animal. Challenging even a small trope of the undead made it more enjoyable for people. Hell, Anne Rice's vampires actually couldn't have sex but just had orgasmic bites.

3:] Balance your vampire rules (or don't)

    Vampires come in such a wide variety of shapes and sizes, it's pretty much proof that you're always going to have that scene where the guys discuss what the vampires of this setting can or cannot do. As mentioned in 1#, it's important to give your vampires weaknesses to go along with their power so they're not just Superman with fangs.

    I generally also believe it's a good idea to give them one for every power they have. One of the mistakes Anne Rice made, in my opinion at least, was she made all of her vampires invulnerable superbeings and thus took away a lot of their bite (so to speak). Make it clear and concise what your vampires can do is a good idea, but you can also go the opposite direction.

    In the Hammer Horror classic Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, they had a very interesting idea that vampires are inherently different: "As many different kinds as predatory animals." When you became a vampire, you developed your own weaknesses and abilities which were confusing as hell for hunters. Making vampiredom as mysterious for the vampires themselves as the reader is arguably much more interesting than a coherent set of rules.

Now imagine these guys eating kids.
4:] Let vampires be horrifying

    Most vampire fiction actually forget being one of the undead is supposed to be awful. I've mentioned giving back weaknesses to sunlight and de-romanticizing them but one thing I think will really help a vampire's depiction is outright atrocity. It's easy to let vampire victims be assholes or people the audience has no attachment to.

    It's quite another to have vampires, sympathetic or otherwise, tear into those who the audience likes. These sacrificial lambs were one of the reasons the early season of Buffy's vampires actually had some edge as the first episode opens with a "fake" member of the Scooby Gang, Jesse, getting murdered by the undead.

5:] Keep your vampire numbers intimate

    One thing to make a choice and commit to is whether vampires are the focus are a guest star, which is a good thing. A single vampire can be a force of nature in a book. They can tear through humans and possibly other supernaturals with ease. The Rules of Supervillainy's single vampire is a powerful creature even surrounded by superhumans. Esoterrorism has its own version of vampires as a background presence which exists as a sort of menacing shroud hanging over the rest of the world.

    Even if you're doing a vampire book about a society of vampires, it's good to keep the number of vampires low rather than turning them into cannon fodder. Vampires should never be mooks and giving them that sort of power and respect will prevent them from turning into a joke in your book.

Dark Age vampires vs. 90s vampires.
6:] Get into the nitty-gritty of vampiredom

    Very few vampire works actually give a shit about what the day-to-day life of vampires are. Usually, they're just about establishing the vampire and whatever nefarious deeds which they're going to be up to. In my opinion, this skips over the really interesting part of the condition. What do the vampires feed on? How they do they acquire their victims? What sort of victims do they prefer? Where do they live? How do they stay hidden? Most vampires just get away with their undead lives in books because the books are uninterested in telling the story. For me, I'd love to see a vampire slice-of-unlife work.

7:] Don't be afraid to mix up your genre

    Vampires can be inserted in just about genre possible. You can insert vampires in the Wild West, into science-fiction, Tolkien fantasy, or even spy fiction. Imagine James Bond using his undead abilities to help Queen and Country. They're a very flexible sort of monster that way. Going away from traditional Gothic Punk urban fantasy or the Victorian era is a pretty easy fix to make if you want do something different with your vampires.

8:] Don't try to parody but play it straight, even when parodying

    Twilight jokes are not just dated, they're carbon dated. So is making fun of Dracula. Bluntly, any parody of a vampire is going to age out of relevance by the time you get from writing to publication. Vampires are something which need to be treated completely serious if you're going to sell them to your audience and this includes if you're trying to joke about them. What We Do In the Shadows was one of the funniest vampire films of all time and the reason for that was that it played everything completely straight so that the ridiculousness of uncool vampires in New Zealand was all the more highlighted.

Some of these guys are fine. Just not all of them.
9:] Throw in a black, Latino, or plain-looking vampire  

    This is just a personal observation but there's a lot of gorgeous white dudes in vampiredom. Indeed, ninety-nine hundred out of a thousand vampires are white with Blade, Aaliyah's Akasha, and Blackula being about the only exceptions. Also, the vast majority of vampires are portrayed as inhumanly beautiful almost to the point of parody. So much so that Eddie the overweight vampire played Stephen "Jimmy James" Root was a memorable character simply by being an average-looking middle-aged man. Having vampires of different ethnicities and appearances, you know to better reflect the world, seems like a good idea.

10:] Don't be afraid to just write your story

     But most of all, just have confidence in your work.


  1. I suspect the reason why there's a lack of black vampires is that Vampires are usually portrayed as extremely pale, which makes a dark-skinned vampire rather odd. Do you make them albino? Or something else?

    What I, personally, do is just have vampires have grey (instead of brownish) pigment. So a vampire of African descent has a sort of charcoal skin color.

    1. While I never described it, in STRAIGHT OUTTA FANGTON, I made it clear that black vampires maintain their skin color but they have a slightly 'off' parlor which puts people off in a way most can't really describe. This is because they are shiny corpses.

  2. Regarding vampires and horror: What I do in my setting (a sci-fantasy space opera for a game) is that I try to avoid the "Vegetarian Vampire" trope. Animals aren't a good replacement for human blood, so all vampires consume prey on people at least a little.

    What I do to make certain vampires sympathetic is give them a "Circle of Life" sort of blue-and-orange morality. They view preying on humans as "natural" for them and don't view it as murder per se. Some also care about the general welfare of humans for various reasons. One of the protagonists is a vampire who wants to save a planet from an evil empire, and claims she's doing this because she prefers "humanely grown, free range humans".

    Naturally, the humans are not too keen on this way of thinking.

    1. Personally, I think vegetarian vampirism is the quickest way to strip away the horror of the situation. Admittedly, though, I prefer vampires who maintain their humanity because it makes their choice to feed more horrifying.