Science Fiction Writing Tips: How to Make a Vampire Not Suck

For years now I’ve been very open and public about my hatred of vampires. If I were a delegate to the United Nations I would call for a UN resolution banning vampires from all popular culture and all media for a period of at least ten years. Never in all of human history has a monster been more tired, unoriginal, and just plain done as vampires are right now. There is no such thing as a good vampire story. They’re all stupid, derivative, boring, and clichéd.

Whew. That felt good.


Phil-AthansPhil-Athans-bookThis guest post is by Philip Athans. Philip is the former senior managing editor for TSR/Wizards of the Coast, and the best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and Writing Monsters.

He blogs at Fantasy Author’s Handbook and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.


 

Am I right about that? This is the post-Twilight world after all, and surely this must be true. It certainly feels like it.

Vampires have been around for a very long time, at least two hundred years or so in popular fiction and poetry, and likely much longer than that in folklore. That puts vampires firmly in the “public domain” along with other favorites like dragons, werewolves, and ghosts. You are 100% free to tell your own vampire story, but having just told you how stupid I think they are, where does that leave us in terms of advice? Well, believe it or not, for you steadfast fans of the old bloodsuckers, all hope is not lost.

What makes a monster like a vampire or a dragon clichéd is all about execution. It’s all the author’s fault (or the screenwriter’s, or the game designers’ . . .). Vampires are fantasy and horror archetypes, and what turns an archetype into a cliché boils down to poor execution. If all you’re doing is slotting in a “standard” vampire who does “standard” vampire things, then your vampire—I assure you—will come across as hopelessly clichéd. The trick is to get non-standard.

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If you don’t believe me, ask mega-best selling author Stephenie Meyer, who sold a lot of books about vampires by making them pretty teenagers who sparkle in the sunlight. I’m a little outside Twilight’s target demographic, but I get why those books were so popular. What Stephenie Meyer did was take that tired old monster and tweak it—at least a little. She made the vampire hers, and got millions of readers to sign on for the ride.

Here’s what I mean by the “standard” vampire. We know at least this list of things about vampires:

  • appears pale and gaunt
  • burned by holy water
  • burned by silver
  • crippled by romantic longing
  • destroyed by sunlight
  • drinks blood
  • fangs
  • flees from crucifix
  • flees from garlic
  • immortality
  • killed by stake through the heart
  • need for human servant (like Renfield)
  • needs to be invited in
  • power of hypnosis
  • requires a willingness to enter into vampirism
  • requires darkness
  • sees humans as prey
  • sleeps in coffin
  • transforms into bat
  • transforms into mist
  • transforms into wolf

If you copy that full list into the notes for your vampire novel you’ve now adopted the archetype in full, and will not be able to avoid cliché. Instead, think of these aspects of the traditional or standard vampire as tracks on a recording studio mixing board. As the author, you get to produce this record any way you like. Want your vampires to be able to function during daylight? Just pull the slider marked “destroyed by sunlight” all the way down to zero. And you can (and, frankly, should) drag a number of those elements to zero, and start with a smaller list of vampiric powers and weaknesses that match your unique vision. Take out all the transforming into animals stuff? Gone. Coffins feel cheesy? No coffins.

Then take the rest and move them around a little. Are your vampires more “allergic” to silver than Bram Stoker’s? Move that slider up a little. Do you want your vampires to be forced into that condition? Take that “requires a willingness to enter into vampirism” slider all the way down—or maybe just drag it down a little, so your vampire started out as someone seeking eternal life, and was tricked into being a vampire in order to get it. I think you see where I’m going with this.

The fact is that all the time I’ve been ranting and raving in opposition to vampires and joking about this UN resolution, some vampire stories (in various media) have slipped under the door in their mist form and made me start to add some “buts” to that firm hatred of vampires.

Vampires are not scary, but then there’s the 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In, directed by Tomas Alfredson, and remade in the US as Let Me In by director Matt Reeves in 2010. Here we see a vampire in the form of Abby, a twelve-year-old girl (at least on the outside) who befriends a friendless boy in her bleak 1980s apartment complex in the dead of winter and slowly reveals herself to be one of the scariest movie monsters in decades. Abby shares a lot of traits of the “standard” vampire, including “need for human servant,” (which in this case fuels the whole narrative), she “drinks blood,” and apparently “needs to be invited in.” A lot if not all of the rest just fall by the wayside, happily and effectively ignored.

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And then there was the 2002 IDW comic mini series 30 Days of Night by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, which was adapted for the screen by director David Slade and producer Sam Raimi in 2007. Here we see a clan of monstrous vampires descend on the nearly deserted town of Barrow Alaska at the start of the one month of each winter during which the sun never rises. These vampires are among the least “sparkly” of all time, but they do share traits with the standard like: “requires darkness,” and “sees humans as prey.” There’s little or no hint of things like “crippled by romantic longing.” These things came to Barrow to eat.

And by all means search for until you find the 2012 British film Byzantium, directed by Neil Jordan. This moody and beautifully-realized British production has vampires that: “drinks blood,” “requires a willingness to enter into vampirism,” and suffer under the weight of “immortality.” It’s bloody and weird and original.

And see what happened there? I all of a sudden stopped hating vampires, at least as long as it takes to watch a movie. But authors like Whitley Strieber (The Hunger) and Octavia Butler (Fledgling) have done the same thing in prose—and in the case of The Hunger, on the screen as well.

How scary, romantic, sad, aspirational, terrifying, or just plain unique your vampires are is up to you, but it’s going to take much, much more thought and creativity than just lifting Dracula up out of the prose of Bram Stoker. And that starts with what you want your vampires to actually represent.

Dracula came out of European folklore and Stoker maintained that sense of the seemingly undead European aristocracy of his time. It’s not an accident that Dracula is a count. He lives all by himself in the crumbling ruin of a once-mighty castle, cut off from the rest of society by his own weird habits. The aristocracy stayed up late at night because they didn’t knock themselves out toiling in the fields all day. Dracula can’t see himself in a mirror because the moneyed elite were unable to see themselves for the bloodsucking monsters that they were. Oh, did I say “bloodsucking”? Count Dracula survived forever by literally draining the lifeblood of the peasantry.

Let Me In addressed bullying and self-esteem in middle school kids.

The Hunger was about loneliness and alienation.

What are you trying to say with your vampire? And how does that change the nature of the monster itself?

DON’T MISS OUT!

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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14 thoughts on “Science Fiction Writing Tips: How to Make a Vampire Not Suck

  1. Mesto_The_Magician

    Oh! That reminds me! All souls trilogy, to be made into a Brit TV show with young magneto, and a complete reinvention of the vampire, basically going to the small screen with the GoT model i.e. 1-season/book

  2. Mesto_The_Magician

    Now to books: there’s this very popular thing now called “Urban Fantasy”, where you pretty much have to have a firm grasp on a wide variety of different types of myths and fictions, because they hit you with them very fast and move on w/o explanation (like I’m Brittany and I’m a GM mechanic in London, and let me tell you, that’s not easy. I’m also a werewolf of the bear-scratch clan, I’m with Tiffany, whose a waiter and a half vampire half witch, her parents really have interesting fight- let me tell you- and over there is Isi, she’s a Deer Woman (she’s from America, but she’s native American so don’t hold it against her, if you know what I mean)

  3. Mesto_The_Magician

    Now for anyone doubting my original assessment of this guy as Middle Aged Ex’er who wants all genre to be about him, in think it’s very telling just how long Buffy was on TV, how many years? And how many episodes per year? How many hours does that make? It’s in syndication, so it must be at least 100ep, and yet despite Spike and Angel, and Angel getting his own show, that wasn’t the cutoff point, a few movies were- OK they were books before they were movies, but she was clearly doing Underworld for girls, so- and unlike TV, these were things you had to go out of your way to see. “Honey, do you want to go see Twilight?” You can say no. Daddy can I rent Twilight? “Um, sure, jus take it over to Sarah’s to watch it OK”

  4. Mesto_The_Magician

    Oh, i’d also like to add that your comparing movies and the written word is COMPLETELY unfair and prejudicial, and live action movies BTW for if you didn’t have that English language cultural bias addressed in my last comment, you might have looked at things like the anime Van Helsing (which is nothing like it’s English language steampunk namesake, but bloody and gory, and beautifully done, I mean Shakespeare would be applauding), and also in animé every couple of years you have a new vampire out there, very often it’s a very slick guy in his 20’s going after an early highschool girl, and it’s Japan let’s not go there, but it’s definitely nothing like Twilight. In fact, one of the most popular vampire couplings is a vampire and a succubus; and I don’t mean a girl whose succubus like, but with wings and a tail. Now you show me that anywhere in American / English language movies, in fact you just show me a succubus that actually has wings and a tail and is a teenage girl whose a viewpoint character in any English language movie, ever; otherwise you’d better start cooking up some crow pie for saying the genre is not and cannot be reinvented, even on the screen, let alone in my movies.

    Now back to books vs movies: first of all, in comic books, vampires are massively in a state of constant evolution, and again leading the front there are manga comics (animé in comics); then you’ve the written books that have now a new take I never would have thought of: both honest Abe Lincoln and Sherlock Holmes have separately both fought vampires and zombies; which brings me to the proof in the pudding: vampire evolution in fiction: in Bram’s Dracula Vampires were the bad guys, and we were supposed to side with the humans, and in fact think you either cure or kill someone whose a vamp because “it’s a fate worse than death”, then (in English language movies, again Japanese ahead) came Lost Boys, and there had Been Tales From the Crypt comics and print books since the 50’s making it cool to be a vampire, and Universal even went there in some of their later films, but then it became mainstream. And despite your view that this would be the last stage, that’s only showing that you’re stuck in the 80’s movies. What’s been cool for a couple of decades now has been the vampire hunters (and there have been many articles about this phenomenon, so I’ll let you read them and spare the ppl here my recapping them), but wait, is that all? No, not by a longshot (and sorry for Rice fans, there’s that to) now like all things today when looking at things that have been around for a while, we have the deconstruction of the vampire (in large part helped by the AIDS crisis’ fear of blood and the 80’s & 90’s obsession with street drugs having vampire= addict, and having junky withdrawals when going back to being human again), and the word for that everyone? Yes! You got it! Give yourselves a pat on the back, it’s called postmodern.

  5. Mesto_The_Magician

    Just the fact that you referenced 200yra ago means that you’ve never explored non-english language vampires in fiction, and how you could think this wasn’t important in a day and age when Japan and Korea are dominating the ghost movie market could only be that either you haven’t bothered really thinking about it or that you’ve tunnel-vision.

    My best guess, is that you’re like most middle aged geeks, and today that puts you down firmly as an ex’er, who wants all genre material to be specifically made for you, and you just can’t stand that there were actually genre movies made for tween girls (hence your overt Twilight hate).

  6. SHAIRE

    I have to disagree…but I love Vampires. I think that Vampire movies started to suck when the vampires themselves started having weapons, doing karate and being able to walk in the light. Perhaps I am a classical vampire lover of sorts. I do agree though, that your choice of good Vampire films are spot on. Curious if you’ve seen: Only Lovers Left Alive? and what you think of it?

  7. archaeonaut

    Lot of good (some obvious) truth here. Fact is tho, the key to ANY story is its originality. If there is such a thing as a totally new twist on the vampire theme, one that avoids the tired cliches mentioned, then you have a GOOD vampire story. There are themes and actual historical anecdotes that no author has touched yet (I am trying in a work in progress) and these can be hammered on the creative anvil to produce a new theme. Selling it, of course, is an entirely different article!

  8. luigikorrey

    Meeting nonfiction deadlines means that you write whether your muse is crooning in your ear or has departed for exotic ports and left no forwarding address. After you’ve sold to an editor a few times, it’s assumed that you’ll follow through on an assignment. Never mind that your daughter forgot her piano book, the dog threw up on the carpet and a really crabby customer decided to unload on you right before you got off work. There’s a blank page waiting for your article. Get it written, or you may never write for that editor again.

  9. Tamara50

    I agree that most vampire stories should be staked through the heart and buried in their coffins. However, I recently listened to George R.R. Martin’s Fevre Dream and was intrigued by his vampire protagonist. I believe that Fevre Dream and Windhaven are Martin’s best works, far superior to Game of Thrones.( Just my humble opinion)

  10. ARCTG

    I think this is a good article on writing a story about vampires, or any of the types of over-done fantasy characters (zombies for instance), but it still doesn’t help with getting any agents to look past the word “vampire” or “zombie” for any consideration. A saturated market is a saturated market no matter how you tweak the characters. I sat in front of a panel of agents and they just didn’t five those types a viable chance.

    1. atwhatcost

      That’s because of how you presented it. I suspect you started with “I have a vampire story” or “It’s a story about a vampire.” If it’s different, it isn’t. It’s a story about _______, who _______, but _______. Oh yeah, and he/she’s a vampire.

      For instance, my story is about a large group of Americans who were outcast when the government made them illegal. This is how they banned together to build their own community away from society, and how they struggled to survive, while dealing with being ostracized. Oh yeah, they’re stuffed animals.

      Another assumed fact is don’t write stories about anthropomorphic animals. Oops! 😉

    2. Mesto_The_Magician

      That’s just your lack of imagination, or your own overdrawing from overhashed / rehashed material. Literally every culture on Earth has vampire lore of some kind or another, if you’re just going “Vampire, Vampire, Vampire; then someone needs to buy you a thesaurus or show you how to use the “research” box on Word. I’ve a general rule in my writing to not use the same word for someone or something or the same word as opposed to another in a thesaurus’ list of synonyms twice in a row, and for frequently reffered to subjects, to have a wide net of words to choose from; and that pretty much presumes 3rd person, which in the modern era of Movies and TV is probably the easiest to write, but first person, or even flexible first person (e.g. not always the same person) allows an almost infinite number of stories from the same material, with virtually infinite numbers of viewpoints (or at least as many as there are witnesses to the overarching story), while true 3rd person is really only you the author talking, and that poses problems of its own (such as self insertion).

      I’d recommend that you either keep it vague or ultra specific on your sell, or even better yet to concentrate on the story. For vague: undead, supernatural thriller/horror/action/adventure; for super-specific, what do your characters call them, describe them as, etc. Do you really think that in RL ppl jump to the V conclusion right off? For story what’s the setting? what else is going on? Is there a love story?

      Also, you kind of solved your own problem in expressing the “oversaturated market” without realizing it. In a world where something is just out there, you don’t go trying to reinvent the wheel, you go post modern, you go satire, or you don’t just make it about that one thing: you go “supernatural high school”, you go Urban fantasy, you go manga all of which encourage you to bring in a whole slew of monsters or such

  11. jotokai

    Yeah, that’s exactly how I felt, and I love vampires — but they do need to be tweaked.

    There’s one recent adaptation that I found interesting. This particular version really stepped outside of the mold on the story. First, the vampire infestation is treated by the CDC. Second, the bodily fluids travel in the opposite direction. Oh, and this author (or group as the case may be) found a particular dial you forgot to mention: this group of vampires aren’t called vampires. I’m talking about Helix, on the Sci-Fi Channel. Definitely the first season is based off vampires, in my humble opinion, down to the fact that the contagion is an attempt by a group of powerful immortals to increase their power in the world.

    Great stuff. If you cut and paste the whole rulebook, with no additions, you’ll find that you’re either writing fanfiction, or parody. Probably both.

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