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

When writing about vampires, the key is to avoid making them cliche. Bestselling author Philip Athans explains how to do that.

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.

(Writing Monsters: What Makes a Monster Scary?)

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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Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures to Enhance Your Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction by Philip Athans

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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 a 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.

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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.

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

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.

(Write Like Stephen King: How to Create Scary Monsters)

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 blood-sucking 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?

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