Creating Interesting Vampire Characters
Whether you like your vampires sexy or scary, here are some tips for avoiding cliches and creating fresh and interesting vampire characters for your novels, fanfiction, and RPGs.
Lens photo by Michelle Jones.
Decisions, Decisions: Myth or Science?
For many authors, the first question should not be hair color or names, it should be origin.
Was your vampire created by myth or science?
Each option has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Creators of myth-based vampire characters have an incredibly rich and complex lore to draw from, making their job easy. However, lore can also tie you down to a pre-defined set of strengths and weaknesses that may or may not fit the needs of your story.
Creators of science-based vampires will have to put much more effort into coming up with a plausible explanation for vampiric traits. However, they are also much freer to define the terms of their own world.
This lens will focus primarily on creating myth-based vampires, because they are what I am most familiar with. However, I will provide some resources and recommendations for science lovers as well.
Rule #1: Know Your Lore
Vampires are some of the oldest and most widespread legends in the world. Nearly every culture has some version of the vampire myth.
As a result, there is a rich and varied lore to draw from. In recent years, many authors have attempted to move away from the traditional lore in an attempt to create new and fresh interpretations of vampire characters. Some of these attempts have been more successful than others.
In general, it is my feeling that, even if you do intend to develop a unique take on the vampire mythos, it is important to know the rules before you can break them. The better you, as the creator, understand the reasons for your decisions to accept or reject particular aspects of the traditional vampire myth, the more plausible your final mythos will appear to the reader.
Even in fantasy, readers notice when something is just a little too convenient, or doesn't make sense in the context of the larger story.
Common Vampire Lore
Early Vampire Legends
The origin of early vampire legends is often attributed to a poor understanding of the process of decomposition after death. Early vampire legends often referred to creatures dark-skinned, bloated, and wrapped in shrouds. Periodic vampire hysteria gripped Europe for centuries, resulting in people digging up graves and staking, beheading, or burning corpses.
By the early 19th century, however, the vampire legend had transformed into something more recognizable to modern vampire fans, culminating in Bram Stoker's creation of the iconic Dracula, pale, sophisticated, and sensual.
Popular fiction continued to expand the mythos and the terrifying creature who emerged bore little resemblance to the poor remnants of earlier legend.
The Creation of Vampires
The exact nature of vampires varies from legend to legend. Early legends viewed them as remnants of witches, suicide victims, or evil beings. Other legends view vampires as demons or other evil beings possessing a corpse. The most popular origin for vampires in modern times is through exchanging of blood: when a vampire drinks the blood of a human, and the human drinks the vampire's blood in turn, he or she becomes a vampire.
The Strengths of Vampires
Vampires are commonly credited with unusual strength and speed, as well as highly developed senses. In many legends, vampires have the power to hypnotize or place glamors on their intended human victims. Other common abilities include the power to fly or change form.
The Weaknesses of Vampires
Vampires, particularly those possessed by evil beings, are generally repelled and/or harmed by crucifixes, rosaries, holy water, and other religious paraphernalia, as well as garlic and certain herbs and plants. They are often described as unable to enter consecrated ground or cross running water. Vampires can enter a house only if directly invited, though after the initial invitation, they are free to come and go at will until uninvited.
In early folklore, vampires were not susceptible to sunlight, but modern vampire legend generally holds that they are, and will combust if exposed to sun. Vampires are often believed to cast no shadow, and have no reflection.
Vampires are essentially immortal. However, they can be killed by staking, beheading, or burning.
Drawing Inspiration From Other Cultures
Those seeking a fresh interpretation of the vampire myth might find it useful to study the vampire legends of other cultures.
A selection of vampires and vampire-like creatures from other cultures:
- Striga/Shtriga (Eastern European)
- Vrykolakas (Greek)
- Loogaroo (Caribbean)
- Chupacabra (Latin America)
- Brahmarakshasa (Hindu)
- Mandurugo (Tagalog)
- Penanggalan (Malaysian)
- Jiang Shi (Chinese)
- Ekimmu (Babylonia)
The Best Books on Vampire Lore
Rule #2: Know Your Themes
Nowadays, when vampires are considered "cool," it's easy to forget the very principles that make them so fascinating.
Vampires are Predators
First and foremost. Humans are accustomed to being at the top of the food chain, and, perhaps as a result, we have a morbid fascination with creatures that are capable of turning us into prey. Bears, tigers, sharks, snakes, wolves, crocodiles... all are the creatures of our nightmares, made legend in tales from Little Red Riding Hood to Jaws.
Vampire legends tap into the same fascination. Vampires are predators, above all, whether they satisfy their bloodlust on unwilling human victims or sterile vampiric blood banks.
Vampires are Immortal
Blood has long been associated with immortality. The Aztecs, for example, drank the blood of their victims believing it would grant them strength and immortality. The quest for immortality has driven many otherwise sensible men far into the realm of fantasy, and madness. Vampire legends feed into the human lust for immortality.
Vampires are Death
Modern American culture is curiously distanced from death. Modern medicine has dramatically decreased the fatality of diseases that once wreaked havoc on entire towns and encouraged a high child mortality rate. Most modern Americans have never even killed an animal for food. Death is an uncomfortable topic in polite society.
Horror is one of the few acceptable outlets for many Americans to explore the natural human fear of and fascination with death. Vampires, immortal predators, are death embodied, and our fascination with tales of vampires is a symptom of our larger, suppressed obsession with death.
Recent Vampire Hits
Rule #3: Know Your Cliches
Like any popular genre, vampire literature has its share of cliches.
A fresh twist can make even the dullest and most annoying of cliches interesting, but again, you need to know the rules before you can break them.
Here are some plot points and characterizations to be wary of:
- Vampires who feel guilty about being vampires, regardless of whether or not they've done anything to justify their guilt
- Vampires who drink exclusively animal blood
- Centuries-old vampires who fall in love with young mortal women
- Female vampires who are essentially mindless sluts
- Vampire/human halfbreeds
Rule #4: Know Your Biology
Tying into the question of vampire/human halfbloods is the question of vampire/human sex.
Many authors conveniently brush over the fact that vampires are, quite literally, reanimated corpses. Barring a taste for necrophilia, any vampire/human romance needs a way to get around the cold temperature, the lack of blood flow (including to one region particularly important in adult romances!), the lack of breath or bodily fluids. The strangeness of these things to a human should not be underestimated.
One common excuse is that a vampire who has recently fed is warmer due to the temperature of the blood, and may even be able to control where it flows to a certain extent. Breathing is under semi-conscious control even for humans and a young vampire would likely "breath" from sheer force of habit, but would an older vampire bother? Would vampires remember to blink or sigh or swallow?
Mood and personality are also functions, to a certain extent, of changes in hormone levels and other bodily processes. How would the lack of these processes affect vampires?
Finally, on the issue of vampire reproduction, there are plenty of problems to overcome in addition to the unfortunate lack of blood flow to ...certain regions of the body. Corpses do not ovulate, menstruate, or produce sperm, nor would a vampire woman be capable of supporting a fetus, unless the fetus were also a vampire who could survive on blood alone. In that case, however, how would the fetus grow? Vampires are traditionally frozen at the age they were at death, whether a small child, a beautiful teenager, or an elderly man or woman.
Creating Science-Based Vampires
A knowledge of basic biology is especially important for creators of science-based vampires.
Most science-based vampires are the result of some form of disease or parasite, and in fact, several diseases and psychological conditions have been put forth as possible explanations for the origin of the vampire legend, most famously porphyria. There is also a psychological condition known as clinical vampirism, and a number of serial killers have been associated with vampire-like behavior towards their victims, including the 16th century Hungarian countess and mass murderer Elizabeth Bathory, whose case is believed to have strongly influenced Bram Stoker during the writing of Dracula.
Literary Science-Based Vampires
More Resources for Writing Great Vampires
- limyaael: Vampires in Fantasy
This is focused on vampires in fantasy, not horror fiction, as I read very little horror compared to fantasy. That means that this rant concentrates on the really, really annoying vampires.
- Things I Will Do If I Am Ever the Vampire
When faced with a gang of spunky kids determined to stop my evil schemes, I will consider surrender. Or mailbombs.
- Our Vampires Are Different - Television Tropes & Idioms
The 'Our Vampires Are Different' trope as used in popular culture, with a list of examples from all media.