The rant on vampires. 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.
1) Give any mortal character an extraordinary reason for wanting to turn into a vampire/fall in love with one. The only situation under which I find either of these remotely plausible is when the mortal character falls in love with the vampire under some kind of mind control, or possibly before realizing what the vampire really is. I don’t think the following reasons make any kind of sense on any kind of world under any kind of moon:
-“My parents don’t understand me, so I’ll become a vampire!” (I’m sure that will really teach them).
-“Vampires are so sexy!” (Into necrophilia, are they?)
-“I’m psychic/special/chosen/a witch, so I must be a vampire’s mate!” (Why? And see point 2).
-“I know I am a vampire in my soul!” (This could work with someone who, essentially, has a predatory nature. But it’s always the wide-eyed girl who cries at the death of Bambi’s mother who announces this).
-“Vampires are so much more special than ordinary people!” (Oh, look, there goes Abused Teenage Protagonist #6548854 down the road to her destiny…zzzzz).
Remember that, most of the time, vampires are represented as predators on humans. Even the ones who only feed from willing humans are. Mice don’t stand around admiring the shine of the cat’s teeth. Deer don’t swoon for the love of the wolf. You can make a mortal’s attraction to vampires understandable, even fascinating, but it requires more work than just declaring that they’re in love with a vampire/want to be turned. Don’t take the easy route out.
2) Give a vampire a likewise extraordinary reason to turn a mortal into a vampire/fall in love with one. This touches on something I’ve written about before with immortal protagonists, like elves or gods or Dark Lords. He’s lived centuries. He’s seen humans, probably including humans of unique beauty and courage and honor and what not, live and die. He’s probably killed a few of those humans himself. What about SpunkyGirl Generic here is so unusual that he would be interested in doing more than draining her of a few drinks of blood or playing around with her for a while, then dropping her like a hot rock?
This is often where the idea that vampires have a “mate” comes in, especially in bad vampire romance novels. The vampire and the woman moan and sigh at each other in italicized telepathic scenes, then “love each other as they were destined to do.” Once again, lazy characterization, little effort, little pay-off. The author can find the idea of a mate just marvelous, but she can’t convey that to readers with a few dollops of purple prose and some moaning. The same rule holds here as in any good fantasy romance: show your audience why these two people are in love, complement each other, attract as opposites, whatever. In the case of a vampire/mortal romance, you also have to go the extra mile and show why this mortal has what it takes to catch and hold a blood-drinker, and why he would be interested in her. (I’m using these pronouns because in most of the stories I’ve read, the vampire lover is male and the human is female. A lot of vampiresses seem to exist to hiss and act like sluts and then get slaughtered. See point 7).
It might be slightly easier to understand why a vampire would turn a mortal—he wants her company for eternity—but if it’s really just infatuation, there should be consequences. Now he’s stuck with someone he doesn’t really love, or at least she’s as immortal as he is, maybe as fast and strong and clever, and he can’t leave her behind as easily. For a vampire who’s at all intelligent, it should be something to think over carefully before he finds his lover dying of a car accident and “turns” her without thinking.
3) By now, it is no longer original to make your vampire angst over drinking blood. One reason, for all its flaws, why I liked Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat was because Lestat did not angst. He liked feeding from people and killing them and being adored, and he broke the “rules” of vampire society, and he expected people to admire him. Yes, that changed in later books, which is too bad. But I could wish there were more vampires in fantasy who had that kind of “Bow to me, mortal,” attitude, instead of the seeming inability to do anything but sit around saying, “Woe!”
I have three reasons for hating this:
a) Whining is difficult to do gracefully. Suffering human adolescent or vampire who doesn’t wanna feed, this remains true.
b) By now, it’s a cliché. Most whiny vampires are carbon copies of one another.
c) It makes it seem as if vampires are still human, when, really, you’d think that living hundreds—even thousands—of years and drinking blood and not seeing the sun and so on would condition them to a different kind of life and perspective on existence.
If your vampire regrets being a predator, or can’t reconcile himself to eating to survive, when most humans manage it just fine, then, again, give him a him-derived reason for being that way. Don’t assume he must be that way because he’s a vampire.
4) Why is eating “psychic energy” less harmful? There seems to be a trend in some fantasy novels to have vampires feed on things other than blood, like psychic energy, or “life force,” or dreams, or whatever. I don’t actually mind that; it adds some variation to the usual blood-drinking myth. But I do mind when it’s portrayed as though this kind of feeding has no negative consequences.
I’m sometimes not sure what authors mean by “psychic energy,” so I’ll take a general definition: the energy that enables a person to think, create, plan, come up with ideas, and perhaps project psychic powers, like telepathy or telekinesis. A psi-vamp feeds on that from Character B’s brain. Then he walks away. Where does that leave Character B?
I would hope in at least as sorry a shape as a character drained of a pint or so of blood. Victims of “normal” vampires who don’t die typically lie around in bed, sleep a lot, and are pale, but eventually recover. Victims of psi-vamps seem to get up the next day and go on with life.
With their energy to think and create missing? I’ve experienced days like that before, where my thoughts seemed to move through cotton wool and nothing made any sense. While I wouldn’t be inclined to attribute it to a psi-vamp, neither would I think that people living in a world with such creatures would be a boundless store of energy for them, with no side-effects for themselves.
The major idea of the vampire is that of the predator. Softening that is too often an attempt to have the cake and eat it too. If you have a vampire that feeds on something other than blood, show the drawbacks, and study what humans who lack that thing, even if only for a short time, are like. Feeding on dreams might seem harmless, but people who don’t dream can eventually go insane. Likewise, do people who lose life force die earlier? Logically, it seems like they should. I can’t imagine they would be too happy about that, especially if the vampire fed on them without their permission.
5) Vampiric limitations are there for a reason. If you get rid of some of them, put new ones in their places. This is especially appropriate if you’re writing vampires with a background that’s not Western European. A vampire in a fantasy world without Christianity might not have any reason to be intimidated by a cross—but perhaps the sound of singing might drive him off. Your vampires could well not care about garlic, could cross running water, could see their reflections in mirrors, perhaps even endure the sun. But for every limitation you take away, you render the vampire more powerful at seemingly no cost. This makes friendly vampires into deus ex machinas and vampire heroes into demigods. There have to be certain things that they’re not able to do.
If you’re not going to use the vampire lore of another culture on Earth, then think about some of the limitations that naturally arise from vampires being, oh, not to put too fine a point on it, dead. Do they naturally attract flies? Perhaps every time the vampire lies down, there are the pesky flies trying to lay their eggs on his eyes. I can imagine that most other animals with a keen sense of smell wouldn’t much like him, either. Dogs could howl not because the vampire is inherently “wrong” but because he doesn’t smell right. Horses might not be willing to bear him. Perhaps a mystical non-human race, like elves or goblins, has a vendetta against his kind and will shoot any vampire on sight.
Be especially careful with the more powerful vampire gifts, like shapeshifting and flight. If an enemy absolutely cannot keep a vampire out because he can fly over the walls, then punch through a locked door, then turn into a mouse and creep through the seemingly impenetrable wall of magic, it’s all over the moment the vampire joins the heroes’ side. (A vampire on the villains’ side is usually dumbed down the way that most fantasy villains are). This is boring. Booooring. It kills suspense, it kills tension, it kills any sense of a true competition between the two sides.
Choose your limitations well and wisely, by all means. I think more people should write vampires that don’t fall into the genre’s stereotypes. But using them as unstoppable killing machines is no better than making them into big-hearted softies who don’t really hurt anybody, as point 4 tends to do.
6) Think up drawbacks as well as advantages to human/vampire reproduction. Vampires can’t have children with humans in every vampire fantasy novel I’ve read, but when they do, the babies seem to have no problems. They’re often stronger and faster and smarter than normal humans, and aside from maybe having to drink blood—or “psychic energy”—to survive, have none of a vampire’s limitations, either. They’re ready to advance to demigod status in their turn.
This is a common problem with half-breed heroes, which I’ve ranted about before: the author gives them only the “pretty” traits from the non-human parent, and none of the ugly ones. Recall, though, that hybrids don’t automatically share every one of their parents’ advantages. Mules are stronger, more stubborn, and probably smarter than horses, but neither are they as fertile (most of them, at least), and most humans in fantasy novels don’t use them in preference to horses as riding mounts. Half-elves don’t live as long as elves, although the authors often make them as beautiful and give them full command of elven magic. And neither should half-vampires escape some sense of what it costs them to have a vampire parent.
One possible idea is protection against disease. I read an absolutely marvelous short story, whose title and author I can’t recall right now, about a vampire who had become hideous from drinking the blood of humans—and contracting every single one of their blood-borne diseases. One could conjecture that normal vampires don’t have that as a problem, or they wouldn’t have survived so long, but what about a half-vampire child? If he’s alive, he wouldn’t have the protection of dead flesh, and he wouldn’t necessarily be as resistant as a purebred vampire. He might have to start being very careful to watch what he ate.
Another possible choice is to make the half-vampire clumsier with his magic than his parent, since he hasn’t lived long enough to acquire the exquisite control a centuries-old vampire could be expected to have. Perhaps he means to just feed on a little psychic energy from his next-door neighbor, but instead drains her dry and kills her. Now what’s he going to do, especially if there’s circumstantial evidence that points to him?
Any drawbacks like these could make the story fascinating—certainly more interesting than the latest story of a hero with unconquerable powers.
7) Try to have female vampires who aren’t sluts. The single worst example I can think of for this is the Anita Blake series, which is set in an alternate America where vampires are acknowledged as citizens with civil rights. The male vampires can be compelling and fascinating characters (despite the author’s tendency in recent books to make every one of them in love with the heroine). Every female vampire in the series to date has been hyperactively sexual and usually much stupider than the males, and more mindlessly cruel for no apparent reason.
Why is this? Why are male vampires daringly sexual and valorized for this, but female vampires aren’t allowed to enjoy and have sex without scorn? (Only exception is for a mortal heroine turned vampire, and they’re often virginal in the first place).
I’ve heard there are a few series that are exceptions to this, including a series of stories about a vampiress named Gilda by an author named Jewelle Gomez. I haven’t read those stories, so I can’t say for certain. If so, it would be a welcome break from all the sluts.
If you do have a female vampire in your stories, consider making her as fleshed-out (sorry, bad pun) a character as the male vampires, not just there to hiss at the heroine or toss her flaming red hair and prance around in a diaphanous nightdress.
Servant characters shall be next.