(‘Nothing is good or bad but writing makes it so.’ – funny observation by bottledworder: Five observations on writing.)
I do a lot of ranting on this blog about the tropes used in vampire novels, most often complaining about:
- my awesomely hot boyfriend is a superhero, and
- vampire girls are either evil and shallow, or in need of an awesomely hot superhero-boyfriend.
One of the joys of lesbian vampire stories is that you can avoid both of these; of course, my awesomely hot girlfriend is a superhero creeps in instead, but the characterisation tends to be better.
Vampire as superhero: I don’t have a problem with vampires being beautiful and having special abilities, but for them to be vampires then at least one of the following has to be true:
- The character must, in some way, feed off human essence – and it must be direct! Tapping the blood bank, for example, doesn’t count.
- The character must struggle (frequently) with the desire to, in some way, feed off human essence.
The following may or may not be vampiric attributes, but they do not make a character a vampire:
- drinking blood, however necessary it may be,
- plunging fangs into someone’s neck for erotic sublimation, or
- immortal beauty.
Vampire as protagonist: While it is possible to write stories where the protagonist lacks essential humanity – there are certainly novels with serial killers or other amoral individuals as protagonists – it takes real talent to make it work effectively. I suspect, also, that it only really works where the author is creating a truly believable character – and in stories where the focus is very much on the world the protagonist inhabits. (Take Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, for example: as a book it’s literary satire; as a story, it’s a horrifying peek into the world of Wall Street.)
Because the vampire is – for most people – unbelievable, having a vampire who lacks essential humanity as a protagonist creates a double burden for the reader. So, in my opinion, the rules for a vampire protagonist are:
- The character must be a vampire! (See above.)
- The character must be essentially human, capable of the full range of human emotion. Occasional lapses into a purely vampiric nature are okay, however.
- Some augmented characteristics and abilities are fine, but as the number and power of the paranormal/supernatural/superhuman traits increases, the less normal the character becomes and the harder it is for the reader to relate.
These aren’t unbreakable rules, of course, but…
Apart from anything else:
- The more powerful and capable and generally awesome the characters, the harder it is to come up with a sane plot.
- With great power comes great responsibility. If your protagonists are that amazing, they should be out there protecting humanity. And not just from other vampires…
Vampire as antagonist:
I have just discovered Kristen Lamb’s blog which has excellent advice about writing and plotting. I’ve been thinking in particular about 5 Common Mistakes that Will KILL Your Novel:
Since there is no core story problem, each scene is just melodrama. … there’s no way to ratchet the tension.
#2 Antagonist is a Caricature
Always remember that the bad guy is the good guy in his own story. Antagonists who just want to kill or rule the world get boring quickly. Leave the mustache-twirlers to the cartoons.
#3 Antagonist is Weak
The goal of your antagonist should always present BIG stakes for the protagonist.
#4 Not Enough Scene Antagonists
Your story needs a core antagonist, yes. But most of the conflict will actually come from allies, love interests and threshold guardians.
#5 No Scene Antagonist
Every scene must have an antagonist (dramatic tension). If we have a scene where two characters are simply talking about a third? Info dump, not fiction.
Kristen Lamb’s previous blog post (When the Hero is His Own Worst Enemy – What We Can Learn from FLIGHT) provides an interesting analysis of a film where the core antagonist is alcoholism, and makes the following points:
- Core Antagonist: If the core antagonist is something existential (like alcoholism) then it needs to be represented by someone corporeal. In WWII, the Allies weren’t fighting fascism, they fought HITLER. Concepts need a FACE.
- Scene Antagonists: Often allies and love interests will provide the scene conflict. Protagonist wants A, but then Ally wants B.
… a character being his or her own worst enemy alone is not enough. There MUST be a story problem that generates the tension and change. With no story problem, there is no way to have dramatic tension.
This is all excellent advice, and it certainly makes me think about the faults in my own writing, but how does this relate to the vampire-as-protagonist?
- A vampire protagonist must also be a vampire antagonist. Not necessarily the core antagonist of the story, but certainly a recurring scene antagonist, and for an immortal vampire the struggle to retain some humanity is eternal.
- An alternative take is to have the vampiric transformation as progressive, with the core story being the struggle against the transformation, making the vampire self the core antagonist.
- The character is his or her own worst enemy, and this ultimate-core antagonist can never be defeated. Victory and dramatic tension are found in resisting change for the worse – choosing to die rather than change is victory through resistance.
The story itself may have many antagonists to overcome, and even a different core antagonist, but once the story is over, if the character is still alive, the vampire is still his or her own worst enemy.
On a related note, Megan Cashman recently posted Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling. I like these points especially:
- Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
- Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
- If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
Writing in first person present tense (see discussion here: First Person, Present Tense and POV) forces these three points to converge, the main character essentially channelling the author. Or maybe not: I’m suddenly reminded, for the second time this post, of American Psycho – but I’m not sure how any of these points would apply…
I have always enjoyed writing, but there’s a huge difference between dashing off a short, often tongue-in-cheek story and writing a serious work. All three of my published works (not counting Hrana, since that’s just an excerpt of Kings of Infinite Space) were driven by a fundamental need to write. Kings of Infinite Space is ultimately about our relationship with the divine, Suzie and the Monsters is about the human capacity for inhumanity, and An Aromantic Romance is… well, it’s a short, slightly tongue-in-cheek story that, once again, is about human nature.