The vampire myth is a very popular and extremely abused literary device in fantasy novels. From the fanged monster of Bram Stoker to the sparkling emo of Stephenie Meyer, vampirism is a pervasive element of our culture. Before you write your own vampire fantasy novel, though, you might want to know what you should and should not do. Let’s have a look at the vampire myth as a literary device.
Folklore from the dawn of our history has been rife with myth of demons and spirits tempting mankind, sometimes in the guise of lost loved ones. The form in which we know vampires these days came about in the 18th century based on folklore of south-eastern Europe. Of course, there is not one clearly defined vampire myth. There are various powers and weaknesses associated with vampires, but they differ from tale to tale. The core seems to be a powerful being that needs to take the life energy (usually blood) of living beings to survive.
When you look at the way vampires are used in literature, there are several broad categories:
- The Vampire is the antagonist, a threat to be overcome.
- The Vampire is the protagonist, usually an anti-hero.
- The Vampire is a love interest, often a ‘bad boy’ or ‘bad girl’.
- Vampirism as a condition is part of the setting, and the effects on the world are explored.
The categories can be mixed and matched, you could even write a vampire novel where vampires are both the antagonists, the protagonists, and the love interest, and explore their effect on society. The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice use the first three, for example, while I am Legend by Richard Matheson is about the effect of an outbreak of vampirism on the world.
The difference in use of the vampire myth affect the traits that the vampires have, and what aspects are emphasized.
The original vampire was a creature of malice. A rotting corpse come back to life to plague the living and drink their blood. The original myth most likely originated from a misunderstanding of decomposition. A rotting corpse can be less pale than when it was alive, and the bloating and discolouration can make it seem as if the corpse has been gorging itself on blood. Even the nails and hair can seem to grow and decomposition gasses escaping through orifices can make it groan.
Imagine digging up the reclusive villager that recently died and finding them chubbier and more healthy looking than they were when they died. Then you look at the finger nails and they appear to have grown and it appears new claws are growing just beneath the skin. When you finally drive a stake through its heart, the monster groans and comes to rest. Of course, this type of vampire is a monster, more corpse than man, coming after the living in the dead of night. Bram Stoker added more frightening powers on top of this in his novel Dracula.
When the vampire is the antagonist of the story, they become an obstacle to overcome, a puzzle to solve. In such a story, the vampire should have powers that seem insurmountable until the protagonist finds the weaknesses of the monster and bring it down. In Dracula, Professor van Helsing has the knowledge of how to defeat such a monster, coming to the rescue later in the novel.
As an antagonist, the vampire needs not just powers, but a believable reason to antagonise the protagonist. The fact that vampires prey on the living and will not stop because they require blood to live makes for a very neat motivation. It both makes the vampire evil and makes it clear the vampire has to die. Often, as in Dracula, the vampire is able to masquerade as a human, and because of their longevity and powers, they are powerful individuals, but usually evil ones. Older tales often ally the evil vampires with the devil and makes the protagonists the forces of virtue and godliness, giving the story a religious undertone.
Drinking blood from a person is a very intimate thing, and vampire stories often also have a sexual undertone. Dracula has this, and this is emphasized in the movie adaption with Keanu Reeves and Gary Oldman. Carmilla has lesbian undertones, and let’s not even discuss True Blood.
However, with the vampire as antagonist, the erotic easily goes from attraction and sex to stalking and rape, making it both an alluring and very complicated part of stories. Done right, this makes for powerful stories, done wrong, it can make for trashy books and movies.
Of course, following the vampire monsters are the vampire anti-heroes. Interview with the Vampire is both a great book and a great movie that portrays the life of the vampire Louis from New Orleans.
Angel is about the cursed vampire Angel, whose soul was returned to him so he can suffer for his evil vampire ways.
Where the vampire antagonist is an evil to overcome, the vampire protagonist wrestles with his own nature. How do they deal with the fact that the sun kills them now, and they have to drink human blood to survive?
This type of story focuses more on the weaknesses of vampire, and how the hero overcomes them. Opposed to the vampire antagonist, the plot is reversed. The vampire hero is usually faced with a more powerful vampire, or another evil being that can exploit their weaknesses, until they can overcome them and triumph.
Here, the erotic undertones take on a different form. They are fighting their nature to drink the blood of others against their will. If they fall in love with a human, they are basically dating their food. And because of the entanglement of their intimate feeding with sex, suddenly it gets pretty steamy. Again, I point to True Blood. Angel added an interesting twist to it, by making the vampire Angel lose his soul and become utterly evil if he ever knew a moment of true happiness.
Vampire love interests
After the monster and the anti-hero we come to the use of the vampire as a love interest. I’ve already touched on this above. It is very easy to portray vampires as ancient wise beings with inhuman charm and grace that are a particularly alluring love interest. Oh no, how will this forbidden love between (wo)man and monster end? The go-to example is of course the Twilight saga. But there are numerous others, Anita Blake, several arcs in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and let’s not forget True Blood.
When the vampire is the love interest, the power and weaknesses are suddenly a lot less relevant, except insofar as they are obstacles in the protagonist’s path to true love. Twilight’s vampires are immortal, can survive in sunlight and don’t even have to have human blood. Since the vampire is just a swap-in for a bad-boy biker or criminal, it doesn’t matter. It’s just Romeo and Juliet with humans and vampires instead of the Capulets and Montagues. Shakespeare in fantasy clothing, as it were.
The sexual allusions of the vampire myth can easily be emphasized, and the fact that your love interest is a killer (albeit not of free will) can make for interesting conflicts.
However, this version of the vampire is wildly different from the bloated corpse monster it originated from. Bella from Twilight would probably have reacted differently to a rotting bloated corpse standing in her room watching her sleep as it sharpens it deformed nails to suck her blood into its already blood-engorged belly. Although, it would make a very funny rewrite, I think.
Vampirism and the world
Finally, looking at the range of vampire powers, you can also explore the effects such powers would have on society. I have to name True Blood again, which not only looks at vampires as protagonists, antagonists, and love interests, but also shows some of the effects of their ‘coming-out’ on society. They are discriminated against, but also politically active. They’re murderers, but also victims.
The brilliant movie Daybreakers looks at how the world would evolve if vampires simply took over and started to herd humans as cattle. If you start to take away the weaknesses of the vampire, or think about how a vampire might overcome them, you can easily come to the conclusion that they would quickly rule the world.
This is a huge weakness of the Twilight world. Vampires are not affected by sunlight, they can live from animal blood, and they are immortal: why on earth would the vampires not go public? Half the world would be lining up to join them. There is no down-side to their condition. In other words, the unfazed world writing smell.
The vampire myth is a flexible tool in the writer’s toolset. Depending on the story you are writing you can do a lot with it.
Although, given the number of vampire novels and TV shows out there, I’d think really hard before you create Yet-Another-Vampire-Novel.