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Think Outside the Coffin: Writing the Vampire Novel

First published in the Broad Universe Broadsheet, March, 2008

In the past decade, the number of published vampire novels has skyrocketed. Avid readers of vampire fiction can't seem to get enough of it, and vampire books regularly make the best-seller lists. This literary onslaught of the undead is partly due to the phenomenal success of several relatively new subgenres, including paranormal romance, paranormal erotica, and light satirical romantic fantasy (or "chick-lit"). A new crop of prolific authors including Charlaine Harris, Lynsay Sands and L.A. Banks are producing ongoing series titles with amazing speed. Led by Stephanie Meyers and her Twilight books, the exploding category of Young Adult vampire fiction is nurturing an entire future population of vampire fiction fans.

But even as readers are buying these books by the dozen, editors and agents are reporting a serious case of "vampire fatigue." A new writer who pitches a vampire story today is likely to be faced with a stony look or a heavy sigh the minute she starts to describe her plot. Except for rare editorial plums like Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, industry professionals tend to cast a jaded eye on vampire fiction.

Unfortunately, the vampire genre to some extent deserves the stigma that plagues it. The bloodsucker stereotype has changed somewhat since Bela Lugosi, but there are plenty of new vampire clichés that have become just as hackneyed. The obligatory black duster and a pair of hip sunglasses have replaced the old opera cape and shiny pompadour. Instead of a coffin and a drafty, looming chateau, every vampire now has black satin sheets and hangs out in an ultra-chic vampire nightclub. Extendable fangs and super powers are de rigeur rather than a hypnotic gaze. While few modern vampires are titled nobility, they mysteriously seem to have all the money they need.

Just like the old clichés, these new ones usually evoke bored yawns from editors and ridicule from critics. On top of this, many authors treat these stereotypes as campy satire or a sly joke. Writers can hardly expect editors and readers to take their subject matter more seriously than the author does. Straight dramatic fiction, or horror fiction, with a vampire theme has not proliferated nearly as much as vampire romance, erotica or humor.

But these well-worn grooves don't have to be your destiny as a vampire author. There are some basic guidelines that will help you craft a vampire story that transcends clichés and defies the pessimistic expectations of agents, editors and critics.

Be an extremely good writer.

This may seem like obvious advice, but the vampire genre has earned a reputation for laughably bad writing. Agents, editors and reviewers know this. When they see a vampire-themed story on their desk, they're going to expect bilge until proven wrong, and they're not going to invest a lot of time looking for that proof. Genre fiction operates under the same handicap as women and minorities in society. It has to work twice as hard and be twice as good just to get its toe claws through the crack of the door.

Create fully developed, sympathetic and believable characters. Don't write about "vampires." Write about people and how vampirism affects their lives (or afterlives). Craft a strong story with a plot and a satisfying conclusion. Be willing to think through the issues relevant to your characters' situation. The best vampire stories fearlessly attack ageless human themes, including death, loss, prevailing against uneven odds, hard choices, human frailty, challenged relationships, alienation, the nature of otherness, and the meaning of good and evil. Fantasy fiction engages readers because it invites them to grapple with universal dilemmas from new and unusual points of view.

Unless you're writing a role-playing game manual, don't spend too much time explaining the mechanics of your alternate universe or your vampires' supernatural powers. Show us how your characters live with these things, how their environment affects their choices and how they think about their condition. Bring your readers inside your characters' world and make them live it along with your heroes and villains. Make a surreal subject seem as real as the evening news and the morning commute.

If you set your novel in a different culture or historical time period, commit to doing some serious research. Authentic background detail will make your story's fantastic elements all the more effective.

Have a strong motivation for using the vampire theme in your story.

Don't just jump on the vampire bandwagon because it seems popular. Write vampire fiction because you're passionate about it. Write the vampire stories that you couldn't wait to read if someone else wrote them.

There are many different ways to approach vampires in fiction. As antagonists or villains, they can be sympathetic, conflicted, "anti-heroes" or stone evil to the core. As protagonists or heroes, you can present them as struggling with their dark side or fighting the good fight. You can choose to make the humans the bad guys and the vampires the victims, or give all your characters tangled conflicts and ambiguities.

Whatever angle you take, however, your story should evolve from the character's condition. If you could make your vampire character an ordinary human and your story wouldn't be the slightest bit different, you should ask yourself whether you're just tossing in a vampire to be trendy. Write about vampires because the story needs them to say what you want to say.

Know your subject.

As the creator of your fictional universe, you're the commander of that universe. You can make any rules and establish any conventions that you want, as long as you use them consistently. But if you want to base your vampire stories on "folklore," make sure you know what you're talking about. Hard science-fiction writers have to respect scientific facts. Mystery writers need to understand forensics and police procedures. Fantasy writers need to have the same integrity when they base their fiction on any element of real life.

There is an incredible amount of misinformation repeated in the general culture about vampire "folklore," even by academics. Almost everything that the average person refers to as "vampire legend" or "traditional myth" actually describes literary conventions made up by fiction writers. As soon as the word "vampire" started appearing in print in England, around 1735, it was being used metaphorically. The Vampire Metaphor in English-speaking cultures has been developed by poets, novelists, writers and filmmakers for two hundred and fifty years. It's likely that almost nothing you associate with vampires has anything to do with "folklore."

No one says that a modern writer has to follow folklore, and there's nothing wrong with adopting fictional conventions established by previous authors. But writers should know the difference. I've seen several well-known, published authors of multiple vampire novels say in interviews that they based their characters on their "study of vampire folklore." I look at the conventions they chose to adopt and feel like asking, "Just what, exactly, were you studying?"

Some of the most common misconceptions about vampire folklore and fact include:

Even if you don't base your fictional universe on folklore, you should have a working familiarity with the major vampire fiction of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. You may think you've come up with a clever new idea, but when it comes to vampires, chances are it's already been done. That doesn't mean that you can't add a refreshing twist, but a smart writer makes the effort to learn his or her chosen genre.

Be original.

I'm going to be painfully honest. Dracula is not an unfinished manuscript that was discovered among Bram Stoker's papers. Many writers seem convinced that Stoker's story cries out to be re-written, told from other points of view, continued, explained, enhanced, given a prequel, modernized, or corrected. I've reached the point at which, if I see one more book with characters named Vlad, or Lucy, or Mina, or Van Helsing, or a creepy guy who eats bugs, I'm going to start impaling people myself.

Vampire fiction is even more derivative than most genres, which is saying a lot. I'm baffled as to why this is. The most memorable and successful examples of the genre have come from authors who invented their own original characters and universes and weren't afraid to play with the "rules" and defy conventions. The vampire motif owes its popularity and persistence to the very fact that it offers writers so much psychological and philosophical potential.

Don't be afraid to create original characters and play with them. Don't just riff, yet again, on Dracula, or Carmilla, or Lord Ruthven. Don't write about a teenaged girl finding out that she is the Chosen One with a destiny to slay vampires, unless your name is Joss Whedon. Don't write a story about a vampire being let out of a coffin and going on a quest for his reincarnated lost love, unless Johnny Depp has hired you to write his Dark Shadows screenplay. Let the classics keep their integrity, and find your own unique take on the topic. Be the vampire writer that everyone else wants to imitate!

The possibilities of vampire fiction are far from exhausted. Vampire fiction readers are constantly seeking high quality, engaging and fresh variations on the theme. Some "cross-over" combinations have been over-used, including the vampire detective or police officer, and stories that include vampires and werewolves (either in conflict or collaboration). But there are several potential vampire cross-over topics that I'd love to see done well. The vampire story and the Western have rarely been combined effectively. Vampire authors also tend to avoid futuristic stories in which the immortal undead copes with life in a high-technology society. You might also find clever ways to connect a vampire story with odd historical events, particular regions or locations, or colorful figures from the past. Put on your divergent thinking cap and you'll come up with all kinds of creative ideas. The next best-selling vampire series may be right across your imagination's threshold.

Recommended Resources for Vampire Authors

Vampire Folklore

The Vampire Book J. Gordon Melton
Vampire Lore (omnibus of collected writings) Jan Louis Perkowski
Slayers and their Vampires Bruce A. McClelland
Food for the Dead Michael E. Bell
The Vampire: a Casebook Alan Dundes, ed.
Vampire Folklore Reference Library on

Vampire Literature

Our Vampires, Ourselves Nina Auerbach
Blood and Roses: the Vampire in 19th Century Literature (anonymous)
Virtuous Vampires Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg, Martin H. Greenberg, eds.
The Mammoth Book of Vampires Stephen Jones, ed.
Dracula's Brood Richard Dalby, ed.
Vampires, Wine and Roses John Richard Stephens, ed.
The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories Alan Ryan, ed.
Before the Count: British Vampire Tales 1732-1897 Margo Collins, ed.
The Science of Vampires Katherine Ramsland
Reading the Vampire Ken Gelder
The Vampire Gallery: a Who's Who of the Undead J. Gordon Melton
Dracula: Sense and Nonsense Elizabeth Miller

On Writing and Editing in General

The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success Carolyn Howard-Johnson
The Joy of Writing Sex Elizabeth Benedict