Avoiding Clichés When Writing Vampire Fiction
We’ve all been there. You’re reading a book you picked up on impulse because it sounded good when, a few chapters in, you’re struggling to maintain interest because every character and situation seems like something you’ve read a dozen times before in other books. Don’t you hate that? Editors and agents go through that a hundred times a day.
Most likely, you’re reading this because you’re a writer, and not just any writer, but that particularly masochistic breed of writer that still wants to create new stories involving vampires. As a member of this breed myself, I can’t count how many times I’ve read or been told: “The market is glutted with vampire fiction. There’s no more interest.”
But, we wonder, if that’s true, then why are so many vampire series and novels still hitting bestseller status? If a first time writer can pop out a formulaic boy/girl vampire romance and make a mint, then surely there must be plenty of gold left to mine in the old vampire genre!
Well, yes and no.
I won’t pretend I understand the secret to the unlikely success of Twilight, but what I can say is that Stephanie Meyer wrote a story that she believed in and wasn’t afraid to remake the vampire to suit that story. Now, I make jokes about sparkling vampires, too, and I didn’t like the Twilight books, but there’s no denying that the author captured something that hooked readers. Of course, now the market is flooded with tender Young Adult series about misunderstood vampires and the sweet young girls who love them. That’s called chasing a trend. Hopefully, you’re reading this because that’s not your style. You want to tell your story, the tale that burns inside you that you haven’t been able to find anywhere on the bookshelves. You don’t want to write another lame Anne Rice rip-off or Twilight wannabe!
This should be obvious, but it’s surprising how many authors don’t read as much as they should in their genre. Don’t assume that your idea is brand new just because you haven’t seen it in a movie or in your favorite series. Get out there and look at what other authors are doing! Here’s an excellent list. Now, be aware that not everything listed on this entertaining and informative site is, in fact, a tired cliché that needs to be avoided. If you should find some of your ideas on this list, don’t despair! Many of these tropes have endured for decades or even centuries precisely because they are popular and accessible. What learning the clichés will do for you is make you aware of the wide range of well-recognized ideas that are already associated with the vampire archetype from centuries of stage, screen, and novel appearances. Once you know what the clichés and tropes are, you can make the critical decision of which to embrace and which to avoid.
Do Your Research!
It’s hard to argue with tradition or scientific fact and this can be to your advantage. Did you know that the traditional folkloric vampire of Eastern Europe bears more resemblance to today’s zombie than the suave, brooding Goth poster-child of modern cinema and literature? It’s true. There are even more fun surprises to be had if you research the vampires of other cultures. There’s the philipino Aswang, the Chinese Jiang-shi, the Roman Strix, the Norse Draugr, and the list goes on and on. There are literally dozens of rarely-seen vampire myths and legends to tap into for the author who is willing to step outside of the standard coffin.
Introducing modern readers to some of these lesser-known vampire types is a great way to not only breath fresh life into your story, but it also celebrates the diversity of the vampire archetype and pays homage to its world-wide cultural heritage. Authors and readers come from all ethnic backgrounds these days and the ability to explore new cultures is a strong motivation to read.
The other direction one can take is toward the scientific and realistic. Granted, this has been done before, but luckily there are nearly as many ways to explain vampire-like creatures with science as there are with mythology. There are limitations to this approach, naturally, since even pseudo-science will only let you get away with so much, but what you loose in the fantastic, you gain back in plausibility. Really, it comes down to the type of story you want to tell and where your sensibilities lie.
Whatever you do, however …
Once you decide on what kind of vampire you want, you need to follow that through with the rest of your story. If your vampires are created by magic, then their weaknesses should be magical as well. Give them the traditional Dracula set or pick and choose from the classics based on what vampires are and how they operate in your world. If magic exists and can create vampires, then what else is out there? How does magic work in your world and what are its limitations? That may sound like an odd question, but even magic needs to have some kind of logic to it. Jim Butcher in his Dresden Files series does probably the best job of magic seem real without losing any of its wonder that I’ve ever read. Plan your world view out, even if it’s a magical one, and make sure all of the parts work together.
If your vampires are more on the realistic side, then give the reader insight into what it feels like to be one. Those of you with a scientific background can have a ball with this! Don’t suddenly introduce implausible abilities because they seem cool, keep it real!
It’s All in the Details!
Nothing is more annoying to me as a reader than when an author just glosses over their vampires with generic descriptions of how beautiful they are, how fast they are, how strong, etc. with no attention to the ordinary. Clichés are the fall-back of the lazy writer, which is why they become so commonplace and ordinary. Some authors think: “Well, everybody knows what vampires are like. I don’t need to get into boring detail.”
My answer to this is: If you’re going to give us ordinary vampires like we’ve read before, then why are you bothering?
What’s everyday life like for the undead/infected? I’m talking nitty-gritty here. Can you imagine how bad a vampire’s breath must smell if all they drink is blood? What about that room-temperature skin? Does that sound sexy to you? It’s amazing how often these simple, obvious details are glossed over for the sake of “romance.” Personally, I like my characters a little more approachable. What does your vampire do when he/she’s not out feeding? If they can’t see their reflection, then how in the world do they have perfect hair?
This may sound like nit-picking to some of you, but the best way to avoid clichéd writing is to be specific. Know your characters inside and out. Know your vampires. Think about them—really think. How do they get through all the little day to day hassles that the rest of us deal with? Look at what Joss Whedon did with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. These were shows about heroic, romantic, epic characters that weren’t afraid to show the awkward moments and even laugh at them. Rather than demeaning them, it made those characters real and honest in a way that few shows before had managed. Even Anne Rice described how Lestat crapped his pants when his body died and the fact that his dick didn’t work. Those kind of unpleasant details help balance the fantastic powers that Lestat receives, creating a subtle balance that readers recognize from life.
A vampire’s life should not be all glamur, epic sex, and superhero battles. Invest some time and imagination into your vampires and you’ll bring them to life.
Flip the Script
This last bit is about making some of those clichés work for you. There are times when you just can’t avoid a scene or situation that’s been done before, so what can you do? Make it work in your favor by setting up the cliché and then taking a left turn! The most obvious example of this is Buffy Summers, who should have been a stereotypical monster victim but instead is a powerful Slayer destined to hunt the undead. That’s a cliché turned on its ear and successfully inverted. The occasional wink at the reader or ironic commentary can freshen up a deadly serious story with unexpected humor. By the same token, leading your reader to anticipate/dread a standard trope moment and then subverting it can be a wonderful twist. Think of Raiders of the Lost Ark when the crowd clears between Indy and the Arabian swordsman; it’s a clear set-up for a swashbuckling swordfight, but Indy just shoots the swordsman instead and gets on with business. It’s a wonderful surprise moment!
Sometimes, when there’s no good way to subvert the cliché, even just acknowledging it can be enough to make it more bearable. This is especially true with villains who love to grand-stand, but be careful. Self-referential and ironic humor is starting to become so common that it’s threatening to become a cliché of its own, so I’d recommend being careful how often you resort to pointing out your own clichés. It’s always better to steer away from them in the first place whenever possible.
My final piece of advice for all aspiring writers, whatever the genre, is this: Write what’s in your heart. Tell the story that you long to tell rather than the one you think people want to read. In the end, no amount of originality can make up for a lack of heart.
Guest writer Brian McKinley has written four screenplays, a stage play which won a state-wide contest and was produced by a NJ community theater, and two short stories that have appeared in Reflection’s Edge and Challenging Destiny magazines. His first novel, Ancient Blood, was published by Midnight Hour Publishing. Brian lives in New Jersey and is working on his next novel.
Brian McKinley has written four screenplays, a stage play which won a state-wide contest and was produced by a NJ community theater, and two short stories that have appeared in Reflection’s Edge and Challenging Destiny magazines. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and his first novel, Ancient Blood, was published by Ambrosia Arts Publishing. Brian lives in New Jersey and is working on his next novel.