This blog is the second installment in examining the changing meaning of story tropes in urban fantasy.
As some of the most popular tropes found in urban fantasy, vampires and werewolves have changed dramatically since their début in fiction or film. Like many archetypes, both live as part of the human world but also outside of it as well. Both are what they are not necessarily from choice but from permanent change. Once bitten or converted, there is no going back to normal.
Many folks may think that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the first to introduce vampires to the world and others refer to Vlad Tepes because of his “son of Dracul” label. However, true vampire legends are much older and Vampires Fact, Fiction, and Folklore is a great resource about the myths. One clear fact rising across the years is that vampires did not have a specific look or specialized abilities. Those differences came about through fiction writing and Hollywood portrayals.
Early Fiction Tropes
Some of the early fictional bloodsuckers looked more demonic than sexy and even the film versions of Stoker’s Dracula did not come across as necessarily handsome. On excellent example is the 1922 Nosferatu, which is considered one of the earliest vampire flicks.
The move to make Dracula and other “children of the night” beautiful or handsome quickly came about in cinema and fiction followed its lead. However, the 60s and 70s B movie tuxedo-wearing guy or white-gowned vampiress were still evil and the seduction was a dark illusion in order for them to feed. Sexuality was an obvious ploy in a rather uptight world but romance never figured in. In fact, many scholars consider Stoker’s work as a commentary of Victorian sexual mores as being a reflection of darker, bestial needs.
Modern vampires, although still potential killers, are often disassociated from evil. In the case of the engaging Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris, the living-challenged sip on faux blood and have come out of the coffin, trying to fit somewhat unsuccessfully, into the human-oriented world. Like humans, their society featured positive and negative members. Laurell Hamilton’s Vampire Hunter series also show the blood drinkers mingling in high society, living off of volunteer donors. In addition, a whole subgenre of romance about vampires has emerged on the shelf, including Mary Janice Davidson’s hilarious Queen Betsy series.
So what tropes can writers get from the modern tales? Vampires are the ultimate sexy bad boy/untamed girl, waiting for the right mate to come along and redeem them or fill the hollowness in their lives. Still dangerous, the modern coffin man is either ordinary looking or extremely attractive but almost never hideous. For some stories, even their evil form is beautiful, such as the diamond sparkles in Twilight. This factor is a great departure from the classic vampire tales. I say “man” here because most fiction features the vamp as masculine, attempting to find their female soulmate. However, even the living-challenged women are usually portrayed lovely.
In addition, the biter’s power of life and death simply adds spice to the romance. The ideas of sin and evil have lessened as well since some writers show vampires as victims of circumstance. The masters are often rich, living the life of luxury, and sex with one, particularly if it includes a nibble, is unbelievably amazing. Leading characters are often intelligent and wise, although not always connected to the modern life.
Interpreting the Modern Dracula
Perhaps contemporary woman likes an element of menace in her romance. The “bad boy” James Dean archetype is found in a lot of fiction, urban fantasy style or not. Since some factors of sexual repression still exist in society, creatures like the vampires allows us to explore our passionate hungers without feeling as guilty over the sin of our actions. “He entranced me. I couldn’t help myself.” becomes the new reasoning.
In addition, making a handsome character that never goes bald or develops love handles also is indicative of our society’s view of the importance of beauty and youth. What we cast aside here is not necessarily old age but the ravages that time does to our bodies. Although beauty was always important to society, what defined a true beauty changed as man moved into the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Women particularly, but men as well, must work harder to look younger and thinner despite nature’s process of getting old. So it is no wonder that we want to have instant revitalization through a simple bite.
In addition, the need to live forever feeds into the audience’s need for continuance in a world that seems to reinvent itself technologically every five or ten years. After all, cars don’t last fifteen years, and computers are practically obsolete the moment you bring them home from the store. Living forever might give a person the chance to transcend all those minor changes to look at the big hundred-year picture for accomplishing anything they wanted.
So maybe the modern vamp is like dating Mr. Grey without the spankings. It is dancing with the darkness in ourselves while wanting to be beautiful forever. Since beauty and sexuality can be manipulated into power, who wouldn’t want a forever-young look along with the opportunity to use it over a thousand years? The problem for the modern urban fantasy writer is how we use the vampire without the creature becoming too human, too monstrous, or even too silly. The neck biter has evolved quite a bit but writers should never forget that the archetype is still a predator, no matter how sparkly or beautiful it seems.
Part 3 in the series: Werewolves and other man-animal mixes.