Urban Fantasy Archetypes: Pain in the Necks? A Look at Vampires

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 d├ębut 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.

Today’s Bloodsuckers

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.

Urban Fantasy Characters: Rules and When to Break Them

Although I like focusing on fiction writing in general, today I want to hone in more on my preferred genre of urban fantasy.

Writing for certain genres, such as urban and high fantasy as well as science fiction, has additional challenges beyond those faced with literary work or thrillers. For instance, the authors must create the rules of their imaginary setting based off of the laws of the known world yet add changes that the audiences will accept as reasonable.

What do I mean?

Gravity must always work. You can have workarounds, such as magic or advanced technology, but things must still fall to the ground. Men form hierarchies and act in specific ways. Therefore, they are not likely to sprout flowers out of their chest or kill all their neighbors. We live in worlds, societies, and cultures that have established rules and practices that guide how we see our environment. Audiences expect those same regulations and restrictions in fiction and often rebel if the writer breaks them without a good reason.

How does this apply to urban fantasy characters?

Simple. Whatever creature you are writing about, elves, vampires, ghosts, or something else, you must respect the history, lore, and traditional facts that define these creatures.

“But,” you might say, “That’s ridiculous. They’re not real so I can make up whatever rules I want about them.”

No you can’t, at least not without stretching your audience’s belief to the snapping point. For example, the vampires in Twilight did not fit into some of the audiences’ belief about the undead. I’m using the movie interpretation since I haven’t read the books. The archetype vampires sparkled like diamonds in sunlight and were unaffected by the rays. The fans overlooked this fact, but the critics pointed to it as one of the irritating problems of the characters. The accepted rule was that sunlight kills two-legged tick-men.

To apply the idea of rules to other creatures is pretty easy. A ghost should never step back into an X-number of years-old body and come back alive without any repercussions. The audience won’t buy it because the idea is a cheap plot trick to get around an inconvenient truth: the person is dead. In the same vein (sorry for the pun), vampires are, by nature, predators, even if they drink synthetic blood. Therefore, no one will believe a vegan, passive vamp.

A little research will reveal that most creatures, monsters, or character archetypes have a history of beliefs and rules that the readers are aware of and comfortable with. The best writers continue to abide by them, expand on those ideas, and use the special features of these creatures to drive the plot along. After all, why feature a ghost in a story if they are just background decoration?

One of the queens of urban fantasy, Anne Rice, stuck pretty close to accepted lore for her early vampire books. They were simple, long-living bloodsuckers that couldn’t enjoy the sun, stalked prey, and were killable in certain specific ways. They didn’t fly, turn into bats, wear opera clothes, or mesmerize anyone. They also weren’t great sexual athletes either although her books were highly sensual in the settings and descriptions.

This brings me to my next point. When do you break the rules? Don’t make the creatures in your world a simple rehash of the same old, dusty monsters. What fantasy types are and how they act has evolved over time, largely because authors took chances and changed the archetype in thoughtful, methodical ways. The original film vampire was an ugly demonic man (Nosferatu 1922) but by Dracula (1931), Bela Lugosi brought a more “everyman look” to the character along with a suave demeanor. Later renditions of the character became more handsome, highly sexual, and multi-talented as he took on aspects of changing to bats, wolves, or mists.

Rice followed this same idea. She firmly established the rules of her world and then began to expand them by breaking one or two. The one factor that comes to my mind is that some of the ancient vampires in Queen of the Damned could fly. She introduced this change in a very specific, plausible manner as a reasonable twist in the plot and limited the “new” abilities to a subset of her world’s monsters.

Jim Butcher, in the Dresden series, took a different and very imaginative approach. He embraced multiple versions of vampires by stating they were variations or “courts.” Each court represented some aspect of vampire lore with the White court being the succubus style, the Red being the more standard Dracula type, and the Black Court looking like the demonic characters.

The trick in breaking the rules is doing it in creative ways that make sense in the story’s world and then staying consistent within the new rules. If your vampire can leap high, like Lestat, then escaping most pitchfork-wielding villagers should be easy. However, even Lestat couldn’t jump so high as to scale the Empire State Building in one bound. He isn’t Superman and Anne Rice’s readers knew that.

So before you write your elves-in-our-world saga or werewolf lover story, really figure out your character archetypes. Know by heart their strengths, weaknesses, societies, and personality flaws. Explain to yourself how they fit into their own hidden society as well as inside the greater human environment. What challenges does that create? With all these factors in mind, you’ll find it easier to write a great story that won’t include any weak plot tricks that kill your audience’s interest.

I’ll expand more on urban fantasy archetypes in future blogs.