Monday, August 13, 2012

Writing a Vampire Romance: or problems I've had while trying to do so

I've always considered myself not a big fan of vampires. This is despite the fact that Dracula by Bram Stoker is one of my favorite books of all time, and I like Nosferatu a lot as well. Yet I'm not a huge fan of the modern vampire story. Especially as it is portrayed in romance which is the genre which I write and thus have the most stake (no pun in tended) in. If a writer I know and love writes a vampire story I'll read it but, much like werewolves stories, I don't generally search them out. Vampires are just not my favorite part of the paranormal sub-genre.

Which is why I am extremely surprised to find myself writing a vampire story at the moment. It started as a challenge to myself to see if I could do better and write a vampire romance I'd actually want to read. Almost right away  I ran into some problems. So here are some of those problems and questions I've been mulling over while trying to create a vampire character.

First how do you make a character, who kills people and eats them, likeable as a romantic love interest? Closely related to that is another question which should plague vampire romance writers: Is getting your blood sucked out through puncture holes in your body sexy or creepy?

I wanted to go back to the vampiric roots of the sub-genre as much as possible doing a lot of research into folklore and mythology. The roots of our modern day vampire is an undead creature closely related to a ghoul or zombie. In some cases they eat other corpses in some cases they kill and eat living people. Archeologists have found skeletons of black plague victims with bricks shoved in their mouths that they think meant people here afraid these bodies would come back as vampires. A lot of our modern vampire myths can be traced back to the series of medieval plagues that swept across Europe. Plague corpses would often appear to 'eat' through their shrouds as corrosive liquid seeped out of their mouths and other orifices as the bodies decayed. Not a lot of sexiness to work with there. Although books like Dracula definitely prettied up the vampire myth a lot, Bram Stoker's count Dracula does not make a particularly appeal romantic lead.   

One thing that is definitely done to make vampires more sexy is to make them more human. This is generally a popular way of dealing with non-human characters in romance in general and the more human and physically attractive the better. This means there are less Nosferatu vampires kicking around the romance genre.

 (I'm thinking that's probably even more of a niche market than even I write for) 

Lots of paranormal romance authors also get around the general lack of sexiness that comes with feasting on human blood by making the vampire not actually kill people when they feed. This means that a) your main character is not a cannibalistic undead serial killer and b) blood sucking can be re-imagined as a mutually pleasurable part of foreplay.

Which leads into:

Humans: thrall, willing sex slave, or coming after you with a stake? 

There are a lot of demons in Christian medieval lore that can cast spells on people or otherwise trick them into having sex with them. Creatures that do this are actually very common in almost all mythology and folk lore so it's unsurprising that this has also found it's way into modern vampire lore.

In Dracula one of the vampires biggest strengthened in fact is their ability to compel humans to do things they wouldn't ordinarily do. If you couple that with the idea of blood sucking being just a different kind of oral sex then it might be easy to take the jump into sex slave territory with the slave either willing or no.

Of course going down that road in a romance novel brings of thorny questions of consent along with the vampire characters motivations in the relationship. There are definitely ways for this to be really sexy and really cool but it involves a lot of fancy foot work. So in my mind, as a writer, it's definitely something to really think hard and long about before committing to. 

What about all the other vampires? What doe they get up to on Friday nights? 

It's unclear to me if all vampire legend had vampirism being a thing that gets passed from one vampire to a victim who then becomes a vampire. This image though of vampires 'turning' humans into vampires has certainly been deeply installed into our modern image of the vampire. With it comes the idea that their might be created "families" of vampires. It also means there might be potentionally large numbers of vampires.

This is were things sometimes get angsty. Because although it's very unusual to have a romance novel where the vampire murders his/her/their way through the general population littering corpses left and right, most authors want to at least give a nod to the fact that sucking someone's blood to live is generally considered a not nice thing. Maybe some other non-main character vampires are very bad people and the good vampire might need to get a little angsty about that too. Maybe the vampire was turned by a not nice vampire and they've decided to spend the rest of eternity bent out of shape about that. Either way to angst or not to angst is a question to be taken into account when deciding how a vampire character is going to interact/deal with/feel about other vampires.

On this particular subject a cheated a little bit by having vampirism not transferable from one vampire to another and thus be super rare so that more then one vampire at a time would be almost unknown.

There is nothing wrong with writing vampires who are incredibly beautiful, don't need to kill anyone, can make sucking blood the sexiest experience ever and has a daddy complex about their sire. In fact all of these characterizations make sense and have literary roots that go back as far or further than Dracula.
 (the sexy vampire circa 1897)

If you are writing about vampires, especially paranormal romance, you need to be aware that these are option but not necessities. Just because you are writing about vampires and sexy times does not mean your vampire must be unbelievably beautiful or that in your universe drinking blood must be sexy and pleasurable for the suck-ee. Your vampire does not have to get home every night and crawl across broken glass to make up for the sins of the vampire that turned them. In my opinion however any good writer is going to have to stop and think about these issues and make a decision one way or another.  I must admit it's hard. Writing vampires is no joke (no matter how many Twilight jokes there might be).

These issues are ones I've been mulling over again and again as I designed Nefehotep (my vampire) and my world. For the most part I've found it's more of a balancing act, trying to make him creepy enough to still be kind of an old school vampire while endearing enough to be desirable. I've
definitely thought about and made some decision though about how I'll handle these issues. For instance in my world having your blood sucked hurts about as much as it sounds, and the sex slave thing is straight out.        

My last and more over arching issue is:

How do you write in a sub-genre with literally a legion of authors who have also written or are trying to write the "good" or "sexy" vampire?

Despite my alleged dislike of vampires (and at this point I'm beginning to think it's a case of the gentleman protests too much) I have read quite a few of Anne Rice's vampire novels, and loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer in my teens. My sister made me watch most of the first season of True Blood with her. Although I'm made incredibly uncomfortable by them it would be impossible to be a romance author and not know about the Twilight books in detail. So I'm painfully well aware of the battleship worth of baggage you get when writing about vamperic romance.

Maybe this is just a problem I have but I tend not to like writing about things that are this well covered. I don't like to feel like I'm going to be constently compared to other (better) authors who have trode these literary paths before me. Lets face it at this point vampires and vampire romance is less of a path through the woods and more of a four lane freeway. It's hard to break new ground when the creative wilderness has been plagued under and there's a suburban housing development in it's place. That doesn't mean there aren't some cool things in the cellars and attics of that housing development it just means the going a little tougher.

In an attempt to be more original I took my story out of the modern day setting and instead set it in Ancient Egypt's New Kingdom. Already this switches thing up a little bit, or at least it does in my head, and makes me feel less like I have Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer breathing down my neck at every word.

 (lets face it the dead were already pretty frisky in ancient Egyptian mythology)

I through in some Egyptian Gods, magic and political intrigue so it should be interesting to see what comes out of all this.

So what do you think? What do you struggle with when writing vampire stories? What do you want to see or not see when reading vampire romance? What interesting questions and observations have occurred to you about vampires in general? 

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