Sunday, November 1, 2009

Shiny Vampires and Emo Weres

Okay, I'll admit it. I'm an old-fashioned sort of girl. I like my monsters to be, well, monsters. Vampires should be creatures of the night. They don't go out in the light, at least not without getting a really serious case of sunburn, and they most certainly don't go to high school. Werewolves are ruled by the cycle of the Moon and shifting from human to wolf or back again isn't quick and painless.

So, faced with the split in current literature -- don't hit me for using the "L" word. I mean it in it's most general, least insulting way. Truly I do. -- how do you go about setting the stage for your vampires or weres?

The first thing you need to know as the writer is how your vampire or were (or shifter) came to be.

There are any number of legends out there that can be the basis of their metamorphosis. A person can become a werewolf (or other type of were) through magic, a pact with the devil or a demon, a curse, or through infection. American Indians have legends about skinwalkers who hang the pelt of the animal they want to become on their belts and through various means become the animal when putting on the pelt. There are legends about the seventh son of the seventh son or those conceived under the new moon or born on a full moon Friday the 13th becoming weres. Then you have genetic mutation, both natural and of the mad scientist type. There are others, all of which make good fodder for the backstory of a novel.

Vampires can be turned by another vampire -- we're all probably familiar with this one. Legend also has it that if a child is conceived during a holy period or if that child is the illegitimate offspring of illegitimate parents, he will become a vampire. As with weres, there is also the mutation theory as well as any number of others out there to play with.

Another issue you have to consider as a writer is what happens to your character after he's been "changed" or "turned". How does this affect his humanity? A were or shifter is human when in human form. At least initially. But what happens when he's in his animal form? Does he maintain the ability to think and reason? Or does he become fully animal? Does his humanity decrease the more he shifts and does there come a time when, if he stays in his animal form too long, he can no longer shift back to his human form?

Versions of the same questions can be asked about the vampire. Does death, and possibly the loss of his soul, remove his humanity? How does this affect him and his interactions with the humans he is going to come into contact with? More importantly, if he doesn't have a soul, can he relate to those non-vamps in your story in a way that seems even vaguely human (yes, I know this is a religious and moral issue. I happen to think it is one you have to deal with). Another question to ask is what being basically immortal will do to your vampire. Is the human mind capable of maintaining its sanity over the centuries, especially if your vampire has any sort of emotional ties to humans over those long years?

With regard to your characters changing into the appropriate "creature of the night" (no, this is not a cue for the song of that title from Rocky Horror), how does the change occur? I just saw an ad for the latest Twilight movie where the emo were takes a flying leap and changes from human to wolf in the blink of an eye. Of course, the shiny vampire was there too and, oh, it's daylight. Sorry, back to the topic and away from my pet peeves.

Does your were shift only during the full moon? What are the mechanics of the shift? Is it slow and painful? Do you take into account mass to mass ratio? In other words, does it violate the rules of your world for a 5' tall, slender young woman to shift into a mouse -- or into a mastodon? Does your vampire change into a bat? If he does, is it only one bat and a normal sized one at that or a number of bats? Sally, in Terry Pratchett's THUD!, turns into 130 bats, some of whom occasionally fly off, making it a real pain to re-materialize as a "human". Another interesting twist on the common vampire mythos is that only the male vampires reappear fully clothed. For some reason, the female vampires don't. Which can make for some embarrassing situations.

Other issues to deal with are deciding if your world knows about the existence of the weres or vampires. If they do, how did they learn about the existence of the "monsters" and how are they adapting to that knowledge. The early Anita Blake books by Laurel K. Hamilton are good about showing how the world is slowly admitting to the knowledge of weres and vamps, if not exactly accepting them. If the world doesn't know about them, how are they trying to keep their presence a secret? This is especially tricky in this day and age of forensic science and video cameras on every corner.

What other issues do you see in writing about werewolves and vampires? What do you think about the current trend of making them "human" with extra powers ala Twilight and its ilk?

29 comments:

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I'm running a workshop next week on writing paranormal romance and dark urban fantasy.

One of the things I'll be stressing is that supernatural creatures must have weaknesses and the writer must work out what the extent of their powers.

The story world must have internal logic.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Amanda

Making monsters human is probably necessary for paranormal romance but IMO kinda spoils thriller urban fantasy.

John

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, absolutely! And it is the logic-fail that most often has me throwing a book across the room. To me, part of that failure is taking a well-know myth or superstition and throwing it on its ear without appropriate background or explanation. Vampires being able to survive in daylight is one of those. I can see vamp who was turned centuries ago perhaps being able to stand the light in limited doses, but not a newly turned vamp. So, if you're going to have that happen, tell me why.

It is their weaknesses that make them more than cardboard-cutout characters. Their powers are what make them scary, or intriguing -- at least until those powers become insurmountable. Then they return to the cardboard-cutout arena.

I'd love to be able to attend your workshop...unfortunately, Sarah's youngest hasn't built that portal yet.

Amanda Green said...

John, you may be right, but it still seems to me that too many of the authors who take that tact fail in their world-building. To me, the whys and wherefores of a creature's origins, powers and weaknesses make it more interesting and lend so much more to the story.

The problem, imo, is that the trend is moving into the urban fantasy realm as well. That line separating UF and PR is blurring more and more. I've read of late that agents and editors are looking for something besides the shiny vampires and emo weres and I hope that's the case. There is a place for them, but not in my dark UF. I like the chills that go down my spine as I read a particularly haring passage as the vampire or were stalks its prey. I also enjoy the conflict of a group of shifters, or other "monsters", as they try to weigh their human sides against the monster and take steps most of us would never consider just to keep their existence hidden. They have to because, well, there's another monster out there by the name of fear that can cause even the most rational of beings to turn into a monster capable of anything, all in the name of survival.

Kate said...

Okay, that's horrifying. Sparkly and emo... ::shudders:: No thank you.

I prefer, even in the lighter material like ConVent, to keep the awareness of the monster. Aside from anything else, it's a whole lot more interesting with a vamp or a were or whatever who knows that they're balancing between what was human and what they are now.

The powers have to be balanced by something, and there have to be weaknesses. One of the biggest factors in my view is that traditionally the monsters are predators, and their prey is human. It kind of messes up the whole undead porn thing when your hothothot undead critter looks at the hothothot human as "dinner"

Amanda Green said...

Aw, come on, Kate. Don't you think Drac would want you to write him as both sparkly AND emo? I mean, think about it. He'd be a hit with the Twilight crowd. (Runs and hides before Kate can find me)

That balance you talk about is what I love in a good UF book or in a good movie. Besides, it's always struck me as odd that someone would want to crawl into bed with what is basically a corpse. Think how cold your feet could get. [VBEG]

C Kelsey said...

That whole schtick of what amounts to necrophilia has always weirded me out. The werewolf thing I tend to rationalize as the ultimate expression of the human tendency to anthropomorphize animals. So it's easier to understand the morphing of werewolf from creature of nightmares to cuddly puppy (even if the very concept should make most people twitch at least a little bit). The concept of the beautiful vampire originally seemed to me to be an attempt at illustrating seductive evil. Then they vamps stopped being evil and the emphasis was placed on the seduction and the evil was placed on indescriminate "others" in order to allow the seduction to progress. Sparkly vampires are the ultimate expression of how screwed up that particular sub-genre has become. And the emphasis on teenaged angst... Herk, snork, blarf...

Amanda Green said...

Chris, at least with weres, you know they are human at least most of the time. So, unless you have a were who can shift whenever he wants -- or when under stress -- it's a pretty safe thing to sleep with them most nights. And I like the idea of seductive evil. It sort of plays on the primitive emotions. But when the seduction becomes the ruling factor and not the evil, haven't you changed the critter? That sort of pinpoints one of my biggest complaints with so many paranormal romances. All they've done is take the "bad boy" and called him a vamp or a were and, well, cheated. They cheat because they don't do good world-building and are taking a shortcut simply because vamp books or were books are selling.

Don't get me wrong. There are some good ones out there. Especially in the urban fantasy genre. Unfortunately, like in so many other cases, the bad ones seem to proliferate exponentially where the good ones don't.

C Kelsey said...

The seductive evil is the most dangerous evil IMO. Say what you will of the movie "Dracula 2000", but they nailed a seductive, yet totally evil vampire. As for weres... There is something about a shapeshifter that is entirely human. A were, even the most angry and vicious kind, speak to human nature. Regardless of how morphed they get, there is still the "human looking at its own nature" aspect. Somehow, that ship got jumped when it comes to vamps. And you would think that vampires would remain even more potent a vehicle for analysis of human nature.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I hate fluffy vampires. They've become a "holder" for "oppressed minority" and frankly my vampires would rather oppress.

I think it's very important that the monsters be the monsters. Repeat after me "The monsters are the monsters." It's very important that humanity imperfect as it is, not be thrust into the position of monster.

It's very important for humans to stop hating ourselves and embracing monsters.

Oh, wait. That's the outline for Noah's boy...

WangZheng259 said...

I am a nationalist or hypernationalist of the American variety. Americans have delegated the authority and the responsibility for deciding justice to our legal system. If the supernatural elements of society in an urban fiction setting conceal or withold evidence of their existance from the courts, I am somewhat inclined to view them as traitors or enemies (depending on whether or not they would be expected to have loyalty to the constitution or not). My mind just seems to notice or dwell on this more than most urban fantasy I have seen.

If a monster is capable of being loyal to, and abiding by the laws of the United States of America, and does so via the lawful processes, I would consider them an American, with all of the rights and obligations thereof. I think I am inclined to rate nationality higher than species, but I am still wrestling with this.

I am not always picky about monsters needing weaknesses, or to be all that close to legend and accepted characteristics. However, I do not care for the 'just another oppressed minority' or 'just another ethnic or religious group' treatments. I have no use for wallowing in negative emotions.

When building a type of vampire or werewolf entirely from scratch, I often like to screw with preconceptions or mental blindspots. I have little use for Romance, and I like to make vampires that are /not/ compatable with the 'sexy vampire lover'. I dislike non-thermal usages of the word cool. I do not care for supernatural critters that are purely built around the fashions and tastes of young people. (Although, when I switched from 'vampire' to 'supernatural critter' in the last sentence, my mind started trying to build something that legitimately functioned this way.)

Vampire Case Studies

1. Very contagious by body fluids. Made as tools to kill everyone on the approved target list. All recreational drug users are on said list. Cannot be killed by anything except the lawful use of lethal force. Otherwise boring and mundane. (Goals: Most paranormal romance readers are not going to think that someone who knifes prostitutes is sexy. Most urban fantasy readers are going to have trouble sympathizing with someone who kills pot smokers in a very ugly fashion, just for being pot smokers.)

2. A bunch of wizards got together, and collaborated to create varieties of vampires to be compelled to carry out wetwork and secret police activities. They are controlled by cutouts, and there is very little to connect the vampires and the wizards. They spend time underground because it is more covert, and because that is where the control signals go.

3. Vampires are humans who have been killed and occupied by a member of an organization of extradimensional aliens. Vampires think they are the only human derived entity that can interact with magic and remain sane. Thus, they quietly kill any humans who get too close to magic.

Kate said...

WangZheng,

I may be missing something after spending since midday (7:40pm my time now) rebuilding my system after Ubuntu effed up, but where, precisely, did Amanda ask for a political diatribe disguised as writing discussion?

Amanda Green said...

Chris, you hit the nail on the head. The more seductive the evil, the harder it is to resist it, at least at first. You react to the seduction and don't necessarily see the evil lurking behind it. If lucky, you see it before it's too late. I think that is a fear in most of us that we will be taken in this way.

Dracula 2000, and even the Dracula with Frank Langella, hit that seduction with the underlying evil better than a number of the other movies.

As for the weres, they are more human. Therefore, they are easier to identify with. Perhaps they've maintained that bit of humanity because they haven't died. Vampires are, in many myths, soulless creatures. That would, imo, account for their "inhumanity".

Kate said...

Amanda, it's Drac you should be running from after that comment, not me!

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, YES! It is one thing to have your characters be weres or shifters or whatever and worry about losing their humanity. It is something completely different to have them be the put-upon and oppressed, used and misused by big business and the military in a story that is so one dimensional with cardboard-cutout characters. Misunderstood were/vamp/insert monster here with lover who started out as enemy fighting to save the monster from the evils of society -- YUCK.

Amanda Green said...

WangZheng, what you have to remember is that if we are talking about a world where weres and shapeshifters and vampires exist, we most definitely are NOT talking about our world. I'm not talking politics, but practicality and logic. Both would require that a group of "mutated" homo saps trying to hide their existence if they aren't already known to the public. For one thing, fear makes people do very strange things. If you need an example, look at the witch trials, both in Salem and in the 1950s. Different sorts of things entirely, but both showed how fear can make people turn on friend and family with little to no proof. So logic would dictate doing whatever is necessary to protect themselves and their "family". Again, you have to follow the rules of your world-building, not necessarily the rules of this world.

As for monsters needing to have weaknesses, they do. How else is there a chance for humanity to prevail if the monster is your antagonist? Conversely, if the monster is your protagonist, if there is no risk of failure, why would the reader finish the book? They already know the ending.

I won't comment on your "case studies" because, frankly, there isn't enough there to show how these vamps are really all that different from some of the stories I've read. There are any number of variations on the vampire mythos, and these fall smack into the middle of it all. I will say, however, to write the stories. That is the only way to perfect your craft and see what particular spin you can put on the story that is uniquely yours.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, you and I both know that your Drac isn't the run-of-the-mill, bloodsucking vamp. So he is, of course, the exception to my comment. ;-p

WangZheng259 said...

Kate,
I didn't see it as a political diatribe. That said, it is a function of a very political mindset, so I suspect I'll have to grant that point.

I intended it in response to 'What other issues do you see in writing about werewolves and vampires?' I do not think much of having a shadow government in a secret supernatural community with authority over capital offenses, and persons gaining the benefits from both that and the normal government. I especially dislike this when nobody notices the apparent conflict, including the author. The governments of other countries may operate in such a way that there is not such a problem, but I have little to no understanding of other countries.

Amanda's Nocturnal books have a very good treatment of this issue. I discussed this some with her on the Bar this spring, and meant to discuss it further, but real life and my poor writing intervened.

I am very interested in the interactions of government and society. It is my custom study the implementation of these in the stories that I read. I tend to come to odd conclusions in my thinking, and as a result, I suspect that this particular hot button may be very rare.

Kate said...

WangZheng

A gentle hint for you - when you're discussing hypotheticals you make completely the wrong impression by starting with a political statement. ("I am a nationalist..." The result is that what follows sounds like a political diatribe. It doesn't help that your examples are pretty much bog-standard in urban fantasy/horror.

On the hidden society thing - most books in the genre that I've read have as one of their major conflict drivers the tension between the hidden world of the critters and the "real" world of the book. Those that don't tend to have the critters as essentially lone agents or site their 'home' base somewhere that's either non-functional or highly corrupt and has, by implication, already been subverted. (I'm not touching paranormal romances which... well. Sparkly. Emo. Gag me bad).

Amanda's Nocturnal books do deal with the issue very well. I take a different approach with ConVent, which I hope also works. Sarah's approach with the shifters books is different again. And, as Amanda said, any kind of sufficiently different critter is going to want to stay hidden from the rest of us. Depending on where they are they could be facing anything from mob violence to a long, unpleasant life in a lab somewhere. The dynamics there aren't hard to understand.

I'm also very interested in how human nature and societies interact and get rather snarky about people who do it badly. I submit that there needs to be a lot of observation of people, a great deal of tolerance - and fondness - towards them, and experience. Pratchett is the master here, but I try.

I suspect one of the reasons you reach such... unusual conclusions is that you're not organizing your thoughts well enough and missing critical steps and/or information. It's easy to do.

Amanda Green said...

WangZheng, with the Nocturnal books, the main character's fear that she is losing her humanity as well as the internal war between enforcing the law (she's a detective for those who haven't read the snippets in the Diner) and the need to protect not only herself but those she has come to care for and trust are key elements of the books. She would prefer to be able to do everything by the book, just as she has done for 10 years she's been with the DPD. However, she also sees the writing on the wall. If she goes to her superiors and tells them there are werewolves and the likes running around Dallas, killing people, the best she can hope for is that she'll be locked up and fitted with that nice white jacket with the long sleeves. At worst, she and others like her will be locked up in labs, relegated into science experiments -- or worse. So she chooses a course of action she's not exactly comfortable with, but which keeps the most people, human and shifter alike, alive and peacefully co-existing.

All of this works according to the rules of the world I've built for these stories. In another book I'm working on now, the shifters and other supernatural creatures work within a certain legal framework to bring down those who do not. Again, that works for that particular world.

As I've said, it all depends on the world your characters live in and the rules you set up for them in your world-building.

WangZheng259 said...

Amanda,
If there was repeatable, replicable evidence of magic or the supernatural, concealing it would damage science, and prevent experts from being usefully available to the court system. If the number of people on the inside is large enough, absent countermeasures, it should sooner or later produce a fanatic that puts nation enough over family to spill the beans. With countermeasures, such as silencing witnesses and informants, the whole thing starts to smell like a criminal conspiracy. Treason is probably excessive, except for the most powerful of such organizations. Depending on world building, it may be possible to build an organization into the government itself without conflict.

I am afraid that I was thinking of the practice of ensuring that each type of critter has a balanced set of weaknesses, which is a different thing from what you are talking about. (These are the guys weak against water, these are the ones weak against fire, and so forth, as opposed to ensuring that no character automatically wins or loses.)

I probably should have dropped them entirely, if I didn't include enough data.

Amanda Green said...

WangZheng, the thing boils down to world-building. In Nocturnal Origins, the shifters and weres are a very small part of society, a part that isn't known to the world-at-large. The issue of staying unknown is becoming more and more acute because of advances in forensic science. Sooner or later, some lab tech is going to stumble upon a DNA sample from a crime scene -- whether the crime was perpetrated by a shifter or the shifter was the victim -- that will reveal there is a new sub-set of homo saps. How they deal with that, especially when a were has gone rogue and is violating were and shifter law by hunting humans, is the heart of the book.

Look at it this way. American Indians are citizens of this country. However, they have a different set of laws that govern them in many instances. In my Nocturnal books, it is much the same with the shifters and weres. The only difference is they don't live on reservations and aren't recognized -- yet -- by the government.

Again, you can't apply the rules and laws of our world to the world of someone's book or story unless that book is clearly written in this world. Which, logically, can't happen when dealing with vampires and weres and other supernatural creatures.

WangZheng259 said...

Kate,
I guess I should have said something like 'assuming that loyalty is owed first to nation, and then, afterwards to things like family, tribe, ethnic group and so on...' then? A person who puts family, party or ethnic group over nation is not, after all, going to have a conflict with the effect of running a criminal conspiracy on that nation, if the conspiracy benefits family, party, or ethnic group enough. I do realize that not putting loyalty to nation so far above everything else does not make one a bad person.

It is possible that I've come across some material that you haven't, or that I haven't read enough books in genre, or both.

What I saw of the ConVent books worked well enough for me.

Pratchett is excellent.

That may be so. I also suspect odd assumptions and abnormal thinking modes. Then there is the fact that the workings of the minds of others are essentially something of a black box to me. When I have the same reaction to similar parts of different stories across several years, I have to wonder if there is an explanation I can isolate. Perhaps it is just to soon to put things on paper properly.

WangZheng259 said...

Amanda,
When someone says in the story that their society is on earth, and is in the United States of America, I assume that the legal situations are the same unless otherwise specified. I will assume WWII, Segregation, the Civil War and so forth, unless otherwise specified. Secret magic critters is not enough for me to make that assumption, as my imagination goes that far.

The situation with the indian tribes is legal because the government has made an agreement, in this case overtly. For a similar situation with a secret group to be legal, I'd think there would need to be a covert capacity to make such an agreement.

One of my metrics for a good story is whether it opens up newer and more fertile areas to way over think. In your Nocturnal heroine's case, she inherits from prior generations a policy of secrecy, and probably ends up making the most ethical choice. So, when I know the author and the characters are aware of the ethical pickles, among other things, it lets me wonder more about the prior generations, and whether some people back in history should have done something differently.

Some of my lack of appreciation for the fear of getting cut up is likely due to me not having seen much of life, and perhaps also I am lacking in mature wisdom. Another bit may be the national fervour that makes me think that if some eldritch abomination took the oath of citizenship, that they would be accepted just the same as every other citizen. This seems questionable, intellectually, but rarely, if ever, are my emotional reactions logical and rigorous.

Chris McMahon said...

One of my all time pet hates in SF is the violation of conservation of mass i.e. when said alien superbug creates a massive creature from nothing in the blink of an eye -- think Species 2.

I have no problem with things changing from one species to another or expression different DNA or whatever, but I want to see it at conceivable metabolic rates -- and that the mass at the end equal the mass at the beginning!

So if a little old lady librarian gets stung by the Kazupi bug and transforms into Godzilla then she must do so at a conceivable max rate (I'm thinking a week) & ingest enough additional mass along the way (perhaps twenty to thirty snoozing grad students).

Amanda Green said...

Chris, whatever did those poor poor grad students do to you?

I dislike, and that's putting it mildly, those movies where the shift takes place in a mere second or two. For an example of what I mean, check out the ads for the new Twilight movie. In the space of a leap, a character goes from human to wolf. No pain. No anything except special effects.

An American Werewolf in London certainly isn't one of the best movies around. However, I did like the scene the first time the main character transformed into a wolf. Not only could you see his terror, but you could see the pain as bones took on new shapes and his body changed. Mass stayed basically the same as well, iirc. I know special effects could do it better these days, but it is still one of the better transformations, imo.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

WZ
By definition any world with weres in it isn't our world. Whether they invalidate science or not is something else. My shifters are technically scientific, we just don't understand the science that covers them, yet.

I'd say you need to write and try out your wings. As I tell my older son "Some issues don't become obvious until you write the story."

matapam said...

I'm trying to think of a recent UF where patriotism was a theme. Since I avoid the genre as much as my Muse will allow, I'm coming up blank.

I think there is a difference between concealing something that is unknown, and concealing something that is definitely illegal. Concealing, say, evidence of a werewolf at a murder scene is borderline - depending on whether the focus of the person(s) doing the concealing include making sure the criminal is captured and turned over to the police with enough existing evidence to give a reasonable expectation of conviction. Killing the perp is a clearly illegal activity on the part of the group doing the concealing. Judge, jury and executioner with a bias toward whatever will put off still longer the discovery of the existence of weres/vampires/shape shifters/yeti or whatever. It's an assumption of authority and privilege that is just begging to be abused.

That's all internal, though. What, for instance, would a Shape Shifter do if he worked in a sensitive job, and some one blackmailed him? Hand over the "Big-secret-of-the-day" or I'll tell; send the FBI info that your security clearance was acquired -illegally - in the first {Fill in the secret]

In many ways the potential problems due to advances in genetic testing will echo this theme. If the news that you are genetically prone to high blood pressure or diabetes, and will be racking up the health care costs with a life-long regime of expensive medications makes you unemployable, you are going to fight tooth and nail to keep anyone from finding out. Patriotism has nothing to do with it. Until you find yourself in a sensitive position, being blackmailed.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, you've asked the same questions I asked myself when writing Origins. I will admit that there are some UFs out there that are good. It's the paranormal romances I tend to run from.