Friday, November 18, 2011

The Mythology of Vampires

Funny that I should decide to do this post this week; the Dead Robots just had a conversation touching on how monsters have changed over the last few decades. (Congrats on 200 episodes, guys!)

One of the fun things about writing is that you get to make your own mythology. There are so many legends and tales, and they’ve been done so many ways over the years, that yes, even sparkly vampires with skin like rock make sense after awhile. (I kinda felt they were more gargoyle-like, but hey. Once you got into it a little bit, it was an interesting take on the mythology.)

When I first started writing about Gabriel and Amanda, I had to decide very quickly what some of the basic tenets of my vampires were going to be. Some things changed over time, and the biology got more and more refined, but there were two basic things that I knew I wanted to define my vampires: no sunlight, and the need to kill.

Long before Twilight, there were stories about vampires that could go out in the day. Some, like My Best Friend is a Vampire (and, more recently, the Kim Harrison novels), differentiated between “living” vampires and “dead” or “undead” vampires. Other authors went for a special talisman approach (LJ Smith’s Vampire Diaries) or a special condition, such as being able to be in sunlight if the vampire had fed recently (Kindred: The Embraced).

While I enjoyed all of those versions (yes, even Kindred: the Embarrassed), I decided it made things too easy. Vampires can be hugely powerful. The thing that keeps them in check more than anything else is the problem with sunlight. It’s also instant conflict. Things getting boring? Just add sunlight! (Fortunately, I’ve never had to fall back on that one yet.)

There were also a lot of stories where vampires didn’t have to kill, or even feed on humans (again, long before Twilight). Heck, I used to roleplay a vegetarian Gangrel. (Yes, White Wolf used vegetarian for animal-only vampires long before Twilight did.) But I wanted my vampires to be monsters. Even back then (daydreamer that I am) I had intellectual property aspirations, and I wanted to make sure that no one playing in my universe later on could pussify my vampires. So not only do my vampires have to drink human blood, they have to kill. In fact, they have to kill a lot. Every night for the first ten years or so, and they usually don’t learn enough control to feed without killing the human until they’ve been a vampire for close to fifty years.

After that, it got down to the details. Hypnosis? Heck yeah, it’s too much fun to leave out. But then I decided I needed a foil for the charismatic vamps, which is where the skinshifters’ psychic immunity came from. (And then I needed to explain it, but I’ll get to that in another post.) Mirrors? Not having a reflection struck me as very silly, although it’s been done well (the Vampire Files spring to mind), and I couldn’t think of a good reason that made sense physics-wise, so my vampires have reflections. Ditto for garlic and running water, although I could certainly see a river spirit refusing to let a vampire pass, for some reason. (Running water is still good for screwing up a scent trail, and my vamps are big on scent.)

Originally, my vampires could change shape. I eventually did away with that, as it was too convenient, and I couldn’t see why, mythologically and physically speaking, they should have that ability. (Note: Empusa is not a vampire. She’s what the vampires were modeled after.)

To me, retractable fangs make sense. My vampires are supposed to be able to live among humans. This is also why they aren’t preternaturally beautiful. They have abilities which allow them to charm and attract and fascinate, but they also want to be able to not attract attention. Especially once I decided they were territorial, it made huge amounts of sense for them to blend in as much as possible, because otherwise people will start wondering why that gorgeous hunk they keep seeing around town never seems to get older.

The territorial thing was a later addition. As I started thinking beyond Gabriel to vampires in general, I had to decide whether they had communities. Was there structure, government, laws and consequences? If so, what kept the vampires from taking over Lumley-like? If not, then why not?

I eventually decided against organized vampires. I hate politics, and it was another way to put limits on creatures that were already pretty darn powerful. I took some lessons from nature: predators who marked out a territory, protected their food sources, and only allowed interlopers for reproductive purposes--in this case, keeping the young around long enough that they can learn to take care of themselves. And then I had to explain why and how, and got caught up in world-builder's disease again. (I'm going to assume no one but me cares about the cellular biology of vampires.)

What are your favorite bits of vampire lore? What conventions do you hate? Which version of vampires is your favorite? Leave a comment and let me know!

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