Sunday, June 27, 2010

Digression: What Makes a Good Vampire, Part 1

Breaking Dawn (The Twilight Saga, Book 4)

After I wrote my post about Twilight, I got into a conversation with a friend about Twilight vampires compared to vampires in other stories. Her main complaint was that vampirism in Twilight doesn't have enough drawbacks.

Again, in the interest of full disclosure, I haven't read the books. However, I think that whenever "just vamp her and everything will be okay" is a reasonable solution to a romance between a human and a vampire, vampirism doesn't have enough drawbacks. Basically it just causes a humongous plot hole: if the only drawback for vampirism is Generic Angst, why doesn't everyone do it?

I've mentioned Tanya Huff's Blood Books before, because I think they're a great example of how to create realistic obstacles for a vampire who wants to be with his human love forever. Essentially, there cannot be too many vampires in any one place in order to avoid suspicion and keep the food supply up. Therefore, vampires have developed an instinct to fight any vampire who enters their territory, regardless of how well they got along when one or both of them were mortal.

(Spoilers for Blood Pact and Blood Debt follow.)


In Blood Pact, Henry -- the vampire -- vamps Vicki, his human lover, to save her life. After briefly teaching her how to hunt and survive as a vampire, he leaves to stake out a new territory. In Blood Debt, however, he needs her help on a case, and so they must learn to resist their instinct to kill each other.

Eventually, they realize that, with the growth of cities giving vampires more food sources and better places to hide, vampires' instinct to kill each other is no longer relevant in modern times. While this works well for rekindling a romance between Henry and Vicki, it negates much of the conflict in the previous books.

(End spoilers.)

Marschner: Der Vampyr

Let's look at another very different obstacle for the vampire, laid out in Heinrich August Marschner's 1828 opera Der Vampyr. The libretto, by Wilhelm August Wohlbrück, was adapted from John Polidori's short story "The Vampyre" and J.R. Planché's theatrical adaptation, The Vampire, or the Bride of the Isles.

The vampire in Der Vampyr, Lord Ruthven, is clearly the villain, but a sympathetic one. The "catch" to his vampirism is that he must kill three woman once a year in order to remain a vampire. (The idea that the vampire must kill once a year to survive is implied in "The Vampyre" but not stated outright.) Like Varney, he attacks humans not necessarily because he wants to, but because his existence compels him to -- which is not to suggest that he doesn't enjoy it.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - The Complete First Season (Slim Set)

Let's look at a more well-known vampire story: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Vampires in Buffy drink blood, but don't experience most of the usual drawbacks: not being able to eat human food, needing to stay in a coffin all day, being allergic to garlic, or not being able to have sex.

On the other hand, the "catch" to becoming a vampire is huge: you lose your soul entirely, and your body becomes an unambiguously evil killer. This works well in Buffy, because vampires are, for the most part, the enemies. There are a few sympathetic vampire characters, but they have something different about them: Angel has his soul, and so is moral, and Spike has a chip in his head, so he can't hurt humans even though he wants to (and then eventually gets used to the idea).

Of course, this falls apart as the story goes on and vampires as a whole start becoming more developed. In particular, why is Harmony suddenly fine to work at Wolfram & Hart in Season 5 of Angel, when she has neither a soul nor a chip? The main problem with vampirism in Buffy is that soulless, unambiguously evil vampires work fine when they're your enemies, but are difficult to handle, without increasing numbers of "special exceptions," when they become main characters.

Forever Knight - The Trilogy, Part 3 (1995 - 1996)

Let's contrast this with an earlier TV show: Forever Knight. Some of the vampires are sympathetic, while some are just plain evil, and some are well-intentioned but misguided. Any change in personality is not a result of the vampirism per se, but the fact that power corrupts, and that most humans who suddenly gain immortality and superpowers will use them unwisely.

To balance this out, vampires in Forever Knight have more of the drawbacks that Buffy vampires lack: problems with garlic, not being able to eat human food, and (according to the show's creators, although not explicitly stated in the show itself) not being able to have sex. In Nick Knight's eyes, the simple fact that he isn't human is enough of a drawback in and of itself, but I don't count that because it's a personal preference, not an objective limitation.

Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood

Now that I've given an overview of vampire traits in just a small handful of my favorite vampire stories, it's time for the big question: what makes a good vampire? Unfortunately, I've gone on a lot longer than I originally intended. So stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow, wherein I conclude my thoughts on the best balance of benefits and drawbacks for fictional vampires.

Part 1.5: Blood


  1. A subject near and dear to my own heart!

    I and some others did a virtual spinoff of BTVS, and in the course of it we examined the canon about vampires very carefully. It is very much a specific-circumstances thing. Harmony was working for a demonically-owned law firm, and had to agree to abstain from feeding on humans while employed. We in our show (WATCHERS) created a bunch of vampires who retained enough of themselves (since the demon part is essentially mindless) to start a twelve-step program. And so on.

    I will also point out that the vampires in TWILIGHT must kill when they feed, in fact going into a frenzy at the taste of human blood (only a few have enough self control to pull back before the victim is dry). However, the venom that creates a vampire also hurts unbearably (it is supposed to immobilize their prey with agony). Each vampire spends days "changing" all the time begging to be killed. I very much agree that Myers' vamps are too powerful, but they do have (mostly psychological) weaknesses.

    The undead in the web series I'm putting together are a lot more robust than humans but not invulnerable. Sunlight is intensely uncomfortable. They don't need to feed so very much (although they like to) and becoming a vampire is very tricky indeed (most people cannot). But maybe their biggest weakness is that feeding on anyone involves taking a tiny bit of their mind/soul into the vampire. For a little bit now and then, no problem. But to regularly feed upon a single person, or to drink deeply, is to risk the human's mind overwhelming the vampire's--to some degree.

  2. Ah, I did not know that about Twilight vamps. Puts a different spin on things. I realized just after I posted this that I didn't address a key question--whether or not vampires must drink from a human, or if they can drink stored blood/animal blood--so I'll go into that more later.

    The connection between feeding and emotional/mental draining makes perfect sense, I think. It better explains why the act of feeding is intense and intimate--a similar connection is in Forever Knight, wherein vampires taste human memories by drinking their blood--and prevents the vampire from mixing food and sex too much.

  3. To me having to Drink Blood itself is the only Drawback I need to never ever want to be a Vampire.