Now that I've discussed some traits of vampires in a few fictional works I enjoy (see Part 1 and Part 1.5 of this series), I'm finally ready to answer my own question: what makes a good vampire?
A good fictional vampire -- whether it is sympathetic or villainous -- has a balance of three type of vampiric traits: the benefits, the drawbacks, and the catch.
Vampirism must have some benefits, or no one would want to be a vampire. (In a story where vampirism is an epidemic, vampires are the risen corpses of evil people as in folklore, or vampirism is otherwise not generally a choice, however, the benefits may be slim.) Typical vampiric benefits include:1
Vampirism must have drawbacks to balance out the benefits, however, to prevent vampires from becoming overly powerful. Typical vampiric drawbacks include:
- Cannot abide garlic, holy objects, silver, running water, or sunlight.5
- Violent urges.
- Become unconscious and corpse-like during the day, leaving them weakened.
- Cannot ingest food except for blood.
- Cannot have sex.6
- Cannot see their reflections.
Still, the drawbacks do not often make the vampire's supernatural power less appealing. Would you give up food7 for the ability to live forever? I know I would.
So what we need is a catch: a drawback so major that it serves to make vampirism a lot more complicated and less appealing. Basically, the catch is what neatly answers the question, "If being a vampire is so awesome, why doesn't everyone do it?"
The catch, in my experience, falls into five basic categories (although there is some overlap):
- Uncertainty of success (it's difficult to become a vampire -- e.g., because the vampire must stop feeding just before the human is dead, as in Forever Knight, or because the process is painful, as in Twilight -- and there is a strong possibility of death).
- Loss of personality (e.g., losing one's soul, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or suffering potential drastic personality changes, as in Forever Knight).
- Eternal bondage (becoming attached to one's sire and even compelled to obey them, as in Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries).
- Separation from other vampires (e.g., the urge to attack other vampires and defend one's territory, as in Tanya Huff's Blood Books).
- Compulsion to kill (either a need to kill while feeding, as in Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, or a need to kill someone within a certain time limit, as in Der Vampyr 8).
In my mind, a good vampire must have a catch as well as regular old drawbacks and weaknesses. The catch makes vampirism go from sounding like a good deal to something more complicated than human life, and adds a real conflict to human/vampire romance instead of just Generic Angst.
I honestly don't care about any other traits. I have some preferences, but I'll accept a lot of "non-traditional" benefits and drawbacks -- and even non-traditional vampires, like the emotion-sucking rather than blood-drinking White Court in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files -- as long as they make sense in context. What I won't accept, however, is a story that regales me with how awesome and consequence-free vampirism is and then tries to convince me that the average human wouldn't choose it.
1 Items on this list are not necessarily compatible with each other or with the other lists. Each one must be taken individually. ^
2 Technical immortality, at least; fictional vampires do not generally die of old age, but in many stories can be fairly easily killed. ^
3 Does getting vamped make one sexy, or do only sexy people get vamped? ^
4 That is, becoming a vampire cures the diseases one had as a human, not that vampires can cure diseases themselves. ^
5 The reasons and effects of sunlight vary: most commonly they burn, although some powerful vampires are merely weakened. And sometimes they sparkle. ^
6 If only this drawback were not so rare in today's overly saturated vampire romance market. ^
7 Vampires have no physical need for food, so it just means giving up a sensual pleasure rather than a necessity for living. ^
8 I mention Der Vampyr so much not because the concept is well-executed -- rather, the whole "must kill three people in a day" thing is mostly a way for the hero to kill the vampire on a technicality, by delaying the third victim, instead of attacking him outright -- but because I think it's a concept with much potential for ambiguity. While a person might reject super powers if they had to kill every time they fed, for example, it's easier for a well-intentioned vampire to make the ends justify the means if it's just one person (or three people), once a year. ^