Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Digression: What Makes a Good Vampire, Part 2

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.

The Benefits

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
  • Immortality.2
  • Super strength.
  • Super speed.
  • Extreme sexiness.3
  • Flying.
  • Hypnotism.
  • Cured diseases.4
The Drawbacks

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.
  • Infertile.
  • Cannot ingest food except for blood.
  • Cannot have sex.6
  • Cannot see their reflections.
The Catch

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).
Bottom Line

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. ^


  1. Methinks you've pretty much hit the nail on the head here. If being a vampire is not (at best) a faustian bargain, then the tension and drama and conflict is missing. As a teacher of mine once put it, "No one wants to live next door to the Macbeths, but we all want to watch what happens to them on-stage." If you were to be a vampire, then you want that state to be without serious cost. But that doesn't make for a good story.

  2. These posts have been great. I've been thinking about most of these points myself, but comparing different authors' vampires just tends to get me gnashing my teeth about Stephenie Meyer.

  3. Who says living forever is a benefit? Prolonging existence in this fallen world would be the worst punishment I can imagine.