Unleaded: Fuel for Writers is pleased to host horror, fantasy, and paranormal romance novelist Margaret L. Carter as our Guest Blogger for Saturday, March 26, 2016. She has written for you a fantastic, post about making monsters and the careful thought and detail necessary to make them fully realized characters. Something that can be a little harder than it looks, especially if you are just starting out.
Monsters need to be as carefully considered as your heroes (even more if they ARE the heroes), otherwise, they aren’t really characters just 1-dimensional one-note “dolls”, mindless bloodthirsty “critters” or mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplashes, chewing scenery and monologing about the evil they will do. BUT, with Margaret’s notes, we have a little help in thinking about how to make our monsters just a little more “real.”
You can find information about her published works, filled with the monsters the adores – vampires, werewolves, ghosts, dragons, and more! dragons, and the discontinued fanzine THE VAMPIRE’S CRYPT (all issues still available in PDF format) on her website: Carter’s Crypt.
Suppose you want to write a story or novel featuring vampires (my specialty)? How do you decide on their traits—powers, weaknesses, nutritional requirements, method of acquiring blood (or energy, if they’re psychic vampires), attitudes toward ordinary mortals? One of the strongest attractions of vampires as a literary motif, in my opinion, is that there are so many different varieties of them in folklore and fiction. No matter what kind of vampire you want to create, you can probably find a precedent for it somewhere.
How much blood do they need and how often? Do they habitually kill when they feed? Are they completely nocturnal? Do they involuntarily fall into an undead coma at daybreak or simply prefer to rest by day? How do they react to sunlight? Does it destroy them (a trope invented by the silent movie NOSFERATU, not found in classic fiction of the nineteenth century or in folklore—legends that prescribe a return to the grave by sunrise imply that daybreak simply immobilizes the vampire), cause them some degree of pain or discomfort, or not bother them at all? Do they sleep in coffins or require native earth? If sunlight harms them, do they become tougher or more vulnerable to it with age? Do they belong to a secret subculture with an elaborate hierarchy, or are they mainly solitary predators (as I prefer)? What attitude do most of them take toward ordinary mortals? Do crosses and other religious objects repel them? If so, does the effect depend on belief (the vampire’s or the attacker’s?) or is it an objectively real power? If the latter, how do you deal with the metaphysical implications of an objective spiritual force? (The BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER universe appears to be completely secular, yet crosses work on vampires, a fact that is never explained.) Do your vampires radiate a charismatic glamour to seduce their victims? In one novel I’ve read—which presents the undead as terrifying rather than romantic figures—the newly turned protagonist discovers to his horror that the magnetic allure of vampires is just that, glamour. A vampire’s true appearance is that of a decomposing corpse, disguised by a constantly maintained illusion.
In creating her “good guy” vampire, Count Saint-Germain, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro said she compiled a list of folkloric vampire traits and gave her Count the most common ones. (A few, however, she definitely borrowed from Bram Stoker, such as the lack of a reflection and the need to rest on native earth, which he seems to have invented.) If you don’t already have a fixed idea of what your vampires are like, you can survey folklore and fiction to pick out the characteristics that work best for your story. Did you know that some folkloric undead, rather than being the nearly godlike immortals of many novels, have a strictly limited lifespan after which they “die” on their own? There’s one legend of a type of vampire that goes through several transformations in the course of its postmortem existence, at the end of which he or she can pass for human and travel to a different area to start a new life. While some folkloric vampires conform to the older assumption (as exemplified by Saint-Germain) that the undead can’t engage in normal
sexual relations, others have a lusty reputation of visiting their widows and fathering dhampirs. You might decide to use a folkloric element that hasn’t often appeared in fiction, such as the belief that you can entrap a vampire by scattering small objects such as seeds on the ground, because the monster has a compulsion to count them one by one. (An X-FILES episode included that detail.) In one of my stories, I referenced the superstition (I forget which European ethnic group it comes from) that you can defeat a vampire by stealing his left sock (raising the question of how you can tell which sock is the left). My vampires, who belong to a naturally evolved species, not supernatural, drink milk as well as blood. I got the idea from Guy de Maupassant’s classic tale “The Horla,” in which the invisible vampiric monster drains a glass of milk in the night, and also from folk beliefs in some regions that vampires dry up cows’ milk. Terry Pratchett’s vampire clan in CARPE JUGULUM struggles hilariously with all the best-known traditional superstitions as well as some lesser-known ones such as the sock thing.
The same principle applies to other monsters such as werewolves and zombies. It seems to me that, if you don’t already have your monster’s traits mapped out in advance, it’s always a good idea to revisit the folklore and observe how movies, TV, and fiction have developed or altered the original source material. You might come across a little-known legendary characteristic that could give your work a fresh slant. Do your werewolves get infected with lycanthropy by being bitten (another trope invented by the movies)? Or do they follow the folkloric pattern of becoming werewolves through a curse, a voluntary transformation by way of dark magic, or inheritance from a cursed ancestor? Do they change only at the full moon? Can they control their transformation and suppress or perform it at will? Are they aware of what they do in beast form, or do they suffer a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde change where a different personality takes over, as in the classic horror movies of the 1930s? Do they live in packs? Are they literally people who sometimes change into wolves, or are they more like wolves with the power to become human?
Ghosts raise their own set of questions. Are ghosts in your universe conscious entities or mere psychic traces left on the atmosphere? If a ghost really is the spirit of a dead person, is it bound to a certain spot (or object) or free to travel? Is it tied to the place of its death, the location of its body, or a site with some emotional meaning for it? Can it affect the physical world at all and under what conditions? Can it change its appearance? How much memory of its mortal life does it retain? Does your ghost yearn to “go into the light,” or do you assume its spectral existence on this plane is permanent? Is there any way for it to regain a corporeal body?
In creating a “monster” such as a vampire, especially if the monster is your hero, you might consider why vampires attract readers. In particular, what is the vampire’s main allure for you? The eroticism of blood? The intimacy of sharing the essence of life? Immortality and the perspective gained by living centuries or millennia beyond a normal human span? The image of the rogue or fallen angel whom only your heroine can redeem? The plight of a character whose survival compels him to live among ordinary people while hiding his true nature? Whatever constitutes the core appeal of a vampire, werewolf, demon, or other “monster” for you, you can endow your characters with traits that embody that appeal. In creating my naturally evolved vampires, I wanted to keep the erotic overtones of blood-sharing. I justify this detail by postulating that an intelligent predator would rather not draw attention by violence and killing. So my vampires don’t have to kill when they feed, and their powers of hypnotic seduction make their donors eager to be fed on. Vampiric mesmerism also enables them to make victims forget being bitten. Another major attraction of the vampire for me is the concept of a creature who looks like us but isn’t quite one of us and therefore has a skewed angle on human existence. (It’s the same reason I find Mr. Spock fascinating.) So I enjoyed creating vampires who have never been human and never can be. Yet because they grow up among us and have to pass for human to survive, they can’t help picking up human behaviors and attitudes no matter how they resist that process. In fact, they’re so adaptable in childhood and adolescence that if care isn’t taken, a young vampire can develop a phobia of items that can’t objectively do them any harm, such as crosses—to the extent that they might suffer psychosomatic wounds from contact with such items. As another consequence of their non-supernatural origin, they can’t transform human beings into vampires, so a vampire in a cross-species romance faces the risk of falling in love with someone he or she will almost certainly outlive.
Whether your monster is a villain or a hero, a detailed conception of its origin, nature, and characteristics will help to make your portrayal of the creature fresh and vivid. You can deviate widely from the audience’s stereotypical expectations (e.g., sunlight kills vampires, silver kills werewolves) as long as your concept is consistent, coherent, believably rationalized, and clearly presented early in the story.
Margaret L. Carter received a B.A. from the College of William and Mary, M.A. from the University of Hawaii, and Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine, all in English. She has taught literature and composition courses at various colleges and presently works as a part-time proofreader for the Maryland General Assembly.
Her first two books were paperback anthologies, CURSE OF THE UNDEAD andDEMON LOVERS AND STRANGE SEDUCTIONS. She has published several works on vampirism in literature, including SHADOW OF A SHADE: A SURVEY OF VAMPIRISM IN LITERATURE, the anthology DRACULA: THE VAMPIRE AND THE CRITICS, and THE VAMPIRE IN LITERATURE: A CRITICAL BIBLIOGRAPHY. Her stories have appeared in several of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkoveranthologies, and her “Voice from the Void” appears in THE TIME OF THE VAMPIRES, edited by P. N. Elrod and Martin Greenberg. The Design Image Group published her werewolf novel, SHADOW OF THE BEAST, in 1998. Her vampire novel, DARK CHANGELING, appeared in electronic form in June, 1999, from the Hard Shell Word Factory and won the 2000 Eppie Award in Horror.
Two vampire romances in the same universe, SEALED IN BLOOD and CRIMSON DREAMS, and WILD SORCERESS, a fantasy novel in collaboration with her husband, Leslie Roy Carter, have been published by Amber Quill Press. Other fiction is in progress from Ellora’s Cave andAmber Quill.