To Be Old & Hip:
The 500-year-old Modern Vampire
In all the years I’ve researched, lectured on, and read about vampires, one element has come up time and again when dealing with vampires in fiction, and I’ve grown tired of the clichés. This cliché is what I call the 500-year-old modern vampire.
Now, this isn’t to say that it’s always five hundred years, or that you’re safe from this cliché, as a writer, if you choose some other number (unless that number is less than eighty). My general rule of thumb is, if your vampire predates World War II, you’re out of the “modern” era, and therefore need to be extremely careful not to fall into this trap.
And what, you ask, is the trap? Generally, it’s one that proper research and consistent characterization can help you avoid. Inexperienced authors (and even some with years of experience writing other genres) like the air of mystery to the vampire myth. Everyone interested in vampires has read (or at least watched the movie of) Bram Stoker’s Dracula – and everyone’s enthralled with this long-lived antihero. The problem is that Bram Stoker (like many who came after him) fell into the trap, as well.
If you’re going to make your vampire hundreds of years old, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices for that vampire. Too often, an ancient vampire will be portrayed in a completely modern light. I can’t tell you how tired I am of 6’3″, bodybuilder or whipcord-thin, Goth-inspired Vampire heroes from the Middle Ages who treat women as equals and etc, etc. Call this a rant, but I’ve been studying vampires for over a decade, and if you’re talking about a Revenant (Risen) vampire, you’ve got several major problems right from the start, with the above description.
The assumption is made by too many authors that because vampires aren’t “real” (an incorrect assumption which my years of investigation and study in the paranormal leaves me in the interesting position to dispute), there are no rules or boundaries governing their use in fiction. This couldn’t be more false, as assumptions go.
Let’s take the cliché vampire hero I listed above and flesh him out a little more, while still maintaining the cliché. Hmm… let’s call him Vlad (hey, we’re dealing with clichés!), and let’s say he was born, a living human being, in around 1480 CE in the region of Eastern Europe. Keep in mind the description above.
Now we’re going to set our current story in 2008. Vlad has been a vampire since around 1500. Anyone seeing a problem already with our above description? If not, keep reading.
First problem: The Medieval and Renaissance people were hardly what I’d call tall. If you want proof of this, go to a museum in Europe (or look at pictures), and study the suits of armor. A man topping 5’8″ would be considered a freak or a giant, and unless you’re giving Vlad a nightmarish background as a pariah (or worse), you’re going to have to deep-six the height of 6’3″ and knock him down to a respectable 5’6″- 5’8″ (roughly the height of today’s average woman). Remember, just because he’s become a vampire, the laws of physical shape still apply – mainly, that he’s not going to grow any taller being dead (or undead) than he was when he was alive. Study the time period, region, and history of the area you’re planning to use BEFORE you start crafting your vampire character. It’s going to save you headaches down the road.
Second problem: Much like the first problem, this is one of physical structure. The people of Vlad’s living era were stockier, for the most part, than modern people. No, this doesn’t mean they were fat, or that our guy’s being a body builder is okay. It means that their bone structures were much more compact and dense. Particularly in Slavic regions, where this still holds fairly true, today. Vlad is going to have that same basic structure. Being a vampire doesn’t magically change his bone structure or skeletal composition to make him tall, lanky, or well-defined. He’s going to be short and stocky – think Robin Williams, not David Bowie.
Third problem: The Gothic inspiration. Okay, now I have a large problem with this, but not for the reasons you might think. Mainly, I have a problem with it because authors don’t explain it, or how it applies to their character. Let’s take Vlad as our example, again. He was born in 1480 as a human. Probably died in around 1500, according to our model that he became a vampire, then. Well, that was hardly a “gothic” age. That was the height of the Renaissance. Clothing and art were bright and vibrant, full of mythic themes, etc. For Vlad to have a deep affinity with today’s modern Goth culture, he had to have picked it up sometime later – probably during the Victorian Era, when that was all the rage. And that is something that needs great explanation, and consistency, from the writer. Not only do you need to know when he picked it up, but you need to know WHY it appealed to him so much that, of all the eras, he clung to that one.
Fourth problem: Attitude. Now, granted, as human beings, our attitudes toward people change as we learn and develop. It’s not a terrible leap to gather that, on some levels and for survival, a vampire might alter certain attitudes. But not all of them. Our example hero, Vlad, is supposed to see women as equals, etc. Only problem is, women as equals is still an illusion in some areas of even today’s society, and the concept wasn’t even around until the Suffrage Movement, and didn’t really take effect until the mid-1970s. To a vampire whose last living memories are of the Renaissance, this is going to be a tough idea to swallow. And if he has an affinity for the Victorian Era (see the comments above on Gothic style, again), it’s going to be even tougher. Sorry, but this is one guy who’s hopelessly stuck in a mindset of “the weaker sex.” Trying to change him is going to take a major event – and no, falling in love doesn’t count. Even a woman rescuing his butt from destruction might not be enough to change his views on women.
On another note about vampires and research, let’s look at the whole 1500 thing. Anyone know what was happening in the world in 1500?
For one thing, it was the Age of Discovery and colonization of the New World. It was the height of the Renaissance, and the Protestant Rebellion was fast approaching. It may have been an age of artistic and scientific enlightenment, but it was also a time of constant war and brutality, and Inquisition still hovered on the lips of the malcontent. Friction between the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church would have spilled over into the region Vlad hails from, and would color his outlook on religion and politics (of course, this all depends on whether or not Vlad was aristocracy… If he was a peasant, he was likely ignorant of pretty much everything in his world from art to politics, and focused entirely on survival). His world and how he viewed it greatly depend on proper historical context, and consistent characterization. If he was a peasant then, he’s going to be little better than a hood, these days. He’s not going to have a lot of pride or self-respect. If he was minor aristocracy, he’ll have an inflated sense of self-worth, and aspire to be something greater than he actually is… And it goes on from there.
Vampires, in and of themselves, are complex creatures, and it’s not a simple procedure to create one. I would recommend that anyone considering (or currently working on) a vampire character check out my blog on vampires from the parapsychological viewpoint, at http://wildflowerpara.wordpress.com
I also offer individual services in helping with research and character development of paranormal creatures. You can contact me a for more information, if you’re interested.