Vampires and Magic: Your World’s Rules

I’ve given a lot of thought lately to the way different worlds have different rules for things that don’t exist in our reality. I talked about this awhile ago when I did my posts on magic and how to make your own rules. The basic idea is that if you’re writing about things that don’t have established rules in the real world, you can make up any rules you like, as long as you’re consistent and your world makes sense. That’s why you can have wizards in the Harry Potter universe who need wands to cast their spells, and wizards in the Harry Dresden universe who use magic circles to contain the energies of their spells. Each rule system is different, and they contradict each other at points, but it works as long as you make it believable within the context of your own novels.

Since I started reading an Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter novel, I’ve been thinking about how this concept applies to the well-known and sometimes overused genre of vampire stories. There’s a million ways to depict vampires, from the classic evil nobleman to the dark suave seducer to the suffering anti-hero to the deformed monster that preys on humans like a feral beast. And within all of these variations, the rules always change. Consider the usual vampire strengths and weaknesses:

Sunlight: Vampires are either weakened by it (Bram Stoker), instantly killed (Dungeons & Dragons), set on fire (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), slowly cooked (True Blood), or . . . well, we won’t talk about the other possibilities.

Holy water and crosses: Vampires are either repelled by them (D&D), physically hurt by touching them (Buffy), or unaffected by them at all (True Blood).

Silver: Some stories never mention silver at all, and sometimes it harms, weakens, or debilitates vampires. People are never quite sure.

Turning into a vampire: Sometimes you just get bitten and become a vampire, sometimes they need to feed you their own blood. Sometimes the vampire that made you can control you, sometimes you’re on your own.

Then there’s garlic, mirrors, whether or not they can enter a home uninvited, and plenty of other variables. No two vampire stories ever depict a vampire quite the same way, and yet the reader or viewer accepts the rules as they’re presented to them. If you’re reading a book where the author says inviting a vampire into your home makes them immune to crosses and garlic, then you accept that. If you’re reading one that says a vampire can force its way into a bachelor’s apartment but not a family home (because there’s more strong positive energy from a loving family), you accept it. The important thing is that the writer is consistent within their own rules and that everything makes sense.

Which makes me curious about other classics that can be modified and updated with new rules. There’s already plenty of examples. Maybe your werewolf built up an immunity to silver (like with iocane powder). Maybe Dr. Frankenstein the Third made his monster out of parts from aliens that crash landed at Area 51. Maybe trolls get more powerful the bigger their bridge is, so the Troll of the Golden Gate Bridge becomes an unstoppable beast. You never know.

I like it when writers keep things interesting. I like to see unique rules. And it’s always fun when something unexpected pops up and it really makes me think.


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Past Conflicts as Backstory

A common thing in book series is when there was some kind of serious conflict in the past which is affecting present-day events. Sometimes this conflict is only ever revealed as backstory: the reader is given some basic details of what happened, but never actually sees it on the page. Other times it might be revealed via a flashback: cutting to a scene in the past that shows the reader exactly what happened. But then there’s times that the backstory was revealed in the main narrative, but in a previous book.

How this works out depends a lot on the type of series you’re reading. I’ve read a lot of book series where there is an overarching plotline that spans the entire series. The Wheel of Time is a good example of this; while each book has its own beginning and end point, there’s no complete resolution until the very end. If you picked up a random book in the middle, you’d be lost about a lot of what is going on. Whereas a series like The Dresden Files has a different style, and every book is more self-contained. Events from one book can influence events in a later book, but the stories are able to stand alone. I haven’t yet read a book in the Dresden series that wouldn’t have made sense without the other books.

Sometimes, the difference between these styles can get a bit blurred. For example, I’m currently reading Guilty Pleasures, an Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter novel by Laurell K. Hamilton. I picked it up mostly at random without knowing where it fell in the series. While reading it, I’ve learned that there is a lot of backstory for Anita, from the cross-shaped burn scar on her arm, to her past missions slaying vampires with a flamethrower-wielding mercenary, to the hints of a romantic past between her and the vampire Jean-Claude. Not having read any other books in the series, I just assumed that some of these events were things from a previous book. Except that I found out this is Book #1 of the series. Meaning that the backstory in this case had enough depth and detail to it that I believed it was something that actually happened. It’s definitely a good compliment to the author, and I’m sure she had worked a lot of Anita’s background out in advance before writing the first book.

A good example of this is also when a new villain is introduced. In the case of Guilty Pleasures, a vampire named Valentine is introduced early in the book, and we find out he tried to kill Anita several years earlier. She threw holy water in his face, leaving him permanently scarred. The author went into a bit of detail about those events, not quite giving a full flashback, but painting enough of a picture that the animosity between the two characters is quite clear. It worked well, and the story of that past conflict is interesting enough that I almost hope it gets revealed in a prequel story one day.

It’s given me a lot to think about in terms of my own writing. How to manage a series is an issue I’ve been studying for some time, and I’ve blogged about it before. There’s always a question of how much backstory to reveal, and how much turns into long-winded exposition. The balance between the two seems to vary, based on how important the details are and how much you can “show” them instead of “telling” them.

I’m going to keep this in mind as I continue reading this novel, so I can see how the past conflict influences the events to come. I expect Anita is about to get into a lot of trouble with this vampire from her past, and it’ll be interesting to see if the current conflicts are stronger and more compelling based on what I’ve learned of their history together.


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Time and Combat

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way combat is depicted in some books. It’s a common thing to see in most of the books I read. From the huge, epic-scale wars in books like The Wheel of Time, to the wizard-vs-wizard slugfests I’ve been reading recently in The Dresden Files, there’s a lot of battles, big and small. Some of them are dramatic and tense. Some are long and drawn out. Some make me worry about the fate of the protagonist, while other times I’m confident that things will turn out okay. But regardless of the circumstances, the depiction of time during battles can be a tricky thing.

Sometimes I’ll be reading a book when an enemy starts charging forward, then it takes a couple of pages before they actually swing their sword or cast their spell, while the narrator describes every motion in great detail. Other times someone will fire off several gunshots or fireballs in a single sentence, dropping multiple foes at once. It’s almost as if the writing can sometimes move into bullet time, allowing the narrator to paint a detailed picture of the danger that is coming or the style and deadly grace of an opponent. When it’s well-done, it makes me appreciate the precision, speed, and skill of the combatants, whether it be their skill with weapons or their powerful magic. Other times, however, I find myself wondering, “How long does it take someone to pull the trigger?”

This gets more complicated when there’s multiple combatants involved, and each one needs some time in the spotlight. Though Jim Butcher handles that pretty effectively in The Dresden Files. When he writes a battle scene from Harry Dresden’s point of view, Harry usually starts off throwing spells around and kicking some serious magical ass. But then he either runs out of juice (draining his magical energies for his spells), or he gets injured, or in some other way he is briefly sidelined. This allows Harry to observe the action and the carnage, narrating it to the reader, with a reasonable excuse about why he’s taking so long to get up and help his allies. Though it does get to be a little predictable after I’ve seen the same storytelling tactic used multiple times across multiple books.

Another factor that seems to affect how time is portrayed and perceived in a book is how “close” the narration is. In a series like The Dresden Files, everything is being told in the main character’s voice, so the action is told from where he’s standing (or sometimes, where he’s lying on the ground, bleeding). In other stories, however, it’s easier to “zoom out” and narrate a battled from the third person perspective, telling the reader what’s happening across the battlefield all at once. Then, the story can “zoom in” and focus on a specific character and the blow-by-blow duel they’re having with an individual opponent. This seems to be a more effective technique if you want to describe things going on in multiple places at the same time, since the narration could describe events on one side of the battlefield, then the other, even though they’re taking place simultaneously. The reader can innately understand that the narration shifted a few moments back in time to catch us up on what’s happening elsewhere.

This is something I’ll definitely be studying more closely as I continue reading more urban fantasy books. There’s not a lot of “battles” so-to-speak in Manifestation (there’s some fights and action, but nothing on the scale of a massive armed conflict). The later books I’m working on in the series, however, step up the game quite a bit. And the more I read about how fantasy battles are depicted, the more action-packed and intense I can make those future battles. And hopefully, the passage of time during the fights won’t get confusing.

Unless I start writing romance novels, then I don’t have to worry about it.


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