Worldbuilding

Creating a Fresh Vampire Antagonist

Living in spooky castles or just next door, vampires provide excellent antagonists for speculative fiction. They’re humanity’s predatory reflection, something that looks like us and yet isn’t. Unfortunately, they’re also overplayed. Vampires are so common in fiction that the novelty has worn off. Even when well written, they have difficulty wowing us the way Dracula and Nosferatu did.

Fortunately, this doesn’t mean you can’t use vampires as the big bad any more. Just be conscious of what makes them interesting and what’s done out of habit. Vampires still make good villains, but you’ll need to be at the top of your fictional game. First off…

Make Vampires Rare

TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and roleplaying settings like Vampire: The Masquerade have popularized worlds filled with vampires. There are so many blood suckers in these worlds that they have their own society, with leaders and governing structures.*

Throw this out the window. Unless you’re writing a vampiric political drama, you want as few of them as possible. The inverse ninja law also applies to vampires: the more there are, the easier they are to take down. This will happen even if you don’t want it to, because there isn’t any way around it. If every vampire is super powerful, and there are lots of them, then your characters won’t be able to win.

When characters dispatch mook vampires, the threat is diminished. Even if you’re saving a boss vampire for the climax, it won’t seem as scary because your characters have already defeated so many of its fellows. This is especially true in roleplaying games, where the characters themselves can get bored, but it occurs in prose too.

Instead, vampires should act like big cats. One won’t tolerate another in its territory, and seeing them together is rare. They should also be very choosy about who they turn. Anyone they make into a vampire will be around forever, and they won’t let some riff raff sully the bloodline.

Having fewer vampires also solves a believability problem. It’s not plausible that human society could fail to notice thousands of undead immortals populating the night, each one leaving a trail of bodies. But if there were only a dozen in the entire United States, that could fly under the radar.

But if there are so few and they don’t work together, how can they provide effective opposition? Well…

Give the Vampire Money and Influence

Instead of waiting out the day in a crumbling tomb, your vampire should be the billionaire owner of a software giant. They might be a popular politician, church leader, or anyone else who can yank on the levers of power.

If there are few vampires in the world, and each one has been alive for some time, then they’ve had plenty of time to cloak themselves in wealth. In the modern age, they can spend that wealth on dirty cops, spy drones, and private military companies. In a city, your vampire has the mayor’s ear. In a rural setting, they control the only reliable internet access.

When your vampire rests on a web of power, characters can spend the rising action dealing with minions. Some of these will be thralls, supernaturally enslaved to the vampire’s will. Others will be unwitting humans, still dangerous and morally compromising to kill. Are your characters going to open fire on a National Guard patrol, who think they’re raiding a drug cartel safehouse?*

Using your vampire as a mastermind means you can save their supernatural qualities until they’ll have the greatest impact. For most of the story, the characters will fight thralls who might be a bit more than human but nothing too extraordinary. Only in the climax do they meet a creature so fast their eyes can’t keep track of it. That has a lot more punch than staking an endless parade of low level vamps.

Vampiric masterminds also play well into the most basic theme of vampires as our dark reflection. Instead of a medieval castle in the middle of nowhere, the beasts are positioned at the heart of human society, where they can do the most damage. We all know of humans who abused their power to cause great harm; now imagine what a blood sucking monster would do in their place.

If you want to get mean,* the vampire can use their influence to deprive the characters of what they take for granted. Did the protagonist free a basement full of prisoners that were meant to be a snack? Now the IRS is auditing their household. This mundane retribution can be used to…

Emphasize Paranoia

As Night’s Black Agents shows us, vampires make perfect antagonists in spy-thriller stories. A key feature of such tales is paranoia. Whose side is a double agent on? Are they really giving you important intel or just setting you up to be captured by the KGB?

Adding vampires only increases the paranoia, because they have the supernatural ability to influence a character’s mind. Whether through direct psychic manipulation or a twisted blood bond, many vampires possess some kind of mind control.

This introduces an X-Files conspiracy feel to your story, which makes the vampire even scarier. If a character is ever gone from the group, it’ll raise suspicions. Where were they? Did the vampire turn them against us? Why do they need to know so much about our plan of attack?

In a roleplaying game, you can make the players doubt a trusted NPC. In a prose work, one of the main characters can fall under suspicion. Emotional drama runs rampant as two close friends accuse each other of working for the foe. The drama can be internal as well. If you’re being controlled by a vampire, how can you tell? Characters will critically analyze their past actions, constantly second guessing themselves as they search for signs of vampiric influence.

As a side effect, paranoia helps explain why there aren’t well organized responses to the vampire threat. Anything bigger than a half dozen hunters plotting in their basement falls apart because it’s too vulnerable to infiltration. If your vampires don’t have mind control powers, you should add some right away in order to…

Mix Up the Power, Feeding, and Weakness Tropes

Vampiric tropes are almost universally known these days, which is why they’re such a snooze fest. Vamps are allergic to wood, they feed by sucking blood out through the neck, etc. There’s value in recognizability, but these are so well known they cross into cliche. That’s why you’ve got to mix things up.

I don’t mean reinvent the undead wheel. Your vampires should still be recognizable as such but with relevant details altered. Who says vampires always need to drink blood? They could drain emotional energy until their victims are comatose vegetables. Perhaps there’s an organ they must devour, or maybe spinal fluid is what satiates their craving.

For powers, the sky’s the limit. If vampires are rare, you can make each one stupendously powerful. Super strength and speed are good as a baseline, but take it further. We’ve covered the value of mind control powers, so fit some of those in there. Alien style acid blood, why not? Fingernails that turn into razor blades, sounds good.

The powers you give your vampire are dependant on the story you want to tell. If it’s a globe trotting tale of high espionage, the ability to change face and voice will be excellent to confound your protagonists. In a smaller scale game, where the vampire is kingpin of a local cartel, make them more brutal. Pulling iron directly out of a victim’s bloodstream should do it. When the vampire works through minions, allow them to pass along some of their power directly to thralls. That lets you get some supernatural baddies into the story before introducing the big boss.

Weaknesses require more thought. They provide a built-in turning point, as your characters turn the tide by finding something that actually hurts the undead. But you must be careful not to make the weakness too accessible, or you lose a credible threat. Fire, for example, is a terrible weakness. Any group of PCs can tell you just how many ways there are to inflict fire on an enemy. Prose work has the same problem, as attentive readers wonder why the protagonists don’t just mix up a molotov cocktail. Making the weakness too obscure creates the opposite problem. A weakness to the 10,000th grain of rice in a bag isn’t really a weakness, and it won’t help your characters overcome the monster.

Whichever ones you choose, make the feeding, powers, and weaknesses related. That way, they won’t feel like a collection of arbitrarily assigned traits.* If the vampires must feed on spinal fluid in order to survive, then a strike to the back of the neck might be what takes them down. Vampires who are weak to iron could have the power to corrode other kinds of metal.

Changing the traits plays directly against the audience’s expectations, and it can play against the character’s expectations as well. When they hear tell of a vampire, they’ll break out the stakes and holy water, expecting to be safe in the daytime until…

Let Your Vampire Walk in the Sun

Vampires should be creatures of darkness. It plays into their fear factor. They are at home in an environment where humans are badly disadvantaged. A vampire with no aversion to sunlight is too similar to countless other monsters. However, that weakness shouldn’t be absolute.

If your vampire immolates upon contact with sunlight, it makes daytime safe. Even with thralls and minions, the characters know the vampire itself can never come after them from dawn to dusk. Beyond diminishing the threat, it’s too big an advantage. If the protagonists ever find out where the vampire sleeps, it’s a simple matter to let the sun in. Try running that scenario in a roleplaying game. The PCs will show you how it’s done, no matter how secure the hideout.

Your vampire still needs a reason to avoid sunlight whenever possible, but not something that automatically defeats it. Sunlight might ignite its blood on contact, turning any open wound into a deadly inferno. Or perhaps sunlight destroys their magical disguise, revealing their true nature. Just avoid sparkles, and you’ll be fine.

Your characters don’t have to know. The vampire is content to go on letting them think sunlight is lethal to it. Imagine: the protagonists are fleeing up towards daylight, convinced they’ll be safe if only they can make it outside. They reach the doors and stumble out into high noon. They’re safe; the beast is contained. They all sigh in relief, until the vampire takes its first step into the light. The scene writes itself.

Countless more options are out there for enterprising storytellers. Vampires aren’t real, so you can make whatever changes you like! What’s important is that your audience gets something they weren’t expecting. That’s key in any story, but it’s extra work with vampires because of their high exposure. Draw outside the lines a little, and your blood sucking baddie will be ready to go in no time!

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Comments

  1. Alverant

    Here’s an idea; the vampire legend comes from a mountainous area and vampires also sleep in crypts and other cool places and come out at night. So they have a lower body temperature to be comfortable making what’s really hot but bearable temperatures for humans (100 F) is fatal to vampires. That also makes climate change a bigger threat to their existence than it is to humans. So now the antagonist has humanity’s best interests at heart if only out of their own self interest. They’re still the bad guy, but it makes them more complicated as characters and sets up an “ends justify the means” conflict. Worked the right way the vampire can be an evil guardian angel for humanity.

  2. Skylark

    The sunlight thing ties in well to another post on this site about horror cliches, specifically the scariest parts being in the dark.
    Would make for a great climax (especially in a visual medium like movies, TV or comics) if you spent most of the work following the dark is danger, sun is safe rule in both plot and tone. And then you get the scene you mention – the protagonist runs out into the sun and discovers that’s when they’re really doomed.
    In particular, I have a visual in my head of the vamp burning, and the human thinks it’s going to burn up, only to realize it’s just the top layer burning away to reveal the creature underneath. Some sort of charred, blackened monster that sheds ash as it unfolds into this spindly, inhuman THING… that then chases down the protagonist on its now longer legs, swiping with foot-long claws. Poor, poor protagonist. >:-D

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I want to see that show so very much.

    • Bronze Dog

      Not vampire related, but fits with the subversion of light being safe: I’m contemplating a Hedge encounter for my Changeling chronicle that involves an extremely dangerous multi-armed creature, holding lanterns in each hand, patrolling a path the characters have to sneak through.

      Hmm… Scary thought: If the creature gets frustrated searching for the characters, it throws a few of the lanterns to light the foliage on fire. Fire means light, and the cover they were relying on becomes dangerous.

  3. Brigitta M.

    I’ve discovered that the best tip on here is the “mix and match” of vampire tropes. For example, one of the ones that is commonly used is the fact that vampires can’t be seen in mirrors. Dig into the origins of the vampire and it’s discovered that silver wasn’t just a weakness for werewolves, but vampires as well.
    By mixing up these two, I was able to have a vampire that could be photographed, showed up in reflections, etc… but when grandma’s antique mirror was discovered in the attic and said vamp didn’t show up in the mirror, it was all the more stunning and it made sense because antique mirrors often used silver for their reflective surfaces as opposed to the cheaper medals used in modern mirrors.
    Another one I like to use is the oft-underused power of shapeshifting into animals. I take advantage of the animal form in that they lose other gifts (such as mind reading) but are only able to use other gifts (such as flight) while in the animal form. Flight is a beautifully tempting gift, and since my vampire is only able to do so while in her raven form, it’s one she uses often. It comes with a cost though. The more often an animal form is used, the more feral she becomes. To me, that explains the internal transition from decent human to monstrous vampire a lot better than just a “need to feed” does.
    Population control is definitely an issue. It never really made sense to me that vampires, with all of their intelligence wouldn’t have just taken over by now. So, I made the transition from human to vampire something related to the core of the individual: a deep desire to survive even long past the time others would have given up. Anything less than this sheer will and there’s a mockery of the vampire: a ghoul-like thrall that subsists on insects and is stripped of its own will and can only do what sire/madam creator commands of them. The only advantage these thralls have is that sunlight doesn’t weaken them as it does their masters.
    Yeah, about that? The older the vampire, the more they need to hide from the rays of the sun lest they go into a blood frenzy– a blind feeding feast where they’ll dine on anything with a pulse, destroying entire villages without a thought or care. Iow, keeping a vampire out of the sun isn’t for their safety… it’s for the safety of the protagonist.

  4. Sam Victors

    My vampires are mostly based on regional mythologies; Greek Vrykolakes are sun-walking undead grey-eyed redheads with hidden wolf fangs, poltergeist-like activities, can shapeshift into wolves and rest on Saturdays. Albanian Sampiros are an all male glowing-eyed undead being who wear funeral attire and high heeled shoes, their bites can psychologically weaken a victim and they like to spread destruction and disease. Jewish Estries are long-haired female vampires who attack large loving families out of jealousy and spite. Roman Strix are another female vampire species who shapeshift into owl-bats and target young or younger people.

    In life these vampires were horrible people and each species was its specific type of evil person in order to become that vampire specimen; example, Vrykolakes were audacious people guilty of spreading mischief, burglary and disrespecting their family/community. Estries were once jealous and spiteful sterile women who attacked husbands by home-wrecking, assaulting their children and murdering their pregnant wives. Sampiros were once bigoted men who were guilty of violence, stalking and vengeance.

    Methods for the mortals to die in order to be transformed into a vampire species was by suicide, heart attacks, murder, accidents and disease. They are only averted to figures/symbols of Angels, the only religious figure they fear is the Angel. The Vampires are also envious of humans because the vamps lived short and miserable lives.

    I had to do a lot of research in mythology and folklore to look these up.

  5. Tumblingxelian

    These were really solid, I was actually entertaining some ideas like this myself, though there were more vampires around due to one trying to go all “by their powers combined” to collect all the vampiric powers/mutations.

  6. Adam J. Thaxton

    Here’s what I do, truncated:

    → Vampires can eat beans of any sort as a solid food, and drink, but can’t bear the taste of any other food (they are linked to Ananasi and Grandmother Spider).

    → Vampires are incapable of hiding their emotions. Trying to do so results in nervous tics, bad tells, or simply going full-hog on whatever they’re feeling. When a vampire gets angry, it yells, when it feels good, it can’t help but moan and wiggle. While the body is dead, the only thing keeping them animate is whatever need or passion that drove them to become a vampire in the first place – whatever primary passion this is can typically be revealed just by a few moments of speaking to them or getting a look at the vampire’s hidey hole.

    → Vampires catch fire in the sun; specifically it’s the light of Sol that does this, the weight of a vampire’s passion (most of them, anyway) can’t stand Sun’s scrutiny for long. Sun is Unconquered, they say.

    → Feeding on a person requires that the vampire merge its soul with its food; memories, passions, and desires yet unfulfilled are not only shared through feeding, but also fulfilled. A foodie finds their need to eat exotic dishes is more than compensated, a nymphomaniac discovers that being bitten is better than sex, and so on. This has a tendency for some vampires to either pick one or two food sources and stick with them, or go a little crazy with their philandering and one-night feeding stands before disappearing. By the same token, by feeding, a vampire can acquire muscle memory, skills, and knowledge from their food. Multiple feedings cement that knowledge for longer periods, and very old vampires tend to be amazingly good at just about everything, but also rather jaded and humble – they know what their “victims” have gone through to learn what they have, mostly because a vampire -is- his or her victims.

    → ANGELA vampires are pale or blue, tend to be a little gaunt, and have red eyes and fangs that form from extended canines. These are your “classic” vampire. They have mind control capabilities, can move and puppet liquid (even liquid still inside a living being) and can literally make your blood explode. ANGELA vampires can arrest systems as they grow in power, and can potentially simply annihilate momentum at the very heights of their power, though when they reach this capacity they are drawn to the tunnels between worlds, the catacombs, where they become part of ANGELA.

    → CLINT vampires have fangs formed of two black tentacle prongs they can protrude from their mouths that shed catacomb mist, giving the appearance of shadows or black fog. They can exude catacomb mist from their bodies, turn themselves into black mist, and grow eyes or limbs on any part of their body. CLINT vampires can cause lost limbs or body parts to return to themselves – even blood they’ve imparted to a servant, often dangerously.

    → GRANDMOTHER vampires have two long fangs that hide inside the jaw and can be extended on jointed palp-like organs. They can climb walls, produce webbing, and are able to see and speak with spirits and memes. GRANDMOTHER vampires can also sense and close holes between universes, and usually can be found near them, or guiding humans among them.

    → TODD vampires have an extendable nest of fangs they can protrude from their fingers or lips like splinters, and are all oneiromancers, letting them both control and direct the flow of dreams. They can travel through them using the shards and silver bubbles. Infectious shards of TODD can lay dormant until they mineralize, and can survive reentry into an atmosphere. Eventually they turn into vaguely humanoid nests of needles and thorns that draw blood. Most TODD vampires have short lives since TODD doesn’t allow them to grow into enough power before consuming them, making them only for a specific purpose.

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