How do you get out of the typical tropes for paranormal writing? Laura Resnick shares her stories…with a kick!
One of the challenges a paranormal novelist like me faces is how to use familiar supernatural tropes without writing a book that’s just like someone else’s book.
I didn’t really struggle with this when I wrote the first couple of books in my Esther Diamond urban fantasy series, Disappearing Nightly and Doppelgangster, because the fantasy premises I used in those two books (supernatural vanishings and paranormal perfect doubles) weren’t common, let alone ubiquitous. My next two Esther Diamond books, though, brought my dread of the retread into my writing life front-and-center, since Unsympathetic Magic was a zombie novel and Vamparazzi was about vampires.
In an endless sea of zombie and vampire books, how do you write a novel about each of these familiar (no, let’s be honest: clichéd) subjects that isn’t just like someone else’s novel?
Well, I’m a simple person, so I found a comfortingly simple solution: Research.
I ignored everything that I had seen in the movies, TV shows, and popular novels viz zombies and vampires, and I focused on nonfiction books and documentaries about my subject matter. This is the way I always do research for my novels, after all; and it turned out to be particularly useful when dealing with something as done-to-undeath as zombies and vampires.
Thus I soon discovered that what I “knew” about zombies and vampires was based entirely on my exposure to well-entrenched portrayals (no, let’s be honest: popular stereotypes) of them… And such portrayals were entirely different from religious beliefs, mythologies, and folkloric traditions recorded about such creatures.
For example, all I “knew” about zombies was that they’re terrifying walking-corpses who eat human brains. But actually, in Haitian folklore, from which the commercial concept of zombiism was originally derived (and then much altered), zombies don’t eat human brains. They don’t eat anything, in fact. Because they’re, you know… dead. So they don’t require nourishment.
Zombies also aren’t evil or vicious in Haitian voodoo (or Vodou) belief. They’re morally neutral, in much the way that your car is morally neutral, because they’re animated and directed entirely by an exterior intelligence. Zombies are not violent unless ordered by their creator to commit violence. They cannot act independently or react to circumstances; they’re strictly the obedient slaves of whoever raised them from the grave—typically, a bokor (a sorcerer who deals in black magic) who has petitioned Baron Samedi, the Lord of Death, to allow him to create a zombie.
And “slaves” is a key word there; in Haitian belief, a zombie is not a monster, it’s a victim. Haitians don’t fear zombies, they fear becoming zombies. In the context of Vodou, a religion founded by slaves, slavery is the worst thing that can happen to a person—hence the fear of being raised from the grave as the living dead, for the sole purpose of being a dark sorcerer’s slave.
This was all a lot more interesting to me than, “Brrrraaaaiins! WANT BRAINS!” when figuring out how to write about zombies.
Similarly, when I started working on Vamparazzi, I initially feared that when writing about vampires, there would be no way to avoid invading territory already staked out (sorry, I couldn’t resist) by other novelists. Once again, though, as soon as I started researching my subject, I discovered precisely the thing that became the promo tag line for Vamparazzi: “Everything you think you know about vampires is wrong.”
Here’s a good example: In European folklore, vampires don’t have fangs. That’s strictly an invention of novels and films. It’s a shrewd invention, of course—because trying to access someone’s jugular vein without razor-sharp fangs is extremely messy… as we learn in Vamparazzi, which eliminates fangs as a feature of vampirism, since I didn’t want to imitate (generations of) other novelists when I wrote about vampires.
To give another example: Vampires bursting into flames or withering into ashes when exposed to sunlight is also strictly an invention of fiction and film; yes, folkloric vampires are typically active by night rather than day, but there is no tradition of sunlight being fatal (or, rather, terminal) for them.
Moreover, I was surprised to learn there have been real-world vampire epidemics. In Eastern Europe in the 18th century, for example, outbreaks of vampirism were so alarming and widespread that the Austrian Empire, which then ruled the region, sent government officials to the afflicted provinces to investigate and report on these strange events. Those vampire epidemics play an important role in Vamparazzi—as, indeed, they played historically in spreading Slavic vampire lore through Western Europe.
Thus I relearned a lesson which helps me gird my loins as I approach additional tropes that I fear may have already been done way too much: Just research it.
Laura Resnick is the author of the popular Esther Diamond urban fantasy series, whose most recent release was Polterheist. She is on the Web at LauraResnick.com, and you can visit her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.
Thanks to Laura for an exciting post! Are there any tropes in paranormal novels you would prefer to see (or prefer to not see)?