When Dracula Joins the Circus

Image by Willgard Krause from Pixabay

This afternoon, I was chatting online with an old friend about books. (OK, let’s just pause and appreciate the fact he let me talk about those things with pages, shall we?) Somehow, we got on the topic of why I didn’t like The Vampire Diaries or Twilight or vampire novels in general. (Power to you if you enjoy them, though.) He asked if my disdain applied even to the vampire novel of vampire novels–Dracula.

Of course it did.

I tried to explain to him that, classic or not, vampire stories are just too predictable for me. Or as I put it to him, “What’s Dracula gonna do, join a circus?”

You know he’s going to bite somebody.

You know everybody’s gonna freak out.

You know it will result in more undead…

…who will then bite somebody…

I admit my question is goofy and sarcastic. But it reveals a real problem writers have, too. We have established specific types of characters, specific story arcs, etc., and we lean on them because they are familiar and, in a lot of ways, psychologically workable for the reader. But if we conform to those boundaries too much, then at some point, the reader has so much experience with them that the character or story isn’t novel anymore. You can “see the seams” and know exactly what’s going to happen or how the character will behave, and that’s NOT interesting.

So the trick, in my view, is to shatter the statue in front of you and rearrange the fragments into totally new art. Maybe one of your characters is a vampire. But what if they really did join the circus? What if you’ve got a vampire who, instead of getting into an ill-fated love affair, starts a business or who goes on a quest to become mortal again?

Suddenly, you’ve got something fresh. Distinct.

What was that agents always say they’re looking for?

Oh, yeah. Fresh. Distinct.

To be clear, this isn’t just a matter of sticking a stereotypical character into a different space, which is what a lot of writers do to “modernize”. It’s not even about finding nuances within the stereotype that prompt important discussions (e.g., yes, vampires can be gay). It’s a matter of challenging the stereotype itself. That’s why I don’t like most vampire novels, because even if they’re in, say, a modern high school, at the end of the day, it’s still teeth, biting, and the supernatural.

This doesn’t mean you have to abandon everything. You’re still using the pieces in front of you, and those fragments still need to be understood for what they actually are. The vampire cannot be a duck, per se. But no one else gets to decide how those fragments get put together and whether the end result “makes sense” but you.

I joked to my friend that my vampire-joins-the-circus idea would be my next book to tackle when sleep deprivation removes the little mental/verbal filter I have left. But I was only half kidding. Because when it comes to stories, the only question you really should be asking yourself is…

Why not?