by Toni L.P. Kelner
A friend recently asked how I come up with the supernatural creatures for my short stories, and I decided that I have two guidling principles:
- Ring changes on the existing tropes.
- Don't ring too many changes on the existing tropes.
Yeah, I know. There's a bit of a conflict there.
Ring changes on the existing tropes.
Supernatural fiction has been hot for a while now, and some really good writers have done such wonderful things. So when I first decided to dip my toe into the paranormal pool, I was a bit daunted. How could I think up a story idea that hadn't been done to death. Or to undeath... I came up with new takes just to get my creative juices charged up.
The vampires I introduce in "How Stella Got Her Grave Back" (in Many Bloody Returns) and "Taking the Long View" (in Crimes by Moonlight) are fairly traditional: blood sucking, daylight avoiding, and mind controlling. But I added the concept that a new vampire isn't quit so vampiric as one who's been dead a while. Newbie Mark still needs regular food to supplement his liquid diet, and he can go outside during the day if he wears sunscreen. And the mesmerizing gaze? He's still working on that.
My formal justification is that if there were vampires, it would make sense for them to appear to be human at first to avoid detection. They would transition into the vampiric lifestyle. But the real reason is I wanted to do something different.
More importantly for the reader, I could then write about Mark learning about this strange new, paranormal world, and trying to fit in. He questions the assumptions that other vampires live with--well, not live, but exist with. That becomes a major part of his character, which then led to the mystery plots of the stories in which he appears.
One other change I made is a matter of interpretation. The adventurous, modern vampires are often shown as nearly fearless because they're really hard to kill and will live forever. But in my experience, it's the young who fear nothing. Vampires are really old. Plus there are the dangers of being exposed to the world, as well as to the sun. So my vampires drive like old fogies, and they keep their money in their mattresses instead of maintaining reasonable investment portfolios. That gives me more opportunities for story conflict--Mark is an investment banker and sneers at mattress savings plans.
As for werewolves, I base my big change on the studies that show that wolves and dogs are pretty much the same species. (Okay, I'm simplifying, but I'm writing about werewolves here. Obviously science isn't my biggest concern.) Therefore if a human could turn into a wolf, why couldn't she turn into a dog? Any species of dog, in fact? So when Joyce the werewolf is caged in "Pirate Dave's Haunted Amusement Park" (in Death's Excellent Vacation), she doesn't turn into a huge wolf to try to break down the bars. Instead she turns into a Chihuahua to slip right through, and ferociously attacks her captor. Well, his ankles, anyway.
This change really set the tone for the story. I couldn't go dark and gritty with a Chihuahua. It also provide characterization for Joyce. She's willing to change, to think outside the cage... I mean, the box. It helps with the plot, too, because dogs are more useful for undercover work than wolves.
In other stories, I've tried to give witches more current abilities. After all, why wouldn't a modern witch have a special affinity with telephones? And why does a voodoo zombie raiser have to be from New Orleans? I bet Dunwoody, GA, has plenty of dead people who could use raising.
Playing with the tropes makes writing the stories a lot more fun for me, and I hope more fun for the readers.
Don't ring too many changes on the existing tropes.
This is based on something I read about Star Trek. In the episode "The Man Trap," an alien kills humans by sucking out the salt in their bodies, and there's one scene where the alien looks longingly at a salt shaker. SinceStar Trek was set in the future, naturally the props person provided a furturistic-looking salt shaker. Unfortunately, it was so futuristic-looking that it was completely unrecognizable as a salt shaker--they borrowed plain old salt shakers from the commissary to use instead. (The funky salt shaker did not go to waste, however. It and its companion pepper shaker were modified to be used as Dr. McCoy's medical scanners.)
The point is that it's possible to ring so many changes on vampires and werewolves that they are no longer recongizable. At that point, I may as well make up a name for a new kind of critter and write my story about him.
Another issue is that my forays into the paranormal world have all been in short stories. That means I don't have a lot of space for exposition, background, and backstory. And I really don't have a lot of space to explain why it is that my vampires drink nail polish remover, not blood.
On a side note, this points out how remarkable Femme Dana's Fangborn short stories are. The Fangborn are extremely original takes on the vampire and werewolf myths, but every time Dana manages to describe the differences and tell a fabulous story.
I'm lazier than Dana. So my vampires drink blood, and my werewolves change forms, and my witches do magic and not science.
I said earlier that there's a conflict between my two guiding principles, but really,it's not so much of a conflict as it is a balancing act. On one side is my need to do something original and on the other side is the reader's need to know what the heck is going on. So when it's time for me to write a paranormal story, I'll be trying to find that balance--that's where my supernatural characters come from.