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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A Problem of Motivation (I Am The Night)

Image description: A mouth with fangs and shiny blue lips
with a tongue touching one of the fangs.
"I Am The Night" is a series of writing insights that come from my monthly Vampire LARP. I played the game itself on the 27th, and am just now getting to the write up part.

Vampire LARPs would make dreadful vampire stories. And unfortunately most vampire stories also make dreadful vampire stories.

It's not that nothing happens. Far from it. Too far from it, in fact. Shit happens. All kinds of shit happens. So much shit happens that it's a little unrealistic and certainly bad characterization of a creature that by all rights should be able to do the mental equivalent of "thinking about things over spring break" only to find that most of their problems have died of old age.

Between the last game and this most recent one, a bunch of players got together and tried to kill a very powerful character. Most of them involved in the action were killed, including a couple of those played I game with. Everyone I saw about their character's death was very cool (it can be tough and emotional to lose a character you've been playing for months or years), but it still got me to thinking about how human it was to form a strike force and try to go after this big bad.

For humans, finding out the location of some enemy and sending a strike force makes a lot of sense. Probably most humans would send some people (like military forces) who's job it was to do exactly those sorts of things and avoid the risk of death or injury themselves, but they would likely move on it. Human have finite lifespans and will sometimes, if pressed, wager their remaining years against quality of life issues or certain core values.

For players in a game it makes even MORE sense. There's no actual risk (other than a night of whisky sours and listening to country music...the music of pain). Everyone knows that the game will only last four or five years at most, so they have a limited time to do all the neat things they imagine and explore their character's arc. Some people want to get in on anything or anything interesting, elevate their character's station with glory and honor, and many are struggling with some level of character boredom. Human players pretending to be vampires can't really wait twenty years to see if a problem takes care of itself.

Unfortunately, for an actual vampire, this makes almost NO sense. Unless your vampire is a spectacularly burnt out adrenaline junkie, there is almost no conceivable reason that a creature who would live forever (if it didn't die from violence) would willingly put themselves in harm's way. They would find every excuse to avoid violence (beyond predation, of course, but presumably a human they're feeding on wouldn't be able to kill them). They would exhaust every possible solution that didn't involve violence before even considering it. And they would be absolute masters of patiently waiting to see if the problem just sort of went away. A vampire of any age at all probably wouldn't even consider most problems worth dealing with unless they had been going on for years or even decades.

A lot of writers have successfully dealt with this issue. Anne Rice's vampires often DO avoid violence unless it is thrust upon them or they essentially frenzy over some kind of last connection to their humanity being taken from them. Dracula is painstakingly careful to avoid risks and just happens to encounter a human (Dr. Van Helsing) who knows what he is–even then he wisely runs home, but the group follows him to exact revenge for Lucy, and has eliminated his ability to run further by destroying the dirt he sleeps in. (So really it's their human impulsiveness that leads to the final violent encounter.) Some writers give vampires an animal-like instinct that can boil their blood and take over their rational thinking process. Some make the stakes extra high (though the "true love" of a human thing has been way overdone, so be careful of that one). Some make the vampire protagonist very young so that their impulsive humanity hasn't been bled out of them–and sometimes even successfully portray their frustration at the measured patience of older vampires, which they perceive as apathy.

However, a lot of writers don't deal with vampires particularly well. They treat them kind of like superheroes with fangs, gleefully taking risks left and right despite their age because it makes for cool fight scenes or facing down mortal perils simply because a human (probably not even most humans, but maybe a jacked up trained human soldier with a death wish and nothing to lose) might do the same thing with the same risk versus reward. Having a 600 year old vampire who is going to live forever unless it gets ganked go to war with an equally powerful werewolf who is probably going to die in like a "week or two" doesn't make much sense. Why not just report a rash of feral dogs in the sewers to the local authorities and go alternate between the arctic circle with it's six month night and Puerto Williams the other six months for....oh maybe ten or fifteen years? Let the whole thing blow over while your bank account earns compound interest.

These quick-to-violence characters are unbelievable.

No I mean they are literally impossible to believe. They're ridiculous and goofy. And writers writing them this way should try a lot harder to find a reason that they would risk immortality–because a pissing match doesn't make a lot of sense.

If you have a character that sees the world as vastly different than you do (like for example that they are going to live forever if they don't die from violence, or even other things like having no sense of propriety or no concept of property or an overwhelming sense of empathy), you have to work extra hard to motivate them in ways that make sense to their altered perceptions of reality. They can't just be written as humans with a quirk. Not if you want them to be believable.


  1. I don't know.

    Buffy, for instance, treats two of the vampires like superheros- Angel and Spike. Angel's doing it because he's trying to repent and a little suicid-y anyway, so we've got him covered.

    But Spike is just doing it for the lols. He likes to fight. He will run away if the big bad's too big bad (before the ensouling anyway), but he otherwise just enjoys the fact that he is strong and violent. And I never thought to myself "Hey, if Spike is over 200 years old, why does he still act like a twenty-something who finished up puberty and is in the best shape of his life?" It worked for me, and judging from the fans, it worked for plenty of other people.

    So while I think it is true that most vampires would not risk their new unlife when most problems could simply be "waited out", I don't think that it completely unbelievable that some of them would like being the violent big bad and/or superhero.

    1. I'm not sure I would place Buffyverse vampires into the "well explained portrayals of vampires" pile. That show is remarkably superhero-y. And it's not irredeemably goofy, but it definitely drifts towards the kind of silly we forgive because we're having fun.

    2. Though if you want to talk explanations that cover the needed ground without making anyone think too hard, simply remember what vampires are in the Buffyverse. They're not continuations of a human consciousness given immortality. They are hybrid demons taking up a disposable body on Earth that retain the memories and personality bits of the previous occupants. So them being bad ass hellraisers no matter what their age is kind of successfully hand-waved.

  2. "kind of successfully". Buffy/Angel included great stories, but the explanation of souls, and the relationship between soul and personality and behavior, never made sense to me. Nor did the role of religion. Crosses and holy water burn vampires, but setting foot in a church does not - why? Stoker clearly assumes that God acts through the symbols of Christianity, so the effects of crosses make sense; Whedon does not lay out such a clear-cut theology, and he relies on Stoker's assumptions inconsistently.