Whether you’re into Dracula, Teen Wolf, Legolas, Bella, or (my personal favorite) Merit, there’s no shortage of compelling supernatural characters in pop culture. But creating interesting, unique, and captivating paranormal heroines, heroes, and stories can be a challenge. These are some of my personal strategies—learned through writing 27 paranormal novels.
1. Do Your Research
Perhaps the biggest benefit—and the greatest risk—of writing about paranormal creatures is their popularity. Most readers will come to a story about vampires with some conception of what a “vampire” is, so writers can assume a certain level of familiarity and pique reader interest from the very beginning. On the other hand, that also means readers will have specific ideas about what a supernatural character should and should not be.
One of the best ways to prepare yourself is to understand the myths that underlie the paranormal elements of your story. You can find legends featuring paranormal events and creatures in cultures across the globe, from the oni of Japan to the jiangshi of China, from the Celtic selkie to the North American loup-garou. Creatures may share certain characteristics from country to country—shape-shifting, inducing humans to engage in bad behavior, blood-sucking—but their origins, strengths, and weaknesses can vary dramatically from culture to culture. I’m a firm believer that the more you know about how humans conceptualize the magical other, the better and more interesting your characters and story will be.
2. Know Your Strengths … And Your Limitations
It’s fun to create super strong paranormals—unbeatable fighters with great speed, great strength, and a dash of immortality. But be careful not to make your protagonist too powerful, or you’ll eliminate an important source of tension and conflict. If your heroine can easily beat every foe that comes her way, where’s the drama? What challenge must she overcome to give readers a satisfying rise and fall?
Perhaps your heroine’s remarkable strength is also her greatest weakness—like King Midas, she ruins everything she touches. Or she can only access her strength on Wednesday mornings. Or, like vampires, at night. Take time to think about the Kryptonite for your particular Kal-El, and how you can use it to create a plot with emotional resonance.
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3. Make Your Own Spin
While it’s important to understand the human foundations of supernatural stories, it’s equally important to think about what makes your supernaturals unique. The paranormal market—whether traditionally published, indie published, or self-published—is crowded. Paranormal and supernatural stories are often successful because an author creatively added their own twists to the foundation stones of folklore, history, and mythology.
You may have noticed that announcements about new book deals often describe the work as “X book meets Y book.” For example, a book might be described as “Twilight meets Pet Sematary,” or “Game of Thrones meets Captain Underpants.” In addition to giving readers (and book buyers, and librarians) an idea of genre and intended audience, these comparisons call out the author’s particular twist. In my Twilight example, our imaginary author started with concept X (high school vampire romance) and added concept Y (perhaps demonic reincarnated cats?).
There are many ways to approach this. You could consider changes to, for example, the typical setting (maybe your vampires live in space), or timeline (maybe your story is set in the 1970s or the 2070s), or your characters’ hobbies and interests (your elves make decisions over rounds of backgammon or, like my Chicagoland Vampires, are obsessed with food). Some writers use alternate history to craft unique stories in familiar places and periods, or use role-swapping to transform a familiar antagonist into a heroine. Maybe you have two (or six, or 20) ideas for interesting books or settings or plots. Can you combine them into a “thicker” story with additional elements?
4. Find the Humanity
Some of fiction’s most compelling paranormal characters share a common trait: While being supernatural, they’re also very human. They have human interests, obsessions, challenges, or weaknesses—whether physical or emotional—that help readers relate to them as characters.
For example, your vampire may be able to fly, but is profoundly afraid of heights. Your werewolf may be physically invincible, but can’t get the permit he needs to howl in his own backyard. Your witch can kindle any spell, but can’t earn enough money selling potions to pay her mortgage. These small details can bring readers fully into the story.
5. Be Consistent
Whatever rules you choose, it’s worth the extra effort to ensure your creatures, setting, and magical system are consistent within and (if you’re writing a series) between books. Readers may be willing to accept the notion that vampires and dragons both exist, but if your dragon-riding vampire takes an action that’s inconsistent with her prior decisions, you risk throwing the reader out of the story.
Similarly, an over-the-top emotional response to an inciting event can be very fun to write, but if the reaction doesn’t match the character’s personality, readers won’t buy it. That’s not to say characters—or their powers or attitudes—can’t change for plot-related reasons—whether curse, fairy godmother visit, or breakup—but those kind of changes should be built into the plot. You want readers to really feel for the character’s struggle and journey, and that’s easiest if the character’s behavior makes sense in context.
You also want to think about series consistency. Characters (and their skills, magic, unusual features) need to be consistent from book to book. If you’ve created a wholly new world, consider drafting a “world book” to help you keep track. Basically, it’s a record of all the important details about your world, from weather to geography, and from politics to paranormals. If you’re working in an existing world, you can use character sheets to note important details about individual characters. But don’t forget—the value of these tools depends entirely on how often you update them, so be sure to make changes as your characters and landscape evolve!