In 2008, Wired ran an article about Leland Chee, the guy hired by George Lucas to be the Star Wars “continuity cop” and make sure that, between the series’ films, comics, novelizations, and cartoons, the facts were straight. As any fan knows, the Kessel Run must always be the same distance: invented universes, be they near or far, only truly work if they stick to a firm set of laws and logic. Sadly, older myths don’t have a gatekeeper like Lucas, which makes for many frustrated nerds, subpar entertainment, and, well, vampires that sparkle, werewolves that are actually panthers, and zombies that run a four minute mile. And that’s not usually good. So here is where I put on my Leland Chee hat to make some basic rules for fantasy writers going forward, starting with the most maligned and overexposed of fictional creatures, the Werewolf.
I know that wolves don’t have the were- monopoly in fantasy--werebears also date back to early European myth--but if you’re writing about a fairly conventional supernatural world that sticks to your garden variety vampires, ghosts, etc, keep your were- creatures to wolves. The main offender to this rule is obviously True Blood, which threw in a clan of super-inbred, backwoods werepanthers for no discernable reason. These werewhatevers were lame, not just because they had little-to-no impact on the plot before vanishing forever, but because, if you were to write people so country they make the characters from Winter’s Bone look like members of the Algonquin Roundtable, would a panther really be the right animal to have them turn into? They’d be good wereboars maybe, or weregators, or even werepossums since that’d be amazingly weird, but the choice of panthers is so random that it pushes the reader or viewer over the fine line between acceptable fantasy and total horseshit.
Like zombies and vampires, werewolves have one main way to die (silver bullets) (although explosions/fire do a world of damage), and only transform during the nights of a full moon. They can’t change at any ol’ time just because they get mad--they’re werewolves, not Hulks--and while they can die if just stabbed a ton or decapitated, that’s a lazy and boring choice to make. Might as well change the character from a werewolf to a young Dan Hedaya.
Also, transformation sucks, but let’s not go crazy, Eli Roth, with your Hemlock Grove vampires whose eyes literally pop out during the change. I’m sure Mr. Roth, who brought the world Hostel, would insist that the choice is completely necessary, but one of the compelling elements of the werewolf myth is the internal balance between the human and the wolf, and if the wolf is so foreign to the human’s body that it physically pushes their eyes from the skull, that element is lost, as is the viewer/reader’s lunch.
It’s also important to clearly define how much human is left in the wolf post-transformation, because you can’t have characters who, in human form, can’t remember anything they did when they were wolves, but also have them remember and recognize people from their lives during wolfy times. You can get creative with the boundaries you set just as long as you stick to them. If you’re hoping to set up a strong internal conflict for your werewolf character, then don’t allow a lot of overlap. And while werewolf and vampire tend to get chummy, they do, as a rule, hate each other. As to how vampires feel about werepossums, I leave that to you to figure out and let me know.
Next Time: Boo! Ghost guidelines.