How to mix genres and make heroes
By Johnny B. Truant
When people review my Fat Vampire books, they say two things. They say them so often and so consistently that I’m almost numb to how awesome they are. Almost, but not quite.
The first goes something like this: “What a refreshing twist on a ‘done to death’ concept!”
And the second thing readers say (writers, you’ll like this) is, “I’m buying the next book!”
These are things people write in the reviews — and not just some of the reviews; I’m talking maybe half of them. How cool is that? Just about the only thing a writer likes to hear more than “I’m buying your books” is “Oprah called.” So I have that going for me, which is nice.
But here’s a question: why do I hear those things so often for a series that sounds like a joke?
I think the reason is because the two statements above are cause-and-effect. Give your readers a twist that delights them, and they’ll come back for more.
The 300,000-Word Joke
Listeners to my two podcasts — the Self Publishing Podcast and Better Off Undead — know that Fat Vampire started as a joke at my co-host Dave’s expense. (So did Unicorn Western, but that’s another story.) Dave is overweight and constantly joking about it, so when the question came up as to whether the three of us would choose to become vampires, we began discussing one of the world’s great philosophical debates: if turned, would Dave suddenly become like Edward in Twilight: stunning and beautiful, thin and strong, with perfect hair? Or would he turn as he was, and become “a fat vampire” who, in Dave’s estimation, wouldn’t be able to catch his prey? I claimed the idea, a year went by, and this month I’m publishing the sixth and final book in the series. Dave grumbled. Life went on.
Now at this point, if you’re not perfect like Edward in Twilight, you’re probably thinking I took a cheap shot and wrote six books’ worth of one long, cruel fat joke. So far, nobody has said that, though, and I’m glad. I worked hard to avoid giving that impression. In fact, the first thing I did before writing the initial book was to call an overweight friend of mine and ask her what she thought. I told her my plan: to write a character who finds himself in a (hilariously) disadvantaged position but triumphs anyway. I wanted Reginald, my book’s hapless vampire, to be a hero, not a victim. Fat Vampire had to be an underdog tale, not an insult. She thought it sounded great, and I’m still getting reviews that say things like, “I’m overweight and I thought this would be insulting, but…” And then they go on to explain that they enjoyed reading about a guy who isn’t perfect for once.
In case you didn’t catch that, I’ll repeat it: “a guy who isn’t perfect.” You know, like all us.
How to Make a Hero
Now here’s the thing: I did want Fat Vampire to be funny. When it came up on the podcast, all three of us (me, my writing partner Sean, and Dave) laughed until we cried. The situations were absurd. Reginald doesn’t have the stamina, even as a vampire, to chase anyone. He’s mocked by his intended victims. He tries to glamour people and they just avoid his stare. He likes human junk food much, much more than blood. This put me in a bit of a bind. I couldn’t just take pot shots at Reginald, so I had to find ways to make those things funny, yet not turn Reginald into a punching bag.
My solution was to do two things: first, I gave Reginald a boyish sense of humor and a somewhat-diminished sense of self-esteem — or rather, a sense of self esteem that has been beaten down by a judgmental society. He’s his own worst critic at times, yet he doesn’t let it get him down for long. I narrated the book from Reginald’s point of view so that you see the world through his eyes, and hopefully when you (as someone who isn’t Reginald) see him knock himself, you want to tell him to lay off a bit.
The second thing I did (and this is the really important part) was to give Reginald some non-physical talents that the other vampires didn’t have. This, I think, is the real key. I firmly believe that we’re all disabled in some way, and that when someone mocks another person, they’re not seeing their own less-visible failings. Reginald, like every other “imperfect” person, has things he’s extraordinarily good at that aren’t always obvious. So without giving too much away, I’ll just say that while Reginald fails at just about every physical endeavor as a vampire, he succeeds — in spades — on the mental side.
In the end, Reginald’s predicament makes for some funny situations — but keep in mind that it’s the situations that are funny, not some idea of Reginald as being pathetic. Haven’t you ever played Pictionary and drawn something hideous or tried to dance and scared onlookers? It’s the same thing. Your failures don’t define you unless you let them, and “laughing with” and “laughing at” has the same fine line no matter what the person in question has fallen short in. True heroes don’t focus on what they can’t do; they focus on what they can do. True heroes see obstacles and walk around them. Yes, Reginald had his limitations. But in other areas, he had no limitations at all. It’s his willingness to find and maximize his strengths that make you want to root for him… while at the same time, you laugh alongside him.
I think this right here is the deeper truth behind the comments I get about Fat Vampire being something readers haven’t seen before. Yes, I’ve shown them a different kind of vampire. But I’ve also crossed horror with humor (the series is both, without question) and, perhaps more importantly, I’ve given them a surprising champion. Anyone who isn’t in on Team Reginald by the end of Fat Vampire is reading it wrong. Nobody expects to see a fat vampire? Well. Nobody expects to see a mockable point flipped on its head and turned into an advantage, either.
You want a twist on a familiar tale? Well then, ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that perfect people are uniquely boring — and that fat is the new thin.
I think the trick to combining anything with humor is to remember that life isn’t black and white — even when we’re talking about undead vampire life. Just about everything I write has some humor in it. Unicorn Western has a ridiculous premise (“what if there were a world where gunslingers rode unicorns?”), but go and look at the reviews on the 9-book “Full Saga” and see if you can find any that just go on and on about how hilarious the series is. Nope. They’ll tell you it’s dramatic, action-packed, and intensely emotional. My novel The Bialy Pimps is more humor than anything else, but people still tell me it made them cry. My science fiction political thriller The Beam is the most serious thing in my catalogue, but there are one or two scenes even in that one that are pretty damn funny.
I think too many writers think that X is X and that it therefore can’t be anything else. But if you carry that thinking too far, you end up with cardboard characters that can be summed up in one sentence. Do you know anyone in real life who is “the studious nerd” and literally nothing else? Do you know any “hookers with hearts of gold” or “stodgy librarians” who are nothing beyond those taglines? That’s what I thought when I was 14 and would run into my teachers at the supermarket. How could they be at the supermarket? They were teachers, not human beings with outside lives! And forget about them sitting around with their friends and joking, drinking and having fun, or (God forbid) having sex. But I eventually got over that narrow-minded perception of people, and I think that fiction should too.
Believable characters have all kinds of sides to them — some of which contradict their other sides because most of us are blind about what makes us tick. The same goes for stories. Real stories don’t remain stolidly fixed in one unchanging mood from beginning to end. Don’t worry about whether a funny moment will ruin the mood of your serious piece. People do funny things, and yet somehow the world still has plenty of tragedy in it. Forcing a story to be serious when characters might not be is doing your readers just as much of a disservice as you would be if you shoved jokes in everywhere that didn’t fit. The trick to finding that balance is to let events unfold however they would in life. It’s not about forcing events in either direction. Good writers are almost bystanders to their story worlds, not gods in the machine. It takes some practice to learn, but the job of a writer is always one thing above all else: to tell the reader what happened.
People have asked me how I could possibly combine horror and humor, but to me, the combination is obvious. Are you seriously suggesting that if it happened in real life, the tale of a fat vampire wouldn’t be 1) occasionally hilarious and 2) really, really bloody? C’mon. All I had to do to hit both genres was to tell the truth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Johnny B. Truant is one half of the publishing company Realm & Sands — which will publish nearly two million words in 2013 — and one third of the Self Publishing Podcast, where he and his co-hosts Sean Platt and David Wright constantly fine-tune the machines that make it possible. To get free books by Johnny, go here.
Check out the entire 6-book Fat Vampire Big Fat Box Set bundle here!