U is for Unearthly
Had he ever been a man once? He had two eyes, burning out of their sunken sockets with a dim and fiery glow. He had the suggestion of a nose, broken badly and then sheared away so long ago that even the scars were clean and smooth. He had half the face of a porcelain prince and half a melted candle; below his left eye, there were cracks that opened wider as they spilled down his cheek into gaps that exposed his teeth and the white stripe of tendon before sealing again at his throat. If he had been a man, a live man, he was dead now. And if he was dead, why should he care if he killed the world? –The Land of the Beautiful Dead
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He had two eyes aimed forward just like hers (except for being too big and for the color, which was a deep red, flecked with gold), under a heavy brow-ridge lined with pebbly scales that became a tight double-row of flexible spines that swept over the top of his skull to about halfway down his neck. His nose and mouth were combined into a dragonish snout, which was broad, lipless, and immovable except at the corners; she could see the point of his thick, rigid tongue when he opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t figure how he was shaping his words at all. Like a parrot, he just spilled out sound, then closed his mouth again and looked at her. It was easy to imagine she saw frustration mounting in those reptilian eyes as she tried to repeat him, and eventually he quit talking at all. –The Last Hour of Gann
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I’ve been talking all month long about worldbuilding with a strong slant towards non-humans because, let’s face it, you probably already have a pretty good grip on the world humans already inhabit, but also because I love non-humans and the market suggests I’m not alone. Paranormal is huge these days, spanning every medium and crossing every genre. But with so many writers dipping their pens in the same ink (that sounds much dirtier than it actually is, I swear), can there be anything new left to say?
Oh yes. See, that’s the thing about the supernatural—by definition, it embodies that infinite space beyond human understanding and expectation, so there’s always more to say.
There aren’t a lot of rules when it comes to writing about aliens or other super-normal beings. The super-normal exists by bending rules, after all. Writing nine novels may not qualify me as an expert, but I’ve read hundreds of others and watched thousands of movies, and there are definite qualities shared by what I think are the “good” ones and other qualities shared by the “bad” ones.
First and foremost, respect the rules. When writing about the Big Three—Zombies, Werewolves and Vampires—be aware that they belong to the collective consciousness; everyone knows what they are and how they behave. It’s incredibly important that you bring something new to the party and make your zombies/werewolves/vampires distinct and memorable. At the same time, if you choose not to follow certain traditional rules, say if your vampires aren’t affected by sunlight, you had better acknowledge the discrepancy because your readers will be wondering. And in doing so, resist the urge to wink at other books. What’s a wink, you ask? Say Twilight annoyed you. Say you decide to write a book with vampires in it. Say your vampires can go out in daylight. Do not have some smartass character ask why he or she doesn’t sparkle. Referencing pop trends can be good for a laugh, but it dates your book like nothing else can. You want readers to pick up your book in ten years and still get the jokes.
Secondly, keep a detailed concordance. If your fey characters possess magic, know what they are, what they require, and what weaknesses may exist. Keep these notes in a visible place while working. I have read so many books where the one-eyed character rolls his eyes, the glowing character hides in the dark, and the non-breathing character sighs.
When it comes to wizards, witches and fairies, beware of giving them too much magic. Truly omnipotent characters aren’t badass, they’re boring. If you can solve all your problems with a wave and a magic word, where’s the suspense? Magic, like all power, is ultimately finite. It should have a source and can burn out if overused.
Third, keep it real. Yes, it’s supernatural, but remember that no matter how alien your world or how magical your characters, realism comes from emotions and flaws rather than extraordinary powers. Your character’s feelings and actions are what the reader falls in love with. And speaking of extraordinary powers, think twice before over-powering your characters. If your vampires are allergic to silver, all of them are allergic to silver, including your vampire hero. If it’s absolutely imperative that a character break the rules, make sure the threats he or she faces remain truly threatening and require heroic sacrifices equal to their superior strength.
When writing about ancient or otherworldly supernormals in the modern age, allow for growth and change appropriate to their situation. A 400-year old vampire who has been living among humans almost certainly has picked up some modern slang, but if your demon has just manifested on Earth for the first time in a thousand years, his speech will be considerably more archaic. Avoid at all costs having a cast of super-normals who all look, talk and act exactly like ordinary humans. If they are all interchangeable with humans except for their powers, this isn’t a paranormal book, it’s a comic book.
Finally, a word of caution. (Haven’t they all been words of caution? Yes, but this is cautionarier.) Introducing a supernatural element to your book also introduces a profound unpredictability. After all, if fairies are real, what else might be real? Then along comes a witch, then a demon, a vampire, a naiad, three or four were-tigers, and before you know it, the entire cast of your 15-book series is made up of super-normals. You’ve lost the human element and made it much, much more difficult to see your characters as outsiders in our world, which was supposed to be the foundation of the series. Remember the lesson The Incredibles taught us: If everyone is special, no one is.