Why Writers Should Read “Dracula”

With Hallowe’en on the horizon and supernatural romance still popular in both romance and young adult fiction sections, perhaps it’s time to assess the original vampire love story, “Dracula”, originally published in 1897.

It’s fair to say it wouldn’t get published today. Bram Stoker was not naturally gifted as a writer. He didn’t draw on his experience as a theatrical agent and translate the demands of producing a drama with credible characters, tension, a well-placed plot and a satisfying conclusion into his writing.  Instead he wrote a story that starts in the wrong place, distances the readers from the action, suffers from poor characterisation, has awkward pacing, a stilted use of
language (even by Victorian standards) and an unconventional story straitjacketed into upholding conventional morals.

A contemporary writing workshop would identify that the story starts in the wrong place. Bram Stoker started by introducing his characters but there’s no dramatic tension, no problem for his heroes solve, just Lucy and Mina comparing suitors, showing contrasting personalities and approaches to love. But the action really starts with Dracula’s first visit to Lucy. When readers start a story, they need a reason to continue. Characters’ backgrounds should stay in the background. You as a writer need to know your characters’ back stories but your reader only needs to know how they react to what happens to them.

Bram Stoker relies heavily on letters and journal entries throughout. The primary problem with this approach is that one character passively reading a letter from another character is actually very boring to read. The reader is getting a report of the action, not plunged straight into the action. Readers don’t want to read Jonathan Harker’s journal, but want to be there at the castle, hearing the night creatures’ “sweet music” and chilled by the funerary ambience.

The secondary problem is that the letters and journals are used as information dumps, The readers rarely see another character react, other than to understand where the plot is heading next. No letter is purloined or read by a character is it not intended for.  And all characters react predictably, which is the next problem.

Characters need to stay in character to give a story credibility, but characters, like people can behave unpredictably. The best-drawn character in “Dracula” is Mina. She moves from being the responsible, steadfast friend to recklessly travelling across Europe to rescue the man she loves. The other characters don’t develop to the same extent. Lucy’s suitors become tracks, keeping the plot on course. A novel has a problem when minor characters become more interesting than some of the main characters as it suggests the story is not being told by the right people.

Van Helsing is a useful source of vampire lore, but never really comes to life. One of the problems “Dracula” has is that a balance has to be struck in giving the readers sufficient background information on vampires so they can follow the plot without holding up the plot. Bram Stoker has three ways of doing this, through Van Helsing, through Jonathan Harker and through Renfield. Renfield is problematic as he is an unreliable witness so readers are unlikely to attach credibility to what he is telling them. Jonathan Harker records what he sees when he visits Dracula’s castle. However, Dracula seeks to conceal his true nature and Jonathan, needing to get the job done to earn his promotion so he can afford to marry Mina, has every incentive to accept Dracula’s explanation at face value and to turn a blind eye. That leaves Van Helsing. But limiting the back story and background information to one character makes for a very uneven plot as there’s a stop start rhythm of action followed by information dumps. Ideally Renfield would be more reliable and Mina would turn researcher and become another source of information. Bram Stoker doesn’t get the balance right.

Yet the story of “Dracula” transcends the telling. At its core it’s both a love story and a thriller. It’s also a good book for writers to read.

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Blog postings are likely to become erratic for the next few weeks. Sometimes life gets in the way and my seriously ill husband, naturally, gets priority.

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