cliches, Horror Writing

Clichés: Werewolves

We’ve been talking a lot about various clichés recently, horror clichés, fantasy clichés, and cliché male and female characters. Today I wanted to branch out more into the horror genre and talk about a creature that turns up in a lot of horror stories, werewolves.

But before we start, I want to stress that I will be talking about the werewolves that tend to turn up in books. The reason I am making this definition is that there is something I have noticed. In books werewolves tend to appear as actual wolves with a human consciousness inside, the pack dynamic is regularly explored and the mannerisms of actual wolves make up a large part of the characters behaviours and traits. Whereas when they show up in films and video games, they appear more like a cross between man and wolf, they tend to be huge, walk on two legs and are pretty mindless save for a need to kill. There’s rarely a pack dynamic and they are often portrayed as stupid beasts completely separate from their “human side”. There is the odd exception to this, the movie Wolf with Jack Nicholson being the one that comes to mind for me.

Anyway, now that that point is out of the way, let’s roll.

Colours to Show Personality

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Let me start by saying that this isn’t just a werewolf thing. This is used for lots of different animal characters, I discussed it previously when I was talking about feline characters. But I feel it needs to be mentioned again, in a lot of werewolf stories the characters pelt colour will have significance, the main character may be a rare colour as a way to highlight their significance to the reader. Important “good” characters may be white as a way to show how pure/good/noble they are. “Evil” or “Cruel” wolves will generally be dark colours. Although occasionally a writer will turn this idea on its head for effect. I’m not going to go into all the inherent social connotations with this way of designing characters, instead, I’m going to point out that it’s lazy writing.

Making a character a certain colour as a way to denote personality traits is lazy and insults the audience.  Let your audience see your characters personalities by showing them your charters actions. To recite an age-old writing rule, Show doesn’t Tell, do not tell me a charter is good because his fur is a certain colour, show me him being good.

Possessive Alpha Males

This is a personal bugbear of mine. When writers decide they want to introduce pack dynamics into the mix they make the alpha super possessive and protective of his mate and pack. To the point where he’s walking around 100% of the time at a stress level of 1 million. Firstly, he’d get stomach ulcers if that was true, they would rupture and he’d die of sepsis. But more importantly, an Alpha that is a “good” alpha and takes care of his pack both from external threats and internal problems would not realistically be a ball of walking stress 24/7, he’d be a shit alpha if he was. That kind of stress level is not maintainable. A “good” alpha would be the type to be calm under pressure, they may have protective or possessive moments but it wouldn’t be their defining personality trait. Someone running at that stress level all the time is going to crack, make a mistake and get their pack killed.

Again, this is lazy writing, the writer can’t be bothered to give the alpha a personality beyond hyper possessive/protective. Being top dog doesn’t make you an automatic asshole and nor should it. I’m not saying a “bad” alpha can’t be this way but there has to be a reason that it’s not all gone to shit yet, there has to be a reason he’s not got everyone killed yet, there has to be a reason his pack puts up with his asshole tendencies.  Rarely, is this explored, usually if this is addressed at all it will be because he’s the strongest and everyone is afraid. Well, I hate to break it to you but physical strength is not enough to hold a pack of monster wolves under control long term.

I’m conscious that my rage at this may be coming through, so to balance it out I’d like to point out a well written Alpha character, Bran Cornick or Patricia Briggs Mercy Thompson series (also the Alpha and Omega series). Bran is the head werewolf of all the American werewolves, an alpha’s alpha if you will. He does have controlling traits, he is possessive at times, stubborn and a bit of a dick. But that’s not his defining character traits just aspects of his personality that he does control. He is also clever, loving, funny and fallible. He is insanely powerful but again it’s not that power level that keeps him in charge (though it helps) it’s his brain and his heart that keeps him in control. He doesn’t rule through force but rather through trust (though sometimes he does get a bit scary).

Females are all Submissive

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Ok, I’ll get this out of the way, this is sexist bollocks. There now we can move on.

The idea that all females are submissive is again lazy writing, are you picking up on a theme yet? If you’re going to introduce pack dynamics then you need to actually research real wolves. Being a girl does not automatically put wolves at the bottom of the pack.

I’m not saying gender issues cannot be involved in these stories, they can be compelling if done properly, but to be done properly they have to make sense, they have to merge well with the story your telling and they have to be addressed with thought and compassion for your characters.

For example, if you decide to have all female wolves be submissive then you need to have this affect your female charters beyond turning them all into meek little puppies. How does your female character come to terms with this aspect of her personality, bonus points if it conflicts with her human nature e.g., she’s in a high-power career and suddenly finds herself a submissive wolf outside of work. Has this changed her personality from before she was a wolf? How does this affect her interactions with non-wolves? Is she now uber submissive all the time? Or is it just with other wolves? Does she ever want to argue but finds she can’t because of her nature? How does this affect her emotionally?

All of those aspects and more need to be considered. Or you could not bother with this and have your characters ranking be decided on something other than gender, which has been so overdone that it’s beyond boring unless there’s some kind of new spin.

7 thoughts on “Clichés: Werewolves”

        1. I’ve got quite a few lined up. I’ve actually considered giving the protagonist werewolf a black pelt but not because of evilness – it would be to make him instantly recognizable. I’ve also thought about having strong Christian themes, and associating the werewolf with three Deadly Sins – Anger, Gluttony, and Lust.

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