On worldbuilding–Vamps with a pulse


Hey gang, I am once again at an event this weekend so my availability is questionable. That said, if you are in the Columbia area, you should  come check out the writer’s track at RoundCon. It is a small regional con, but it boasts a nice cross section of guests including Stuart Jaffe and recent MW guest John Hartness. In the meantime, I’m thought I’d share an article I wrote a couple years ago that demonstrates how worldbuilding can evolve from simple logic questions. I hope you enjoy this peek behind the scenes.

After finishing my first book, Once Bitten (Book one in the Novels of Haven), a non-writing friend struck up a conversation about the book and during the course of it asked why, if my vampires didn’t need to breathe, did they have a pulse? I state in the book that a vampire’s lungs are vestigial, but it is also mentioned that their hearts still beat. She was curious if there was vampire lore to support those facts, or if it was just a suspension of belief kind of thing. I think I probably overwhelmed her with my answer, but I thought it was a really great question because the issue was wrapped in so much world building.

Before I go into how I ended up with non-breathing vamps with pulses, let’s take a brief look at how the body works:
Normally the heart pumps blood through the body to nourish cells. At the lungs, the blood is infused with oxygen, which attaches to the iron in the blood and is distributed through the body. Nutrients are picked up in the intestines. Cells use the oxygen and nutrients and add carbon dioxide and waste to the blood. The carbon dioxide is released in the lungs and the waste is filtered in the kidneys. The heart is a giant muscle that creates enough pressure to push the blood through these various locations so that all of the above occurs in a continuous cycle. (That’s a simplistic explanation, but go with me.)

In classic vampire lore, piercing or removing the heart was often considered the only way to kill a vampire permanently. I decided to interpret this as the heart being important and in use. After all, why would the destruction of the heart kill the vampire if the heart wasn’t doing anything? (Yes, other writers have come up with their own lore to explain that. This one is mine, and I decided the heart should function.) So, knowing my vamps had beating hearts, I had to decide what other body functions would still occur.

I knew I didn’t want my vamps to have to breathe because many places a vampire can ensure is light-proof would have very limited oxygen supplies. Plus, the main purpose of the lungs is infusing oxygen in the blood. If my vamps are unaging, their cells do not go through the same cycles and do not need oxygen. But, I also realized my vamps would need the ability to draw breath if they wanted because speech is dependent on vibrations as air passes the vocal cords. Also, without breathing, my characters couldn’t smell anything. So, I decided that during the change, the lungs would become vestigial. They serve no overall purpose in the body, they are just sacks to store air so the vamp can speak. (This means a vamp would give great CPR because their lungs are full of oxygen since they don’t convert it to carbon dioxide. LOL)

Okay, so the lungs don’t do much. Back to that beating heart. Why is it beating?

My vamps can’t consume food, so most of their digestive track has been altered and rendered useless. But they do drink blood and they need that blood to survive. A starving vamps basically deflates and becomes sicklier and sicklier looking. The blood they drink nourishes and gives power to the body. What better way to move this blood around the body than with an organ that is one strong muscle and already does this anyway?

With that decision, I realized that most major vessels needed to be rerouted to the stomach. In the stomach, the blood that is consumed is absorbed into the vampire’s system. The heart then pumps this empowering blood around the body. Because the vampire is not aging, not dying, there is no reason to filter waste or carbon dioxide out of the blood, so the heart just keeps pumping the blood through the body, allowing it to be used as needed. As the blood is used, the amount pumping through the body is reduced and the ‘need’, the ‘hunger’, for more will begin. If the vampire doesn’t feed, the reduced amount of blood will cause the veins and vessels to shrink, some veins may be temporarily shut down, allowing the vamp to conserve the life giving blood for the most important parts of the body. This causes the sallow, sickly look of a starving vamp and a persistent chill in the body.

The decision to have a pulse and circulating blood further helped my world building because I wanted the exchange of blood to be important. If the blood isn’t pumping, it’s much harder to bleed. Also, my vamps are sexy, and in my opinion, warm bodies with a pulse are sexier than cold ones without.

And that is the basic logic of how I ended up with vampires with a pulse. There are further complications to my vamps’ systems, but those I reveal in the story as Kita (the main character) learns them, so I won’t share here. I hope you found this to be an entertaining ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at my world building process.


**Please note that I have neither a degree in biology nor physiology, so all of this is based on my understanding and a simplification of how body functions work.


8 comments to On worldbuilding–Vamps with a pulse

  • I hope you guys are having a ball at RC. It’s such a fun con! I’d much rather be there then here in the lab, working away.

    I love this explanation of the hows and whys of your vamps’ physiology. Yours is different from mine, but I like!

  • SkipaChip

    Questions like this drive me crazy. If someone asked me if there was any lore to support “facts” about vampires my answer would not have been as nice. Vampires aren’t real. There are no facts. And thank goodness! Because that means We don’t have to follow any rules when we write about them. Writers create their own worlds with their own “facts”. As long as those facts stay the same within the story, why not just sit back and enjoy the show?

    Yet some people will argue about it. They’ll insist that vampires can Never walk in the sun or eat solid foods or have children or a heart beat. And they’ll quote another author’s work as the basis for their arguement. Huh? Why is that?

  • Great post, Kalayna! Too many people overlook the physiological when worldbuilding. Whether it is vamps or dragons, gryphons or aliens, worlds or floating cities, there has to be a basis in logic and consistency that makes sense.
    And, completely off topic: Psst! Misty! WAR EAGLE! 🙂

  • Razziecat

    Skip, I think most people get their “facts” about vampires from the “everybody knows…” body of knowledge. I think that generally means “Dracula” and old Hollywood movies. There are old folk stories about vampires and other nasty critters, some of which have little in common with Hollywood-style vamps. I once wrote a vampire short story in response to a workshop challenge, and took great pleasure in ignoring everything “traditional” about vampires except the need for blood and the extended lives. 😉

  • Lady Ash

    The idea of vampires with pulses is interesting, I’ve never really thought about how it is that a creature which drinks blood and yet has no circulation or digestive tract manages to get anything out of the ingestion. So obvious it is essentially invisible. Huh. I’ve been working with a zombie hybrid in one of the stories I’ve written, it’s been a convoluted thought exercise. She’s been fun though. Hopefully you will all get to read about her one day.

  • And, completely off topic: Psst! Misty! WAR EAGLE! 🙂

    *laughs* WAR EAGLE!!

  • TwilightHero

    I love questions like this. One of the most important rules of world-building: must – explain – everything.

    Well, I guess you could let some of the little things slide. But though I’m not that big a fan, the original Star Trek series is always lurking at the back of my mind. Back in the sixties when it was gaining popularity, a lot of the fan mail came from genuinely intelligent(Read geeky. Just kidding =P) people with scientific backgrounds who wanted explanations on just how technology on the show worked. The writers then had to come up with equally intelligent replies.

    So I can’t help thinking, hmmm. If someone should come up to me one day and go, I read your book and I was wondering, how/why does (insert query here), what would be my response?

    This usually leads to detailed analyses of everything from the finer details of my magic system to a given character’s emotional state in the middle of a fight scene…

  • I’ve got to give a nod to the value of lore in world building – I think its fine to depart from the lore, but it’s not a good idea to ignore it all together. Vampires like Kaylana’s work because she thought through the rationales for why her vamps are the way they are and in the process her vampires come off as real people that exist in a world full of mythology about them, rather than disconnected constructs. Doing that gives writers space to build a plausible departure from the stereotype that already exists in people’s heads. To give a negative example, C.S. Lewis’ Mr. Tumnus just doesn’t quite work. Even as a very sheltered child I felt utterly creeped out by the image of a kid being led off into the woods by a faun. Meet a talking rabbit in the woods? Sure, it’s probably friendly. A SATYR? Oh dear lord no. Making him utterly asexual, cute, hobbit-like and at worst a conscience stricken collaborator, just never worked that well. If Lewis was going to overturn the mythical history of fauns he should have made a nod to it that explained why it was wrong, or why Tumnus was an aberration, or something. When we use something that has a known source, that shared cultural knowledge is going to affect our readers’ responses and expectations for the creature, so we have to address it somehow or risk having our creatures come off as mistakes, rather than innovations.