Vamps with a pulse and why/how writers make world building decisions

After finishing reading my first book,Once Bitten, a non-writing friend struck up a conversation about the book and during the course of it asked why, if my vampires didn’t 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 that I most likely could never fully explain it in the book without copping out and having a character lecture (not going to happen). After the fact, I thought it would make a really great blog topic because it gives a lot of insight into how my logic flows as I’m world building. (And yes, the post title is a little deceptive because I can’t actually promise to reveal how all writers make world building decisions, just how I do.)

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 be occurring.

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 as 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 down, 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 do reveal in the story as Kita (my 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.

Have a great Thursday everyone!

**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.

7 Responses to “Vamps with a pulse and why/how writers make world building decisions”

  1. 1 sue
    February 5, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    Fascinating!! Now I’ll have to buy one of your books.

  2. February 6, 2010 at 12:15 am

    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. 3 Ginger
    February 6, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Very interesting to read. I’m always fascinated by the why and how of the way writers’ fantasy creatures work.

  4. February 12, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    I am so glad that you shared this… I always wonder if I’m a bit off for overthinking the details of things (processes, histories, whatever) but I see now that I probably am not. (BTW, I actually do have training in anatomy and physiology, and your reasoning seems sound to me!)

  5. 5 Alan Waldrop
    July 12, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    I wrote an email to you asking this very same question not knowing you had answered my very question on this website. Your answer makes sense and Karen Chase wrote her Night Huntress series with vamps with heartbeats as well (seemingly for the same main reason… a heartbeat is more romantic and a racing heartbeat most definitely someone is “headed down the homestretch”. I also can now see how sticking to the more common folklore would limit your writing.
    Thanks for the email response you sent me not just because it was the cool thing to do but also because I hadn’t discovered your upcoming release of Grave Witch (I have it pre-ordered for my Kindle!)

  6. November 12, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Great post. First of all, it was an amazing description of how the body works, and I loved seeing your method and ideas behind your rules. I write secret warriors and demons, but I have vampires in the background as villains. I’ve put a lot of thought into what rules I want, and I’ve used some of the commonly accepted ones and some that I’ve made up myself. I haven’t had to explain too much as of yet because the vampires are just in the background for now. I have two more books to write in the series before I reach the vampire villain’s tale, at which point I’ll have to have my rules written in stone. Thia was a fascinating post. Thanks so much.

  7. 7 Cat57
    December 10, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    Funny! I’m a nurse practitioner and read this answer just for fun. Usually I just go with the author in world building. This is a very accurate analogy to human biology and well thought out. Now I have to go buy the rest of your books! I started with Grave Witch and love it.

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