Vampires go in and out of fashion in literature, but, like the creatures themselves, the trope never quite dies. These children of the night have turned up in stories from pretty much every culture, at every point in history, and often represent whatever the society in question is currently preoccupied by. Some of the earlier vampire stories used the vampire as a terrifying villain as a way to reinforce conservative or reactionary fears — sometimes xenophobia, sometimes anxiety over women’s sexuality, sometimes antisemitism, sometimes a rejection of queerness. Later vampire tales have turned the vampire figure on its head, making the best vampires in books more complex villains or even heroes, and using them to tell stories about being an outsider or breaking social norms.
With the plethora of vampire stories that have emerged over the centuries, it’s not surprising that there are many famous and beloved vampiric literary figures. Dracula is neck-and-neck (pun intended) with Sherlock Holmes as far as retellings and adaptations are concerned. Blade has been the star not only of comics but of films, as well as having a cameo in What We Do in the Shadows. Lestat and other members of Anne Rice’s vampire universe have been popular for decades. But there are many brilliant vampire characters who don’t always make it into the limelight. Here are some of the best vampire characters in books, from the past and the present.
Carmilla, from Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu
While not as well known as Dracula, Carmilla has received a good amount of recognition as one of the early literary vampires, and for good reason. Following a dramatic carriage accident, Carmilla arrives at the house of the story’s heroine, Laura, and her father. Laura soon becomes fascinated with Carmilla, whom she recognises from a strange dream she had when she was a child. The two teenage girls become very close, with strong sapphic undertones to their relationship — however, Laura finds out that Carmilla is a centuries-old vampire who has recently killed another teenage girl, a family friend. There are some definite problematic aspects to the story Carmilla, particularly its portrayal of sapphic relationships as damaging and predatory, but many readings and interpretations have embraced Carmilla’s queerness and portrayed her as a figure standing against patriarchy and heteronormativity.
Shori from Fledgling by Octavia Butler
Fledgling is one of my favourite Octavia Butler books, largely because of its new and interesting take on vampires. The story focuses on Shori, who looks like a 10-year-old girl, but who is actually a vampire in her 50s. Not only that, but she’s a new generation of vampire, able to be awake during the day and stand the sunlight — something that makes her powerful, and also, according to other vampire families, makes her dangerous. Shori’s story sometimes makes for uncomfortable reading; to live, vampires build sexually-coded relationships with symbiont humans, which is jarring when you remember the age that Shori appears to be. However, it’s a brilliant and multi-levelled story, looking at racism, social structures, and polyamorous relationships, and is a tale that every Butler and vampire fan should read.
Otto Von Chriek from The Truth by Terry Pratchett
The Discworld books are full of fantastic and memorable figures, from the main players to the smallest side characters, but one of my favourite occasional Discworld people is Otto Von Chriek. First appearing in The Truth, Otto follows in the footsteps of several Discworld vampires: he is a “Black Ribboner”, a teetotal vampire who abstains from blood. Like all other non-blood-drinking vampires, Otto has channelled his thirst into a different, non-murderous focus — in his case, photography, which has the unfortunate side effect of causing him to crumble into dust whenever the flash goes off. Otto is a goofy, over-the-top figure, but underneath the cartoonish facade, we occasionally get glimpses of the incredibly powerful and dangerous vampire he used to be, and learn that he deliberately “makes zem laff” in order to avoid scaring the humans he has chosen to live alongside.
Quincey from Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Following in the footsteps of her namesake from Dracula, Quincey is a Texan girl who gets into an unexpected battle with vampires — but unlike the original Quincey, she ends up becoming a vampire herself. However, this no-nonsense teenager, who has been running her family’s restaurant since the death of her parents as well as befriending local werewolves, doesn’t let her new vampire status change her or her morals. Like Otto, Quincey is a vampire who’s sworn off human blood, and who, in her case, is determined to keep her soul intact. Quincey’s story is not only a fun vampire romance, it’s also an interesting allegory about grooming and family complicity in abuse, and about moving forward with the help of your chosen family.
The library vampire in Like a Charm by Elle McNicoll
Not every great vampire character in fiction is a main player. Only appearing for one scene, the vampire librarian in Elle McNicoll’s Like a Charm is a great background character, helping build up the hidden magical world that exists just out of sight in Edinburgh. Once again, I love the idea of a vampire doing an ordinary job, and taking steps to blend in with humans.
The Radleys from The Radleys by Matt Haig
And speaking of vampires trying to blend in with humans, this is the crux of the central family from Matt Haig’s vampire novel The Radleys. In this dark comedy, the Radley family are vampires who are doing their best to live like normal humans, but who ultimately find that they can’t suppress their vampire natures forever. I’m particularly fond of Clara, the teenage Radley daughter, who’s desperate for animals to like her — but sadly, animals picked up on her vampire nature long before she did, and have always run scared whenever she tried to go near them.
Jayna from Trust Me by Malorie Blackman
Jayna is the heroine of Noughts and Crosses author Malorie Blackman’s standalone vampire novel, Trust Me, a tale of first love and the realisation that first relationships might not be meant to last forever. Jayna is happy to go on holiday with her boyfriend, Andrew, not only because it’s their first time away together, but because it gives them a break from Andrew’s racist mother, who has never approved of their relationship. After impulsively joining a wild party held by a mysterious man, Andrew is transformed into a vampire, and soon turns Jayna — but their new immortal life isn’t the happily ever after that Jayna hoped it would be. A twist on the paranormal romance genre, Jayna’s story is a sharp exploration of the downside of being immortalised when you’re still a teen.
The vampires from Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire, edited by Nicole Givens Kurtz
This anthology of short stories is full of brilliant vampire characters, all created by different authors drawing inspiration from the African diaspora, so I can’t pick just one! Whether it’s taking a deep look at the dynamics of a matriarchal vampire family, telling the tales of African gods, or exploring what it’s like to be a father and a vampire hunter, you’re bound to find some new favourite vampire characters in Slay.
Special mention: Lord Ruthven from The Return of Lord Ruthven by Alexandre Dumas
I’ve read my share of Dumas’ work (The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my long-term favourites), but I didn’t realise that in addition to his OCs, Alexandre was a bit of a fanfic writer. A sequel to Polidori’s The Vampyre, this story follows Lord Ruthven as he has a showdown with a female ghoul whose powers rival, and maybe even surpass, his own.
If you want some vampire stories with real bite, try our list of 10 of the Scariest Vampire Books. Interested in how the vampire myth came about in the first place? Have a look at A Brief History of Vampires and Werewolves in Ireland and the United Kingdom (and Some of Europe).