I get asked a lot about what kind of research I’ve done on werewolves. Which is kind of an odd question, because they’re fictional creatures and technically I could make up whatever I want. But there’s a long, vast history of folklore, stories, and pop cultural expectations about the beasts, and I think most people want to know what folkloric sources I’ve used.
The answer is: I haven’t, much. Instead, I’ve turned to wolf biology to help me build a better werewolf.
Wild wolves are territorial, cooperative, individualistic, problem solving creatures. They move in packs, but since individual wolves have a variety of personalities and traits, every wolf pack is going to be a little different depending on what mix of individuals they have. Kind of like groups of people. To me, this is a much more interesting backdrop than the modern pop-cultural perception of werewolves as a metaphor for the beast within fighting to break free and give in to its most base and murderous instincts. Actual wolves are a tad more civilized
One of my favorite books about wolf behavior and research and society’s changing attitudes toward wolves is The Company of Wolves by Peter Steinhart. This is where I encountered the cool hypothesis proposed by some researchers that the alpha of a wolf pack isn’t always the strongest wolf who earned the position by beating the other wolves into submission. In some cases, the alpha is the wolf most talented at leading—delegating tasks, keeping the peace, protecting the young. The wolf most able to keep the members of the pack alive by getting its members to work together. Now, what would that wolf look like in werewolf form? A werewolf more concerned with survival than bloodlust? Cool!
Another useful source I found was the National Geographic Explorer documentary Wolves: A Legend Returns to Yellowstone, which followed the Druid Peak Pack in Yellowstone National Park for a year. When I saw this, I had already started writing Kitty and The Midnight Hour and I knew what the story arc was—my main character, a young woman who is a werewolf, comes into her own and breaks away from her pack to find freedom. Then I watched the documentary, and some of the behaviors in the Druid Peak Pack validated my story in ways that were pretty incredible. This pack had what biologists called a Cinderella Wolf. A young female began to assert herself, to challenge the pack’s great old alpha female (who was probably her mother). The young female was viciously punished for this and driven from the pack. That was my story. Who knew?
The documentary ended there; it only followed the pack for a year. But researchers kept close tabs on the pack, which is probably one of the best documented groups of wild wolves on record. Several years later, the Cinderella female returned with followers of her own and killed the old alpha female, who by this time was too sick and weak to defend herself. The Druid Peak Pack has since split up into other packs, which is natural in the course of wolf lives. How amazing, to have my story validated by real-world wolf behaviors.
I think one of the reasons werewolves haven’t achieved the popularity of vampires in modern genre fiction is because they’ve been trapped in the Lon Chaney Jr., Jekyll and Hyde story for the last hundred years. In very old stories (Marie de France’s Bisclavret, for example), werewolves are heroes, villains, wise guides or tragic figures of pity. Over the last hundred years, though, werewolves have been relegated to pretty much two roles: horrific monster in direct opposition to humanity; or tragic figure who loses control of his inner beast and dies horribly as a result. With only those two models, it’s impossible to write about werewolf heroes. But what I’ve learned from wolf research is there are lots more than one or two kinds of wolves, and I can use that knowledge to make my werewolves different and interesting.
Carrie Vaughn is the bestselling author of a series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty, as well as numerous short stories in various anthologies and magazines. She’s also a contributor to the Wild Cards series edited by George R. R. Martin.