Jul 15 2010 3:30pm

Real World Research or Building a Better Werewolf

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
than that.

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.

This article is part of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Jason Henninger
1. jasonhenninger
I've been researching and working on a werewolf story (I'll skip the details though) and I think you're quite right about the Lon Chaney/Jekyll and Hyde situation.

I'll have to check out the documentary you mentioned. Sounds very cool.
Stefan Jones
2. Stefan Jones
I really like wolves, and the idea of intelligent wolves and canines is intriguing, but the whole human-goes-dingo shapeshifter thing never appealed to me. The whole notion is based on a creaky, medieval view of wolves.

A human becoming an intelligent wolf would essentially mean turning into a somewhat-easier-to-understand-than-usual alien.

I'd be way more terrified of a human that becomes a chimpanzee. Male chimps are badass sumabitches.
Stefan Jones
3. Kit Whitfield
Very interesting!

I think researching biology is a smart way to go; beating tired old tropes to death is never going to produce anything very good. When I was writing my first novel, which had werewolves in it, I researched a fair amount about the history of the werewolf and found the older beliefs about them to be very interesting (and they suited my plot, because it was a detective structure and the Inquisition did have a history of executing 'werewolves', so the judicial aspect was useful) ... but at the same time, one of my first decisions was not to use the word 'werewolf' precisely because it had so many associations attached to it, and the ones that jumped most easily to mind were not very fresh.

On the other hand, I wrote my second novel about mermaids, again not using the word, and I made exactly the same choice you did: I shrugged off the idea of folklore and looked into the nearest mammalian equivalent, which was basically dolphins. And dolphins turned out to be some pretty ruthless creatures, because if you combine a social structure with an environment as unforgiving as the open sea, you don't get a cute animal. That was much more fun to write about.

One of my favourite sayings about art is Ruskin's 'You will never love art well until you love what she mirrors better'. When it comes to fantastical tropes, I always think that the more reality we can inject into them, the more vivid and fantastic they'll actually be. After a certain point, too much folklore at the expense of nature can turn into writing books about books about books, which can produce something pretty thin; a transfusion of reality can be just what a story needs.
Stefan Jones
4. MBG1968
I prefer the idea that you based your werewolves on actual wolf packs. Reading books that don't take Nature/Biology/Zoology into account tends to annoy me and throw me out of the story. (My take is that I should not know more than an author about it, the author should have done at least minimal research IMO.) I'm going to have to read Kitty and the Midnight Hour now.

...One author whose treatment of werewolves I've enjoyed is Terry Pratchett. (They're not heroes of course--except Angua.)

Kit Whitfield, YES! Dolphins are NOT SWEET. They gang rape and use sex in their complex social structure. I detest books that seem to totally gloss over this very obvious natural problem. Dolphins do not equal romance to me.

Mermaids tend to be problematic for me in many novels because fish sex is not human sex and there seems to be no way around that in many writers minds other than to have a magical unconvincing shape-shift maguffin figure into the plot. My brain gets annoyed. I've only found this done well a few times, although I keep looking. I'll have to check out your book as well.

...Two very different authors that I've enjoyed in their treatment of mermaids is Vonda N. McIntyre's "The Moon and the Sun" and Mercedes Lackey in "Fortune's Fool".
Carolanne Giampietro
5. songwolf
Read KITTY AND THE MIDNIGHT HOUR Found your tratment of the wolfpack excellent! I've spent years working with both dogs and wolves and I've got to say you have definitly built a much better werewolf!Looking forward to reading more of your work.
Gabriele Campbell
6. G-Campbell
There's a lovely retelling of the Bisclavret story by Gillian Bradshaw: The Wolf Hunt (or, The Wolf Within, depending on the edition).
Tracy Penner
7. shanarah
I've read this series up to the current book, and I agree with the above posters. You did an excellent job of research and it shows through in your stories.
Thanks for giving a fresh yet much needed structure to the werewolf stereotype.
Stefan Jones
8. SomeDude
For anyone who's interested in this sort of story, I recommend taking a look at pretty much anything in Whitewolf's Werewolf: The Apocalypse or Werewolf: The Forsaken RPG lines. There is a really rich lore associated with the werewolfs in these games and even if you're not interested in playing, the source books and novels are great reads.
Alex Brown
9. AlexBrown
I'm still convinced werewolves are actually aliens.
Birgit F
10. birgit
Aren't sea cows the model for mermaids?

In Alice Borchardt's series The Silver Wolf - Night of the Wolf - The Wolf King there is a werewolf who is originally a wolf and learns to live in the human world. The second book focuses on his story.
Stefan Jones
11. Kit Whitfield
Seconding the Gillian Bradshaw recommendation; she's really excellent.

MBG1968 - yeah, sex is a difficult issue when you're describing any kind of non-human body. With mermaids I went for a kind of compromise between human and fish anatomy (among other things, external genitals seem unlikely on mermaids: if you live in the water, you need to be streamlined) that meant mermaid sex and human sex are different, but with enough overlap that the two can have a kind of semi-sex if they're curious enough to try it. To be discreet, I'll just say that you'd expect mermaids and humans to have more similar hands than genitals. But I didn't see a way to make it romantic; too cold in the water, for one thing!

Though I didn't make much of it, sex between werewolves is another issue, of course. Humans are unusual in having recreational sex, but canines tend to have mock-sex to express dominance or anxiety, so you could probably do something interesting with that if you were prepared to go to uncomfortable places...
Stefan Jones
12. Kit Whitfield
Aren't sea cows the model for mermaids?

I'm sceptical of the idea that anything is a literal model. Half-human-half-animal seems to be an archetype that crops up in all sorts of places. I'd put mermaids in the same category as the sphinx or the centaur: no one ever mistook a lion or a horse for a human, we just tend to like stories that involve a human head on an animal body.

Could be wrong, of course, but there are enough equivalent chimera that I have my doubts about the idea that there's any specific model. I think we simply have a tendency to put a human face on the natural world.
Wesley Parish
13. Aladdin_Sane
Ouch! Cinderella wolves! I hadn't come across that expression when I first decided to do some research into actual predator behaviour way back when ...

I decided that crocuta crocuta as the basis for a therianthrope was rather more ... ummm ... sexy than canis lupus if only for the fact that wolvish therianthropoids always evoke werewolves and that is one big heap of doggy-doo I am quite content to leave well enough alone.

Besides, in my subcreated world, the therianthropes were specifically bred (Genetically Engineered and Modified Humans) to cull the natural humans who were getting out of hand in rather the same way that Ea, Inanna, etc, decided to cull their particular humans in The Epic of Gilgamesh ... and crocuta crocuta has the dentition to do the most thorough job of the lot. (Read Jane Goodall's Innocent Killers if Hans Kruuk's Spotted Hyena's too much like hard work.)

Besides, I could also write a way better matriarchy than Joanna Russ that way - crocuta crocuta is the only hard-core matriarchial species in mammalia to the best of my knowledge, and that's because the female is larger than the male, and just as savage ...

Of course, I also felt I needed to do as thorough a research job on homonins, and I did the best I could.

Oh well, with Cinderella wolves prowling around my head, I won't have to worry too much about justifying Vheratsho's viciousness to her mother Shinakhren and her subsequent annexation of the North Vineyards, administered by her father Farearr in trust for the Lakhabrech villages as their diplomatic and economic resource for trade with the City - she always thought her mother weak ...
Wesley Parish
14. Aladdin_Sane
Oh yes, if you're interested in the folkloric side of werewolves (theranthropus lupus), there's always Sabine Baring-Gould's The Book of Were-Wolves.
Joseph Blaidd
15. SteelBlaidd
For another angle on Practical werewolfing Patricia Briggs and her husband heve done a wonderful examination of how one would actualy make Sillver Bullets

She also does some interesting examination of the interaction of human societal norms with wolf norms in a Pack.
Stefan Jones
16. gorbag
Also good for laughs is what the werewolf, in wolven form, does to mark the page of the book he's just been reading.

Lou Chaney Jr.,'s far too serious to admit to doing that sort of thing, particularly when discussing matters with the local librarians. It's that old New England reserve ...

But in the meantime, have some fun with were-chihuahuas, were-cocker spaniels, and - heaven forfend - were-King Charles spaniels ...
Stefan Jones
18. mark hawkins
i have video of werewolf iner acting with big foot

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