In my previous post I aired some grievances I had with the zombie genre. Now I’ve got some proposals on how to fix it.
1. Break the Mold
Three characters that pop up in just about every zombie story: The military guy, the sociopath, and the bad guy. Do not reuse these tried flat characters. Let me give you an example.
The military guy hangs onto the old version of order even when it’s obvious the world has moved on. He’ll track a single offender across the country, execute lower ranking soldiers, and somehow find a way to keep his attire still in regulation. Would this guy really exist? Possibly, people have been known to snap and soldiers aren’t exempt from psychosis but this guy somehow finds abundant resources to continue his crazed vendettas while everyone else is fighting over scraps.
How do you fix this?
PTSD and other stress related psychosis don’t usually cause a soldier to turn Rambo. Isolation, agoraphobia, and depression are the most common symptoms. Having the military guy, even a leader, slowly withdraw or simply disappear when the time he is needed the most would have a much greater impact than just another cardboard cutout with a Napoleon complex.
The sociopath manages to work his way into the group even though it’s obvious he’s not quite right. Safety in numbers, they’ll claim. One more person to fight when the horde is at the door! I could forgive that, but the sociopath somehow finds himself in charge of things. He held political office before things went bad or maybe he owns the house. Something keeps him attached to a position of power. When done right this could actually work but I’ve yet to see it.
How do you fix this?
Movies and TV have shown us that a sociopath is charming, deceptive, and deadly. The real world shows us that a sociopath simply lacks empathy for other people and has trouble understanding emotional responses. Even if you go for a more fictional take on them, their actions are practiced and calculated according to society as they see it. With the collapse of infrastructure and the model of the world they understood their carefully established veneer shatters.
The Bad Guy runs a group of bandit raiders. He terrorizes the country side and makes life hard for everyone around but attracts people due to his resources and apparent safety. Sounds workable, right? Oh, forgot to mention he’s also a former biker, ex-con, drug dealer, pimp, and sadist. Why would someone who leads a band of raiders have a complex backstory? He’s just the bad guy who the main character will eventually overcome. Once he’s dead everything will be fine, it’s not like he has a second in command or followers who think for themselves.
How do you fix this?
In troubled times people do a lot of things they usually wouldn’t. Instead of a ‘bad guy’ just going wild, what about someone who was ‘normal’ before turning bad? Picture a father, a husband, just trying to make sure his family is safe and fed. In a disaster situation there are hundreds of others after the exact thing. What would he do to make sure his family ate that night?
2. Obey the Rules
I’m not talking about Zombieland. The rules you have made for the story need to be respected. If your zombies are created from rays from space altering the radiation over polluted areas then stick to it. By this logic a severed hand cannot act of its own will, putting one in is just lazy. Your rules are the ones you’ve made. If you aren’t willing to pay attention to them then why would your audience?
Say you’ve got a world ravaged by demonically possessed people turned zombie. These possessed people, while dead, retain their demonic intelligence and some of their human memories. Now, in this situation where the zombies are tool using including weapons, organized, and can even lay traps, a little boy hiding in an attic with a window outside wouldn’t last longer than a day after they saw him. Ladder plus the side of the house equals one dead kid. Maybe you’re using the kid as a ploy for the main character to leave his protected bunker and travel across the country? Fine, but the emotional impact of finding the kid possessed and waiting for him as a trap would be so much more than eighty pages later when the kid dies anyway. I’m looking at you Brian Keene.
3. Identify the Threat
Classic shamblers aren’t much of a problem except in large numbers while the newer fast zombies can rip through a city in a weekend.
Dealing in a worldwide situation with zero containment shamblers could be handled with some organization. What about an isolated incident? What if containment was the best way to handle things? What if, taking a page from The Crazies, the only way to stop the spread was to not let anyone escape? Now we’ve got a story where survival is still the main goal but the zombies are only part of the issue.
Faster zombies come intact an innate urgency that can cover some missteps in plot and character. Their frantic pace pushes moments of introspection to the background. Characters need to be active in some way to fit in with the story. Having a guy just watching the world burn is a waste of resources.
End Part 2