When writing zombie novels, there can be a tendency to concentrate on making the action scenes pop and fizzle with excitement and horror. After all, that’s where all the tension comes from and that’s what people are expecting from such a story. These are also the scenes that people will talk about and debate what they would have done in the same situation.
Yet, there’s another element which, if you don’t get it right, will mean that all the effort you put into your zombie set pieces will go to waste, and this is character development. Why is character development so important? Well, it’s quite simple: if the reader doesn’t care about what happens to the characters, the rest of the story, no matter how thrilling you try to make it, will fall flat. In fact, there’s nothing worse for the reader of a zombie novel than being presented with two-dimensional, stereotypical characters that come across as little more than place-holders in amongst all the action.
Sometimes as a writer, you will spot this for yourself, but often it is easy to overlook the need for character development. This is because, you, as the author, will have spent a lot of time with your characters, and you’ll have got to know them in your own head, what they look like, how they feel, what their hopes and fears are, and so on. Yet, if you don’t actually include the character development elements into your story, there’s no way the reader can do the same.
So how do you develop your characters? I think there’s three elements here. These are character description, character building and character arc. Character description is the descriptive elements which you use to set the scene when a character is first introduced. However, you need to be careful as it’s easy to go overboard and add to much information in the character’s description, which slows the action down. What you are aiming for here is not a detailed description of everything about the character, but rather you are aiming to capture the essence of how they look and act in a few brief sentences. For example: ‘He was a tall man and despite the salt and pepper hair, he still had the bearing of someone used to hard, physical work.’ Immediately, you get the impression of an older man, but one who is likely to be quite tough and the suggestion that he’ll be able to stand up for himself.
You can also use the character description to provide some initial back story which you can build on later. For example: ‘While Mark looked like an old hippy, he’d spent twenty years in the army before finally dropping out of society to live off the land, and this meant be was better prepared than most to deal with it when the world suddenly changed.’ This sets Mark’s character up nicely to be the type of survival expert who would be able to handle a gun, find food, and perhaps become the leader of a group of survivors.
Really, you can think of the character description as the foundation on which the rest of the character development will be based. This makes it all the more important to get it right, and you might find you have to re-write it several times before you get it spot on. Similarly, even though the character description will often come at the start of your book, you might find that you can’t really write it properly until you know exactly how your character is going to develop over time, and that means coming back and editing it in once the rest of your story is written.
Once you have the character description, you can work on the character building. This is where you can let the reader get to know the characters: their background, their hopes and dreams, their flaws and blemishes, and their fears for the future. There’s two main ways to build your characters. One is through conversations between the characters and the other is through their actions.
Conversations will usually take place between the action sequences (or during any lulls there are within them), and you can use them to gradually uncover the deeper elements of your characters to the reader. Effectively, this is where the characters get to reveal their emotions and what’s going on in their heads. You could just describe this in prose, but this tends to slow the flow of the story. Using dialogue instead allows you to get a specific point across while keeping up the pace.
In many ways you can think of these a the ‘cigarette breaks’ of the story, where your characters gather and chat while they take a break from the real work of surviving. If you’ve ever smoked, you’ll know you often learn more about your work colleagues in the length of time it takes to have a cigarette than in all the other times you spend working alongside them put together
Character-building actions are the second way to build your character, and these can take place either as part of conversations, or as part of action sequences. As with the dialogue, they will reveal some important element about a character. This can include positive elements (e.g. volunteering for a difficult or dangerous task and so showing they are brave) or negative elements (e.g. turning and running rather than staying and fighting). Often, it is the actions a character takes under specific circumstances which can make the difference between a character being liked or disliked, and in particular, the way they react to the threat of zombies, or to zombie attacks, can make or break them. Specifically, they need to react in ways that the reader can understand, and even sympathise with. There’s nothing that makes a character more likeable to the reader than when they are left thinking, that’s exactly what I would have done in those circumstances.
The key to character building is to carefully interweave it into your main narrative so that your characters are gradually built up throughout the story. It needs to be done subtly so that the reader is not left feeling that something has clearly been included just to develop a specific facet of a character. However, you also need to have enough of it to make your characters come alive in the mind of your readers.
The final element of character development is the character’s arc. This is how the character changes because of their experiences within the narrative and it’s needed to show that the characters are being affected by the events which they have been through. As such, the arc for each individual character will be influenced by the overall narrative of your story. For example, you might have the meek and timid character who is forced to step up and take control, or the hardened warrior who gradually reveals a softer, more caring side.
The secret here is to make sure that any changes that character undergoes are consistent with both the with the foundations of the character laid down in the initial description and with what is revealed as part of the character building. Of particular relevance to zombie novels is how the characters respond to killing zombies, from their first stuttering blows that leave them on all fours retching at what they’ve been forced to do to survive to becoming a hardened zombie hunter who can smash in the heads of the undead without batting an eyelid.
So these are the essential elements of character development, but when do you start incorporating them into your story? Well, different writers will do this at different points in the writing process, but personally, I find the best approach for zombie and post-apocalyptic novels is to first work out the overall plot and the major action scenes in the first draft, and then go back and work on weaving the various elements of character development during later re-writes. The reason I find this works best is that there are times when I don’t actually know how a character will need to develop until I have the entire plot down on paper. In addition, this allows me to insert the character development sections throughout the story in such a way that it doesn’t slow the pace of the action down too much.
However, this does often mean that in the first few drafts of a novel, I find that I don’t really have any emotional connection with the characters and that I don’t really care what happens to them. When I first started writing, I found this a bit worrying, but now I’ve learned that this is okay, and that once I go back and build up the characters, I’ll start developing the feelings towards them that I need to make the story really reach out and grab the reader by the throat.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.