In a good zombie apocalypse novel, the reader should never be left feeling that any character is completely safe. After all, in a zombie-filled world, the threat is ever-present and attacks can happen at any moment, and this means that anyone could end up dead at any time. Indeed, it’s often the feeling of not knowing who will survive until the end of the story, and who won’t, that gives a zombie apocalypse story suspense and keeps the reader turning the pages when they should be doing other things, like getting up and going to work.
However, handling exactly how characters die can be a difficult balancing act. Death and destruction cannot be arbitary, and you cannot simply kill off a character, especially if it is one of the main ones, completely out of the blue. This is because readers have some level of expectation as to how a story will go, and you cannot build a character up and then have them die without some hint that this might happen.
On the other hand, you also cannot end up with a ‘men in red’ situation. This term comes from the original Star Trek series, where if you ever saw an unnamed character dressed in a red top, you could be pretty sure they’d die before then end of any particular scene they featured in. This means that you have to avoid having characters where it’s clear that the only reason they’re being introduced is to act as cannon fodder (or maybe, in this context, that should be zombie chow!).
So, how do you get the death of characters exactly right? Well, there’s no firm rules on this and it will depend on your exact situation, but the following guidelines are likely to help.
1. Characters that die can’t always be minor ones: Most zombie novels have a core set of characters which the story revolves around, and often when authors are looking around for someone to die, they will reach not for one of these characters, but a more minor one. However, if it’s always minor characters that die, this will get repetitive and you will lose the element of suspense because it will quickly become clear that the main characters aren’t really under threat. Instead, you should always aim to kill off at least one of the main characters at some point within your story. This will give the reader that ‘oh my god, no!’ type of moment which helps keep them on the edge of their seat. It also leaves them wondering whether any other main characters might die, too, and it can act as turning points within the overall story arc, signifying that it will change direction from what has come before.
2. Don’t kill too many main characters: Once you accept that you have to kill off a main character, there can sometimes be a tendency to go too far in the other direction and turn the whole thing into a blood-bath with a never-ending chain of people being introduced and then killed off. Killing off a main character only really works if it is unexpected and beyond what the readers were anticipating. This means killing too many of them off will quickly become predictable. There’s nothing worse than reading a book and thinking, ‘oh here’s another character – they’ll be dead in twenty pages, just like everyone else.’ So, the killing off of main characters is something which must be used sparingly.
3. Don’t kill off any of the main characters too soon: If you are going to kill of a main character or two, or even three, you can’t do it too early in the novel. The reader will invest in the main characters and they will feel cheated if they’ve spent the whole first chapter getting to know a character only for them to die at the end of it. This leaves the reader feeling like they have wasted their time and that they are effectively having to start the book again when they get to chapter two. This is a great way to alienate them and they are just as likely to give up as carry on reading.
4. Main character deaths can neither be completely unexpected or completely predictable: Killing off a main character is a difficult thing to handle properly. It cannot come completely out of the blue, so that one moment they’re there, the next they are dead. However, it also can’t be completely predictable either (think about all those old movie clichés: the cop who’s one day away from retirement, the soldier showing off a picture of his girlfriend and kids back home before going into battle and so on). This means that you have to work up to the death of any main character, building suspense and anticipation as the reader tries to work out exactly what’s going to happen or who it’s going to happen to. Often this involves a series of seemingly unimportant decisions or actions which, with hindsight, the reader can look back on and think ‘if only they hadn’t don’t that, they’d have lived rather than died.’ This can be something as simple as forgetting a weapon, wasting bullets when they should have been conserving them or having to go after someone who has stormed off in a huff. Basically, think of The Butterfly Effect here and focus here on small, insignificant actions which have big, unexpected, but logically consistent, consequences later on.
5. Main character deaths have to be memorable and unique: There are lots of ways to end up dead in a zombie story, and many of the have been so over-used that they’ve become clichés. These should be avoided wherever possible, and when it comes to any of the main characters, their manner of death has to be both memorable and unique. This means you have to put a lot of thought into exactly how it’s going to happen. However, don’t confuse memorable with gratuitous. A character death needs to pull at the emotions, and no just turn the reader’s stomach with graphic descriptions of blood and gore. This usually means the death cannot be quick as there needs to be time for the other characters to see what’s happening and have time to react to it, or try to do something to save them. It’s also often useful to put the characters in a position where they have to make a choice of some kind which could lead to the death of either themselves or another character. For example, they might choose to close a door to keep most their group safe while leaving a straggler outside to be killed by a pursuing horde of undead. Similarly, one character might decide to throw themselves onto a zombie to save another character from being attacked, only to end up being bitten leading to a slow lingering death and feelings of guilt in the person they saved. These are the types of actions which make the reader stop and think about what they’d have done if they were in the same situation.
6. In real life, the good guys don’t always win: Zombie books need to feel realistic. This means that just like real life, the good guys can’t always win, and just because you like a character, that doesn’t mean they should necessarily make it through the story unscathed. In fact, some of the best twists in zombie novels come about when one of the good guys ends up dead just at the crucial point where the reader might have expected them to survive. While it’s widely used, the simple revelation that someone has been bitten by a zombie, and so is doomed, just when you think they’ve survived a dangerous, and possibly deadly, situation, is a great plot device. However, because it has been widely used in the past, it has to be handled carefully to make sure it doesn’t slip towards becoming a cliché.
7. Unlike real life, the bad guys should always get it in the end: Zombie novels need goodies and baddies, and while the unanticipated death of a good character can really add to the story, if a bad buy doesn’t get his comeuppance, then the reader can be left feeling cheated. This is because the reader expects the dichotomy between good and bad to be resolved, with the bad being punished, even if the good don’t necessarily win.
Of course, these guidelines are simply hints to help you understand what the reader might be expecting, and how you can play with these expectations to build the required suspense and anticipation to keep them reading. You can break one or two of them, or even all of them, within you own writing, but if you do, you need to think about it really carefully and make sure that you handle it appropriately. Yes, it’s different to kill off three characters that the reader was expecting to be able to follow through a whole book on page four, but there are good reasons why you haven’t read novel where that happens before, and that is because it will put many readers (and, indeed, agents and publishers!) off. Similarly, having the bad guy walk away unharmed while all the good guys die at the end may seem edgy and new, but it will leave the reader feeling that they’ve been cheated out of the ending they were anticipating.
Really the key take home message here is that the choice of which characters you kill, and they way you kill them, can make or break a zombie novel. Get it just right, and the readers will love it. Get it wrong, and the whole story will start to fall apart. Striking exactly the right balance of death and destruction always requires a lot of hard work, but it’s well worth the effort.
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.