How To Kill Off Characters In A Zombie Apocalypse Novel

26 May

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.


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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.

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5 Responses to “How To Kill Off Characters In A Zombie Apocalypse Novel”

  1. Carrie Ann Golden 26/05/2014 at 16:24 #

    Reblogged this on Artistic Crossroads.

  2. Jack Flacco 28/05/2014 at 03:18 #

    Great post, Colin. I think #1 is the key to a great story. The Walking Dead takes it to a whole new level where we’re all wondering if any of the big characters will “get it” next season. It’s what makes the show unique and special to watch!

    • cmdrysdale 28/05/2014 at 08:17 #

      Yeah, I think #1 is something that people sometimes forget when they start out writing zombie fiction, but as you say, it’s what makes a great story. ‘The Walking Dead’ does this well, but so do films like ’28 Days Later’ where Selena’s partner Mark is infected early on in Jim’s parents house, and then Hannah’s father gets infected at the militay road block, and this leaves you feeling that everyone is vulnerable. The same is true in Charlie HIgson’s ‘The Enemy’ where main characters die unexpectedly and this throws everyone’s future into doubt.

      Anyway, as always, glad you liked the post.

      All the best,

      Colin

      • Gabriel 17/06/2016 at 01:40 #

        I have only one single question about this. How early can you kill your first character (I am going for a novel)

      • Colin M. Drysdale 17/06/2016 at 11:33 #

        Hi Gabriel,

        That is an excellent question, and there’s no hard and fast rule here. Really, what you want to aim for is to subvert your readers’ expectations so that they’re shocked by the death of the character (not just in the manner of the death, but that it happened at all at that specific point). This generally means making sure that your readers care about whether your character lives or dies before you kill them off, and that can take a while.

        However, you can also do this by killing off unexpected characters. For example, readers will generally expect the person who takes charge in the opening parts of a novel to be the ‘hero’, so so will survive until the end (or at least close to the end) and grow as a character. If you kill this character off early, then this will definitely catch readers by surprise. This is a really good tactic, if done right, as what you are aiming for in a zombie apocalypse novel is the illusion that no one is ever really safe and that the reader cannot anticipate who will live and who will die in any given situation.

        So, the answer to your question will depend on exactly how you write your book, and your individual story. You could kill off a named character as early as the end of the first chapter, or a few chapters in, or you could leave it until later. In fact, if you do it right, you could actually kill a named character off in the first few pages, to make a really unexpected impact, but it would be difficult to make sure that the reader has got to know the character well enough before you kill them off so that their death is a shock and subverts expectations.

        In my own books, I have killed named characters off as early as chapter two (in The Outbreak), with another shortly afterwards in chapter three. The first death is unexpected because it’s not caused by the zombies and the characters think they have just got away from a specific situation, while the second is unexpected because it is a very young child, and it is the manner of his death that is unexpected. In For Those in Peril On The Sea, none of the named characters die until chapter five, despite some near misses, and this death is unexpected as it is the character that is viewed as the leader of the group of survivors (and the usual rules would say that, as a result, he shouldn’t die so early on!). In The Island At The End Of The World, no named characters die until chapter eleven, but then again, as this was the third book in the series, by this point, my readers had started getting used to the idea that I’d kill off named characters early and unexpectedly, so this lack of deaths in itself was unexpected. Effectively, I was lulling the readers into a false sense of security before pulling this expectation out from under them.

        Actually, while thinking about it, the earliest I might end up killing a named character in a book is two books earlier! There is a character who dies in the prologue of The Outbreak (book two in the For Those In Peril series) who will be a major character in book four (when I finally get round to writing it), but that’s quite unusual.

        Of course, this all applies to named characters, and you can always kill off unnamed individuals in interesting and gruesome ways just to get the idea that the world you are creating is a dangerous and unforgiving world right from the outset, and indeed I have such deaths within the prologues of both For Those In Peril On The Sea and The Outbreak, just to help the readers understand how dangerous the world their entering is.

        Anyway, in summary, I think it’s never too early to consider killing off a named character, but if you are doing it early, you have to make sure that it is unexpected, and that the readers care that is has happened, and getting this exactly right can be difficult.

        I hope this helps.

        All the best,

        Colin

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