When writing zombie apocalypse novels, the would-be writers often concentrate on their heroes, reluctant or otherwise. They spend hours building them up, crafting their back stories, working out their relationships with the other characters – who they love, but cannot tell, who they get along with, who rubs them up the wrong way and why. This brings the heroes to life in the readers minds and mean that they care about whether they live or die.
However, every good story needs not only heroes, they also need something for the heroes to strive against. In a zombie apocalypse story, you might think that this would be the zombies themselves, but that’s not enough. While the zombies threaten the heroes survival, and create jeopardy, the one thing they don’t do is create conflict – and every good novel needs conflict of some kind. This is where the bad guys come in.
The bad guys are the ones who make life more difficult for the heroes: they get in their way, they ruin their carefully laid plans, they steal their supplies and ruin their defences. At their worst, they try to feed the heroes to the zombies just so that they themselves can escape. They’re the ones which have the readers booing and hissing (if only figuratively rather than literally) whenever they appear.
Now, you might think writing the bad guys would be easy; you just take every worst human characteristic you can think of and bring them together into one single character. The trouble is, if you simply do this, you end up with a two-dimensional stereotype who stands there twiddling the end of their moustache while cackling megalomaniacally, and that just doesn’t work for anyone. This is because unless your bad guys are believable, they will come across as being implausible and that breaks the connection between the story and the reader. Your bad guys need to be human, and to some extent, their actions have to be understandable, or at least consistent with their world view, because even bad guys stick to the rules – they might be a rather twisted set of rules that only applies to them, but they stick to them none-the-less. This, of course, doesn’t mean that they have to be likeable, but it means that they have come across as being real. You need to reader to be thinking, ‘I’ve met people like that, I know just how much trouble they can cause’.
Just as with your heroes, you need to spend time building up your bad guys. You need to flesh them out so that the reader understands what makes them tick, and why they act the way that they do. They also need to have some redeeming qualities, whether that’s occasionally doing the right thing, pitching in to help out when it’s really needed, saving the hero, or even just being nice to children and animals. Yes, these might just be ploys to lull the good guys into a false sense of security, but they still need to be there. They help build up the bad guy and turn them into something real in the reader’s mind. After all, real people are complicated, even the bad ones, and you need to make sure this complexity comes across.
It can be hard to get bad guys just right, and it’s a very thin line between being too dastardly to be believable and coming across as being too nice to do the bad things you, the writer, are making them do. Yet, if you get this careful balancing act just right, you’ll come away with the perfect bad guy – and that’s one who the readers love to hate.
In this respect, it’s worth thinking about The Governor in The Walking Dead. Yes he’s evil, yes he’s manipulative, yes he’s clearly completely bonkers and bordering on the psychopathically insane, but he’s a great character. As a viewer, you really hate him for what he does to Rick and his friends, but there’s part of you that enjoys hating him so much. This is because his character is well enough developed that you can see how his mind is working. You can see why he does what he does and how that fits with the way he sees the world. There’s also the subplot about his daughter that makes him come across as at least partly human and leaves you wondering whether this was what tipped him over the edge, and whether he might have ended up as one of the good guys rather than one of the baddies, if only his daughter had survived and he’d had something to live for. Does this explain the hatred that clearly burns deep within him? Maybe it doesn’t, but it’s an intriguing possibility which is raised by this little hint towards a potentially interesting back story, and this makes him all the more real.
So, when you set out to populate your zombie apocalypse story with characters, remember to put as much effort into building the bad characters as you do into building the good ones. Make sure they come across as three-dimensional characters who retain at least some of their humanity, even when they’re at their worst. Their actions might not be what you would do, but they need to at least be consistent with the way their twisted little minds work. It may take time to get them just right, but all your efforts will be more that repaid by the depth they add to your finished novel.
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.