Tag Archives: Tips for writing a zombie novel

Creating Good Bad Guys For Zombie Apocalypse Novels

20 Oct

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.

Useful Resources For Zombie Authors

27 Feb

You might think that writing a good zombie novel is as simple as coming up with a good idea and then getting it down on paper, but there’s much more to it than that. In particular, one of the most intriguing and spine-tingling aspects of many zombie stories is that they take place in a world not too different from the one the reader lives in, except for the zombies of course, and that leaves them feeling like it could happen to them. This means that you need to work hard to make sure that the zombie-filled world you create still feels real, and you need to make sure that you don’t have survivors doing the physically impossible, that you don’t have guns which can fire an infinite number of shots without having to be reloaded, cars driving vast distances without ever stopping for more fuel, and so on.

You might think you can gloss over the details, but you’d be wrong. It’s the little things that can make the difference between a story working really well, and it falling flat on its face. It doesn’t help that if you make even a minor mistake, someone somewhere will spot it (and there’s a good chance that, one way or another, they’ll let you know!). For example, if you have a character using a specific model of gun, you can guarantee that someone will be counting the bullets which it fires before the character stops to reload, and they will be quick to point out if it’s more than that specific weapon can hold.

So how do you get the details right? Well, sometimes, you can fill in the details about things from your own experiences (like how hard it is to kick a door down – much more difficult than they make it look on television!), but many other times you’ll need to do a bit of research to make sure that you get them right. This means you need to become an armchair expert in things as diverse as guns, car mechanics, geography, survival skills, medicine and first aid, epidemiology, and even human anatomy. For the first time writer, working out where to find all this information can seem daunting, but it’s not as hard as it might at first seem, especially in a world where you can google just about anything and come up with an answer. Of course, you also have to remember that just because it comes first in a search engine, it doesn’t make the information contained on a website right.

With this in mind, here’s a few resources which zombie authors are likely to find useful. I’ll start with two general ones:

1. Wikipedia: Wikipedia is often my first stop when looking for information on any subject, and it generally proves reliable (although not always in-depth enough). If you find it useful, or if you use it regularly, consider making a donation to keep it going, and advert free.

2. Google Earth: This is a great, and I suspect greatly under-used, resource for writers. You use it to check up on the layout of cities, to work out how long it would take to get from place to place, to plan out escape routes and search for great places to hide out. If you want to make sure that your zombie story fits neatly into an existing landscape, this is the resource for you.

Now for some more topic-specific ones:

1. Diseases: If you’re going down the route of having your zombies caused by a disease, you’ll need to make sure your disease plays by the rules. This means tracking down information about how diseases spread and how they affect people (especially if you’re going to base your zombie disease on a real disease). For this, I’d recommend checking out the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website as it has lots of helpful information (although you may have to dig around to find just what you’re looking for). They also have a web portal of toxic substances which might also prove useful.

2. Military Hardware: if you’re going to have a strong military element within your zombie novel, you’ll need to make sure that you know your howitzers from your hand grenades. One of the best places to find out more about military hardware is through the Military.com equipment guide. It will tell you all you’ll need to know about almost any type of weapon you can imagine (and possibly a few you can’t).

3. Vehicles: Vehicles can be tricky. How far could you drive on half a tank? Would you really be able to take it off-road and keep it in one piece? How full could you cram it with people or gear or cases of spam raided from the nearest warehouse before it refuses to go anywhere? If this is what you need to find out, try the car specifications data base from Carfolio.com. They claim to have technical specifications on just about everything that’s ever been produced.

4. Vehicle maintenance: If you need to have your characters fix cars or cannibalise them for spare parts, you’ll need to know about mechanics. For specific vehicles, one of the best places to start is the relevant Haynes manual. This will show you how to take your vehicle apart and put it together again, and help you include just the right details when you’re writing about it.

5. Survival Skills: For years, the place to find out about survival skills was the SAS Survival Handbook, and I think I still have my old copy floating around somewhere from when I was a teenager. Nowadays, much of the same information can be found online. One good source of information is the Wilderness Survival Guide where you can find lots of handy hints about how to survive in the wild (although it doesn’t cover how to fend off marauding zombies – a bit of an oversight on their part if you ask me!).

6. Medical Skills: Writing about medical skills and procedures, and getting it right can be difficult. Generally, my advice would be to find a friendly doctor and ask their advice on anything medical, but if you don’t have that option, you can try The Wilderness First Aid Handbook for information about how someone with only basic first aid training might be able to deal with accidents and injuries in a realistic manner. If you need something that is a bit more technical, especially related to injuries likely to be suffered from guns and other weapons, and how characters might deal with them, you can try the Emergency War Handbook to see if it has any useful tips. It will also help inform you about what levels of injury are survivable and what aren’t.

7. Human Anatomy And Physiology: If you want to find out anything about the human body and how it works, the best place to start if Gray’s Anatomy (no, not the overly-schmulchy TV series, but the book which it stole its name from). For the last 150 years, it has been the book on what humans look like on the inside. Yes, it can be a bit technical in places, but it will have the information you’re looking for.

8. Military Strategy: Many zombie novels strongly feature military reactions and/or strategies in the response to a zombie apocalypse – either through the conventional military, or militias set up by survivors. Either way, knowing a bit about military strategy will help you to make things as realistic as possible. If you want a case in point, read Max Brook’s World War Z. Almost all the military strategies and set pieces he featured in that have been lifted straight out of real military history (it’s just that he’s applying it to fighting zombies and not badly behaved neighbouring countries!). A good starting point to learn more about military strategy is a books called (perhaps unsurprisingly) Military Strategy: Principles, Practices, and Historical Perspectives by John M. Collins.

9. psychopaths: Within zombie good zombie novels, the struggles between survivors can be just as important as the struggles against the zombies. Think, for example, of The Governor in The Walking Dead. Yet, getting the bad guys just right can be difficult. This is because it is too easy to slip into stereotypes and leave the villans feeling a bit one-dimensional, especially if you’re aiming to portray them as somewhat psychopathic. If you want to get these types of characters right, a good starting point is to read a book called Without Conscience: The disturbing World Of The Psychopaths Among Us. It’s written by Robert Hare, the world expert on psychopaths, and reading it will help you get your baddies feeling just right and true to life. I’d also recommend reading this so that you can learn to spot any psychopaths you may run into in your everyday life (and with psychopaths making up 1% of the population, this will happen more often than you might expect).

Finally, there’s the zombie forums. A lot of these have sections specific to topics like selecting a vehicle, what weapons would be best for killing zombies and how to survive. They offer the opportunity for you to ask questions about even the most unusual zombie-related subjects and get an answer back from people who really know their stuff. Some also offer you the opportunity to discuss plot ideas, and get feedback on your novel as it progresses, which can be really useful when you’re stuck on how to get a specific scene to work and you just can’t see a way forward on your own. Of those available, these are amongst my favourites:

1. The Zombie Squad Forum: A great forum with separate message boards covering everything from weapons to survival skills, bug out bags, zombie biology and zombie combat tactics.

2. Homepage Of The Dead: The HtoD forum also covers a wide range of topics, but probably of most use is the Fiction Discussion section where you can discuss all things to do with writing zombie stories as well as sharing ideas or asking for help with problems.

3. Post-apocalyptic Forum: Not directly zombie-related, but still post-apocalyptic in nature. One particularly board is called Apocalypse Now where people post photos and links to real examples of what the world might look like once the zombies take over. Always good for a bit of inspiration when want to really get into the visual description of life in a post-apocalyptic world.

4. Permuted Press Forum: The Permuted Press Forum (publishers of a number of zombie books), provides a number of boards of interest to zombie writers. This includes their board about writing and the publishing business. It won’t really help you fill in the details, but it will help you with your writing in general.

These are just the resources which I use while writing, and I’m sure that there’s many others out there too which would be of use to zombie writers. If you have your own favourite and it’s not covered here, feel free to post it in a comment on this article with a brief note about what it is and why you find it useful.

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.