Tag Archives: Writing Zombie Fiction

Character Development In Zombie Novels

31 Mar

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.

How To Kill A Zombie

3 Jan

I’ll say from the start that this isn’t a self-help guide so if you’ve got a zombie horde battering at your door and you’re looking for some practical advice, you might need to look else where (and fast!). Instead, it’s a consideration of the difficulties of coming up with new and interesting ways for taking out the undead.

Here’s the problem: You sit down to write a zombie story. You’ve probably got a number of set pieces in mind where people will take on zombies, and in each one you’re probably going to have your characters kill anything between a few and a few hundred walking dead. Yet, if all are dispatched in the same way, your story’s going to get dull and repetitive very quickly. After all, there’s only so many times you can read about a zombie getting smacked across the back of the skull with a baseball bat or being killed by yet another head shot before you start rooting for the undead rather than the protagonist just because it would be something a bit different.

And the problem isn’t just what happens in your own story, there’s also the methods that those who have come before you have already used. Fed up of baseball bats? You might consider using a cricket one only to realise that it makes it seem like you’re ripping off Shaun Of The Dead. So what’s the solution?

I think it’s quite easy, and all it takes is a little (possibly rather sick!) imagination. The key thing here is to remember that you are trying to destroy the brain in some manner and, if used correctly, almost anything can do that. If you’re smacking a zombie in the face, don’t reach for the baseball bat, instead reach for a golf club (I’d recommend a three wood over a putter) or a football helmet. Away from the sporting world, there’s steel bars, juggling clubs, fender guitars or – if you want to be particularly gruesome – a severed human arm would probably do at a pinch.

Then there’s the guns. Don’t just always reach for the trusty double-barrelled shot-gun like everyone else. How about using a sniper rifle, snub-nosed revolver or 18th century flint-lock? What about something bigger? Rocket launcher anyone? Howitzer? Or quieter: Crossbow? A bit too common that one. How about an English long bow or a Roman ballista bolt through the eye?

Then there’s the bladed weapons but don’t just stick to calling them swords or machetes it’s too generic, too over-used. Instead, be more specific. Try grabbing a katana or a claymore or that cavalry sabre your great, great grandpa used in the American Civil War. Each has its own style and is wielded in a slightly different way providing variety to your kills.

If you’ve got to tackle more than one and you’re fed of up resorting to a machine gun, reach instead for a flame-thrower or the home-made napalm from your mental arsenal. A bit too old school for you? How about running them down? Too over-used? What if it’s with a combine harvester rather than a car? That would cut them down pretty damn quick and I don’t think I’ve come across that one before (although I’m sure someone must have used it some where – if not I’ll call dibs!).

Then there’s the type of things you’d never usually think of as a weapon but the juxtaposition of familiar objects used in unfamiliar ways when people are forced to fight for their lives can really bring home the feeling of a world gone badly wrong. To go back to Shaun Of The Dead, there’s a great scene early on where they’re throwing 12 inch records like Frisbees to try to kill a zombie. I’m not too sure how effective it would be but it’s certainly different. So when the undead come knocking, how about using that stuffed owl from the cabinet in the corner of the living room? Or using the granny’s funeral urn to obliterate the head of an attacking zombie because it’s the first thing that comes to hand? There’s a certain symmetry there of using the dead to send the undead to hell.

The bottom line here is that when you’re writing about killing zombies, it’s too easy to get caught is the same old and over-familiar clichés. Instead, put some imagination in there and see if you can come up with something a bit different. Of course, it’s possible to go too far the other way. Not every walking dead needs to be incapacitated in some new and interesting way but it’s always good to have a few distinctive deaths sprinkled in amongst the usual smashed in skulls. It keep the reader interested and rooting for the heroes rather than the zombies.

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 the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.