Summer of Zombie 2015
“Apocalyptic Character Studies”
by Jay Wilburn
I’ve written more than a few apocalyptic and dystopian tales over the years. Some of these stories were zombie tales, a few were Lovcraftian, others ended the world in other ways, and more than once I’ve steampunked my dystopian landscape. All of these settings provide a different canvas for telling the story.
Zombies in particular can be the ultimate blank canvas or mirror. If written well, their shambling, oozing, and chewing can be the dark, dead reflection of the living characters and their struggles. The undead can serve as a powerful counterpoint to those that are struggling to live for the readers.
The characters matter for the story to a greater degree than the actual nuts and bolts of the apocalypse within the dystopian tale in the same way that an idea or a premise only matters with the story and plot to flesh them out. Interesting zombies chasing boring characters is likely a terrible story. Interesting, deep characters that are striving for something in a story that matters can make almost any monster or scenario work.
Writing an apocalypse and the characters in it is a responsibility to a class of readers that are willing to give so much faith to writers. So many of them have been disappointed by so many zombie stories and are inexplicably coming back one more time. That is a huge exchange of trust between a writer and reader in a genre with so many examples of uneven work.
It is also a high demand upon a writer that takes his or her craft and art seriously in the midst of all the zombie rot and splatterful goodness. If you’re writing a story about a teacher and a class of kindergartners, that is a daunting task. Writing about those characters surviving a zombie outbreak requires a different level of speculation and a higher challenge to realism. Writing about that same teacher six months, a year, three years, or longer into the apocalypse is an attempt to do justice to a character that is different from writing the kindergarten teacher, an ordinary person under extraordinary stress, or a generic person that is generically hardened by all the years of generic struggle before appearing on page one.
“You know I used to teach kindergarten,” he said as he shot a room full of zombies through the head. Then, he never mentioned it again.
People are more than their occupations, their race, their religion, their hometown, their disabilities, their families, their losses, or their particular defining characteristics. They are more than those things, but they are all of them too.
Human beings are contradictions. The interesting ones are contradictions within contradictions. We are all hypocrites. It is the one quality people nearly universally dislike in others, but it may be the most consistent trait in all of us – our own inconsistency. It is a trick to capture that on the page in a way that is layered and complex, but not all together distracting. A contradiction on the page can read like a mistake by the writer instead of a realistic portrayal of a human being. One of the contradictions of our contradictions is that we also tend to follow patterns and make the same mistakes in the same way as often as we are given an opportunity to do so. Enough of this on a page creates a flawed character readers can get to know. Too much of it and the character has no arc of growth worthy of the reader’s time.
The essential nature of a really interesting human being that becomes even more important under the stresses of the apocalypse in a story is that we all say we want and believe one set of things, but very often we do and act on other things. We don’t live up to our own expectations and standards. We justify our contradictory choices and mistakes. We lash out when we are called on it.
All characters want something, if they are worth having in a story. The really interesting characters in life and on the page think they want one thing, but in reality they actually want something different. To communicate that to readers in a way that doesn’t tip off the character in the story to their own shortcomings too early, is quite a story to read.
Difficulty tends to bring out our true natures and often the things about ourselves we don’t want to believe are true. The apocalypse would be the ultimate example of that. Characters should fall short. Characters should find out what they are made of and not always like what they discover. That is where the growth can be found.
In a zombie story, almost every point of the story comes down in some way to running, hiding, escaping, or fighting. That is not all that different than real life. Characters should always be living out some aspect of these actions in themselves as well.
Even if I am writing a character that is the same race, gender, religion, and political leaning as me, if it is an apocalyptic story, I’m still writing them in a different state of being than myself. It matters more when I write a character that is different from me.
I’ve written a number of gay characters in various stories. Sometimes these stories are making a specific statement about that, but every story should be telling us something even if it is not a direct message,
In the Dead Song dodecology, two of the main characters are gay men. They drive the story and the emotional thread. We experience the apocalypse through them. I owe it to those characters, to readers, to people who identify with them, and to the story and genre to write them well. I’m not writing just about men that are like them, but those men in the context of the apocalypse and how it has changed them. They deal with characters that are more tolerant in their attempts to just focus on survival. They deal with others that are more hateful now that the social boundaries are stripped away. All of those interactions mean something to the story and to the readers that identify with those characters.
At the same time that I have to show respect to writing characters that are or think differently from me, I have to show respect to those characters’ individual flaws that make them worthy of following through their imperfections and growth.
Dead Song delves into the idea that identity is what we show to others, but it is also what we hide. This essential contradiction informs the characters and their interactions through the struggles of a world trying to find and identify itself again.
Characters are everything to the story and they make all the other parts of the story and world matter.
Check out the first book in the Dead Song dodecology and the soundtrack The Sound May Suffer for the story told through words, pictures, and music.
Check out The Dead Song Legend Dodecology Book 1: January from Milwaukee to Muscle Shoals –
Check out the five song sound track in The Sound May Suffer … Songs from the Dead Song Legend Book 1: January –
Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in Conway, South Carolina near Myrtle Beach on the Atlantic coast of the southern United States. He was a teacher for sixteen years before leaving to become a full-time writer. He writes in many genre. His Dead Song series book 1 is available now along with the five song soundtrack The Sound May Suffer.
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The stench of rotting flesh is in the air! Welcome to the Summer of Zombie Blog Tour 2015, with 30+ of the best zombie authors spreading the disease in the month of June.
Stop by the event page on Facebook so you don’t miss an interview, guest post or teaser…and pick up some great swag as well!
Giveaways galore from most of the authors as well as interaction with them!
#SummerofZombie is the hashtag for Twitter, too!