Tuesday, April 12, 2011

An Essay: On Zombies

Here’s something unusual for me on here.

As many of you might already know, I am, in addition to various other creative projects, tooling around character and plot ideas for a novel set during the zombie apocalypse. And, in order to give myself a better sense of what it is I‘m trying to accomplish, I figured it might aid me to put down on the page my thoughts on the genre, and in doing so sort out what zombie apocalypse means to me.

No, I was not visited by three spirits last night who taught me the true meaning of zombie apocalypse. There has been no major revelatory event in my recent life that’s caused me to focus on this particular branch of speculative fiction. Rather, I just love them. I love zombie books, I’m a sucker for zombie films, and I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about what I’d do in the event of an actual zombie apocalypse (spoiler alert; I’d be delicious). And with the time I’ve spent considering zombies and zombie apocalypse, I think I’ve come up with three major points that must be kept in mind whilst writing zombie fiction. These points aren’t immutable, no rules are ever written in stone, but I’ve found that they’re pretty solid guidelines for writing engaging, interesting zombie fiction, and using them you can write zombie tales with a little more depth than you otherwise would. And I’m hoping to write a zombie tale with a little depth. So; If you’re writing a zombie story of your own (and you should) these might prove helpful to you.

1) Remember: Your story is NOT about zombies.

This seems counter intuitive, insomuch as you are writing a zombie story. However, if you stop to look at the great zombie fiction/films of the past fifty years, you find the zombies a fairly incidental part of the narrative. Dawn of the Dead is not a movie about zombies, it’s a movie about out of control consumerism that happens to involve legions of the ravenous dead. The excellent World War Z is a book about societal breakdown in the face of a global pandemic, and the fact that the pandemic involves the dead rising and shambling across the earth is awesome, but not strictly neccessary. Even a zombantic comedy like Zombieland winds up being more about the need to connect meaningfully, to form families even while deprived of your own than it is about zombies, or indeed land. Zombies in fiction work better as metaphor for some larger issue you wish to address than they do as zombies, and there’s a very good reason for this.

Zombies are boring.

They move slow, they don’t get a lot of lines, generally in film they’re played by legions of extras rather than real actors. Zombies don’t do much, and prove rarely to be dynamic enough characters to warrant significant screen time. As an unstoppable force outside, waiting for their moment to overwhelm your defences, ever vigilant for the moment your beleaguered heroes let their guard down, they are a fantastic device, but as a “Monster” they don’t have a lot going on. And this is, I think, part of their appeal. A zombie story is, at it’s heart, a human story, telling the tale of the survivors of a great tragedy, struggling through their day-to-day existence, knowing each moment could be their last. It’s the human conflict inside the room that builds tension, not the legions of rotting, pitiless dead outside the doors. The zombies in a well handled zombie story should be, in this light, easily replacable with aliens, a flood, radioactive fallout from a war, or any other of a host of natural disasters, so long as it allows the characters you’ve collected together to enact the personal story you wish to tell. They serve, ultimately, only as metaphor.

On an unrelated note, the only other genre I can think of that exists only as metaphor is movies about boxing. I’ve never seen a movie about boxing, but I’ve seen movies about the human spirit, class issues, the right to die with dignity, the cold war and the inevitability of old age that happen to feature boxers as lead characters. Does this mean that a book about zombies who are forced into a boxing ring would sell? I have no idea, but I’d certainly buy it, if only to find out what it was actually about.

2) Nobody, and I mean nobody, cares where the zombies come from.

But Munsi, you might say, readers love information, and moreover hate plot holes, if we don’t explain the source of the force that will eventually drive the story forward how can we expect the reader to suspend disbelief? And, while this is true in a general way, there’s a weird loophole when it comes to zombie fiction, and I’m thinking it relates back to point 1). Since the story’s not about zombies, the source of unlife is a lot less relevant.

Readers suspend disbelief enough to accept zombies because they’ve purchased a zombie book/tickets to a zombie film. And due to the conventions of the style, they understand on some basic level that the zombies, while necessary to push the plot forward, do not constitute the plot in and of themselves, and as such require no great backstory.

Put another way, your reader doesn’t give a rat’s ass where the zombies come from. They just want to know a) what zombies are meant to represent in your story, and b) if they will eat that guy. And they would prefer the answer to b) to be “Yes”.

The best example of this rule I’ve ever seen was in the film 28 Days Later, specifically the first scene, where they fail utterly to follow this rule. They explain via a tacked on scene about PETA and rage-infected monkeys, and the results come off, to me at least, as incredibly forced and ham-fisted. Seriously, I find the scene unwatchable, it very nearly ruins what otherwise could be an excellent zombie flick for me. When I pop in the dvd, I generally skip over the scene, and doing so improves the movie immeasurably.

3) Think small.

There’s a reason you don’t often see world-spanning epics involving zombie apocalypse. It’s a style of speculative fiction that lends itself to little, personal stories, about people forced to work together to survive or, more often, who find themselves unable to do so and die because to it. Survivors of zombie apocalypse wind up barricaded against the hoard together and, almost by definition, trapped by walls of their own devising. This does not lend itself easily to bigness.

World War Z seems at first glance to be an exception to this, being a story of the global response to a zombie epidemic, but upon closer inspection the book really is a number of small, personal stories that happen to interact with one another in ways that eventually lead to a larger whole. It nearly functions as a short story collection that happen to stitch together to form a global tale. And this isn’t accidental.

Because zombies approach horror in a uniquely small manner. They will never outsmart you, they will rarely batter down doors, they don’t have “plans” the way other genre icons do. They will simply wait for you to go mad, for the unity of your group of survivors to fracture and break down, and pick you off as you fight amongst yourselves. Does this mean writing a zombie epic is impossible? No. But in doing so you would be forgoing the tension and claustrophobia that are the greatest strengths zombies bring to the table, narratively speaking. So, while it likely could be done, there are very few reasons I can see to want to.

This, in a nutshell, is what I believe in, when it comes to zombie fiction, and it’s what I want from the story I hope to write. It’s a little rambling, to be sure, but it’s good to get a statement of intent out before going to work on a new project, so I think this helps me out enormously. Am I right in my assessment of zombies? I think I am, for the project I’m considering at least. I’ll certainly be keeping the 3 major bullet points nearby as I’m writing my book, assuming I ever get far enough along in the project that I need them.

Also; I know this isn’t the usual sort of thing I put on this blog, but it’s my blog and I can put what I like on it. So there

What do you think? Any rules you’d add to my personal zombie bible? Any counter-examples you’d like to bring up? Anything I’ve mentioned here you violently disagree with? I’m always interested in talking about zombies, and can always use the opportunity to think about them in greater depth. Either this was helpful to you or it wasn’t, I wrote it for myself but I hope you at least found it marginally interesting, and I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts on zombies in return. I’d love, pardon the pun, to pick your brains about it…

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