For those of you playing along at home and just joining us, in the past two months we’ve been talking zombies. First we talked about why the zombie genre isn’t dead, and may well never be. Then we talked about the symbolism of zombies, what zombies have meant to different writers and how we could use a theme to figure out the details of our zombies.
This month we’re finishing out with a list of other questions to ask yourself when you’re building your zombie menace. These are generally worldbuilding questions by their nature, and I’m an advocate of doing worldbuilding before you create a plot, but in this case I think that the two go best hand in hand.
Question #1: What is your genre?
Yeah, yeah, I hear you. “Zombies, duh.” But I think that zombies themselves can be more milieu than genre, honestly. You have your romantic comedy zombies, for example, and your survival horror zombies, and your post-apocalyptic breakdown-of-society zombies.
World War Z was a zombie movie. Something else that it was, which I don’t think most people caught, was a disaster movie. Check out that scene in Israel, where the protagonists are trying to break into a building to escape the horde of zombies that is rushing through the streets like a tidal wave from out of The Day After Tomorrow or 2012 (disclosure: I have only seen one of these, but I’m pretty sure there were tidal waves in both).
Because of how the zombies move and act, sweeping people up in a wave of flesh, they come together like a natural disaster, a lava flow or a hungering tornado that tears apart the landscape.
Question 2: What is the scale of the outbreak?
Most zombie stories, especially today, are global pandemics. Don’t do it this way just because everyone is, or you might follow your peers right off a cliff, and no, they’re not bungee-jumping, they’re being lemmings and now you’re dead.
Different kinds of stories can be told with different scales of infection. A town may be under quarantine. An island may be isolated. People on one continent may be safe and sound (or mostly sound, anyways), and your story switches between survivors struggling to stay that way on the infected continent, and characters on the other side of the world who are wondering how they can help or how to keep their side of the pond infection-free.
Question 3: How is the infection spread?
As I mentioned last month zombies don’t have to be spread just by biting. You could also have the contagion (virus or otherwise) be in the air. Can it remain viable in the water or is direct contact with infected fluids required, and the contagion doesn’t survive for long outside of the body?
Can animals be carriers? Can animals be infected? Don’t think that just because the answer is yes to either of those that it applies to all animals, either. Some animals are susceptible to illnesses that others aren’t affected by, and some illnesses affect certain species differently than others.
It’s even possible that, in one species, the contagion causes peaceful behavior, or at least inspires the infected to choose “fight” only when flight is impossible, no matter how hungry they may be.
Question 4: How intelligent are the zombies?
Most zombies just want to nom your brain. They head straight for people, moaning all the way, and don’t care that you just sploshed them with gasoline and are about to drop a match down on their heads.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe they’re as smart as chimpanzees. Maybe they can figure out doorknobs, or remember things from before they were infected. Maybe there’s no change in intelligence at all, just a new, terrible purpose and desire.
Don’t forget that there are different kinds of intelligence, either. The kind of intelligence that would allow zombies to exhibit long-term planning or hunt in packs, communicating with subtle differences of moan that constitute a new language, is not the same kind of intelligence that would turn them into a truck-driving, rifle-wielding army.
Even if they’re much better at hunting in groups or at using language, than people are, that doesn’t mean that they’re smarter than people in every way.
Question 5: How long do the zombies “live”?
If your zombies are fueled and preserved by magic, say, then they might go on indefinitely. If they’re still subject to natural laws, however, whether they’re altered by a virus or possessed by demons, then you need to look into decay rates across different conditions. When do the muscles degrade, what is it like in this temperature rather than that, or in different humidities, what are the effects of a regular thaw-freeze cycle, &C.
And if your zombies are the living kind, then you have to decide if they eat, how well they eat (if their diet is made up of just the Soylent Green then they may get certain diseases, transmissible and otherwise, than if they have a more balanced diet), and how long it will take them to starve under those circumstances.
In parting, don’t be afraid to spin off on crazy things. At worst, you may decide that you need to reign things in a notch when you’re done. But— and this is vitally important for you to listen to— don’t say an idea is stupid or unworkable when you’re in the brainstorming process. Leave that stuff for later.
Do work out the reasonable consequences of your ideas once you’ve settled on them, though. As a general rule, you should be able to expect readers to accept fantastic axioms, or basic rules, but you shouldn’t expect them to accept fantastic consequences of these or any other axioms. Basically, having dragons is okay, but either remember to give them a plausible metabolism for their size, behavior, and so on, or make sure to know why they break the rules.
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