Thanks to The Walking Dead the zombie-horror genre has been revitalized. Fans of George A. Ramiro (myself included) have been able to enjoy a slew of zombie novels, movies, games and comics. Zombies are, to put simply, the new vampire.
While the spike in the genre is great, we have to take it with a grain of salt. With more authors writing about zombies, that means we’re going to get our share of poorly written, ill-conceived, and unoriginal zombie stories. Everyone raise your hand if you’ve read a bad zombie book. (If you aren’t raising your hand right now, you’re lying!) It happens, and that’s okay. Because if there’s one night thing about a bad book, it’s that you can learn from it—you learn what not to do, and what to do.
While I worked on my Meteora Trilogy, I had to find a balance between classic, cliché, and original. I’m going to discuss some of the biggest issues in the zombie genre, how to avoid them, and provide some tips for creating your own original zombie novel.
Knowing Your Zombie
You wouldn’t think you’d need to know a lot about zombies to write a zombie novel, but you’d be wrong! A zombie is still a mythical creature, just like the vampire, werewolf, or witch. It’s a good idea to know a bit on the history of zombies. There’s a long and complicated heritage to zombies, but the root of it comes from Haitian culture. Zombies were magically reanimated corpses. Over the years, the idea of a zombie has taken ahold of culture—this goes as far back as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Hell, you could say farther, because zombie lore has been passed down for ages.
Why is this important? Because it helps you figure out where your zombies come from. Researching the different cultures and mythos for zombies will help you develop a more solid starting ground for your story. Maybe you want to go with a magically created. If that’s the case, how? Was it a necromancer? A voodoo priestess? You’ll need to research both of those. Or are you going the Ramiro route and having the undead rise up? That’s fine, but why are they coming back to life? Even if you never reveal it to your readers, you still need to know so you can write a more rounded story.
What King of Zombie?
Now you need to decide what kind of zombie you have. There are so many kinds now, and you can put your own spin on each one.
Here are some basic zombies to consider:
- Traditional zombies – slow moving, rotting corpses (Ramiro)
- Running zombies – rotting corpses, but they run really fast. Could also be called rage zombies. (28 Days/Weeks Later)
- Cyber zombies – Cybernetically enhanced/revived corpses (Chronicles of Reddick, Mass Effect)
- Space zombies – Driven mad by the edges of space or altered by an alien borne contaminate (Firefly, Night of the Comet)
- Mutant zombies – Genetically altered corpses, possibly stronger, faster, and not looking like a human (Resident Evil, The Last of Us)
- Magic zombies – Brought back by voodoo magic or necromancy. (American Horror Story: Coven)
All of these have a root somewhere. Use them as a base to create your own zombie. Maybe you want to do running zombies in space, magically created space zombies, or mutated cyber zombies.
That Trope as Old as Time
Try not to fall into the pitfall of writing a stereotypical zombie novel. An authoritative hero steps up when the zombies rise (for unknown reasons) and leads a band of misfits to survival. Too many stories have this same premise. Try putting an original spin on the idea. Why are they trying to survive? Is there someone else after them? Take an old idea and give it a new spin. We don’t need more copies of The Walking Dead. Look at Autumn by David Moody. We don’t know why the zombies happened. In fact, we barely get the zombies (until the end of the story). Instead we focus on three characters and how they handle the strange turn of events. We follow them from being with a large group, to splitting and going to fortify a home. There we watch how everything breaks them down, resulting in different decisions from each character that’ll have an effect on their survival. Moody took the basic plot and gave it a fresh twist by making it a character driven story instead of a plot driven one.
Keep it Consistent!
The biggest issue with poorly written zombie novels is that they start with your basic zombie, don’t know where or why the undead are rising up, and fail to keep the story consistent. You’re traditional shambling zombies aren’t going to start running at you half way through the story. Whatever you do, keep your creatures consistent. It only frustrates the reader.
Understand the Human Body
These are rotting corpses. I repeat, they are ROTTING corpses. Know how the human body works, understand the time period it takes to decompose, and consider all elemental/environmental factors. This will have an effect on your zombie. If it’s a few months into the apocalypse, unless they’re a newly turned, most likely that rotting body is starting to crumble. It means weak skulls (good for stabbing), decaying flesh, exposed/bleached bones, and so forth.
Stereotypical Authoritative Hero
Everyone thinks that the main character needs to be another Rick Grimes. If they aren’t a sheriff/police officer/army man or some other authoritative figure, than the group won’t survive. Wrong! That trope is over used and dated. I’m not saying there doesn’t have to be a cop or military officer in your group, but he/she doesn’t need to be the leader or the main character. In my Meteora Trilogy, the main characters are your average Joes: two book store employees, a pharmacist, and college student. Yes, during their travels they encounter the military, but I never make those characters the focus.
Survival of the Fittest
This is, at the heart, a survival story. Whatever your cause of an outbreak is, in the end (unless you’re writing from the zombie’s POV), it’s about survival. Another big issue with poorly constructed zombie stories is that the characters make poor decisions. Talk to any friends that are into camping or are survivalists, browse forums, talk to forest rangers, and read survival books. You’ll need to gather a lot of information in order to create a realistic and accurate story. I spent hours looking at maps and talking to people about scenarios, supplies, and other factors. Even the smallest minute detail can alter a story. Things to consider:
- How far into the apocalypse are they? If months, are the characters keeping bug out kits and supplies?
- Can anyone shoot a gun? Do you know about guns?
- What’s the weather/temperature/environment like?
- Where are they going? Would main roads or back roads be safer?
- What injuries and diseases can they get?
- What assets do the characters provide to the group? Can someone heal? Can someone hunt? If they’re dead weight, are they really important to the story (other than being dead weight, because then they need to GTFO.)
- What other threats are out there (beyond zombies)?
Making it Realistic
I understand this is a zombie novel, and some form of suspended belief is required. That doesn’t mean you can just slack off and expect your readers to swallow every load of crap you serve them. Your characters should react to situations realistically. If they’ve never shot a gun before, they shouldn’t immediately be able to handle a shot gun. If you don’t have a medically trained character, they shouldn’t be able to become the doctor of the group. Know the process for government response to this situation. Do your research! I cannot stress this enough!
There is more danger than just zombies. Consider all possible factors, such as bandits, wild animals, cannibals, poor weather, environmental hazards, wounds/illness, government, and religious zealots. All of these can kill your characters. Zombies aren’t the only thing we’re going to be surviving. So don’t be afraid to weave in other situations to help round out your story.
Well Rounded Characters
Too much is depended on the main character. Unless your character is by themselves, make sure all your characters are well rounded. Put as much thought in your secondary characters as your main.
Incorporating Other Genres
Want to add some romance to your story or mystery? That’s great. In Meteora Trilogy I combine both romantic erotica and horror (crazy, I know). The key is finding a realistic balance. At the heart, I knew the story was a zombie survival story. So I made sure to keep that the main focus. The secondary plot was the story of how my three main characters (Sawyer, Jesse, and Topher) become an item and how the zombie apocalypse tests their unique relationship. I put them through a gamut of problems, from jealousy, to outside threats, to difficult ethical decisions. I never let one thing overshadow the other, balancing the sex, relationship drama, and zombie survival.
Do not, I repeat do not, turn your zombie survival into a soap opera. It’s okay to have some drama (because realistically, life exists beyond surviving and shit will happen), but it gets really annoying if that’s the main focus. Your readers came to read about undead corpses eating people, not about whether Dick likes Becky or Jane.
Don’t Lie to Your Readers
This is important. Don’t lead your readers to believe one thing and then change it. This applies to the zombies, to the characters, to everything. I read one zombie novel and I was really angry (to the point of not finishing the story) because I was led to believe one thing about a character, and then halfway through the book the author decided to reveal something entirely different for plot convenience. It was cheap and lazy writing.
Suspense vs Action vs Gore
All of these three elements equals a great zombie novel. Find a balance between the three. Sometimes it’s scary not to see the zombies. Describe hearing them, having them scratch walls and beat against doors. Describe the solid darkness or emptiness. Use the senses to help create an atmosphere that has your reader’s spine tingling. Then, after you’ve scared the beejeebus out of them, bring in the zombies and start splitting heads.
Hopefully these tips will help you in crafting the perfect zombie story. In the end it’s just about putting in the effort and work. You do your research, you think things out, and you stay true to yourself and your readers, and you’ll create an original and amazing story.