What Writers Can Learn from The Walking Dead

Beyond the Zombies … True Horror

Michonne from The Walking Dead TV series

If the Zombie Apocalypse happens, I want Michonne on my side.

I have a love/hate relationship with zombies as they are portrayed in American culture. They’re crude and redundant: all they do is stagger around looking for something to eat. They never get full or tired, even when their rotting limbs are falling off.

I can’t resist the gory little critters, though. They’re simultaneously hideous, funny and dorky. They are a spot-on metaphor for the brute, inescapable forces of nature, and the mindless, cannibalistic parts of us. You can run but you can’t hide.

I hadn’t watched the popular AMC TV series The Walking Dead until they started their 2014 New Year’s marathon, playing all the previous seasons in a run up to the second half of Season 4, which starts February 9.

A friend recommended the series because it addresses the question: What do people do when civilization ends and they are reduced to fighting for survival?

The basic plot is simple: stay alive. What’s interesting is the characters. We want to find out what happens to these particular folks. They aren’t action heroes, and that’s the brilliant part. Their moments of bravery are mixed with behavior that’s inconsistent and illogical. They act the way that people act when they’re exhausted, terrified, despairing and disoriented. Many of them rise to the occasion and take care of each other as best they know how. Others break and become monsters themselves.

Writer’s Lesson #1: make your reader or viewer care about your characters and they’ll stick with you every time.

As every good writer knows, inexplicable inconsistencies in characters are a big no-no, whereas having your characters change as a result of their experiences during the course of the story is essential.

For example, in the episode I’m watching now, one character who hasn’t lost his humanity says to his friend (who has), “What would your daughter think if she could see you now?” To which the bad guy responds, “She would be afraid of me … but if I’d been like this before, she wouldn’t be dead now.” Whoa. Another good guy has to make a decision whether to sacrifice a newer member of their group to save the rest, including children, from almost certain death. These kind of intense ethical dilemmas are what make this show function at a higher level than splatter fest.

Writer’s Lesson #2: Aim high. There are no good or bad genres, only good and bad stories.

The Walking Dead isn’t perfect. In the first two seasons, the characters do some stupid things, like regularly going off by themselves into zombie-infested woods and, surprise, getting killed—though to be fair, as the series progresses, they get better and more creative at managing the biters, which is fun to see. My other quibble: the lumbering, snarling zombies have a goofy way of materializing out of nowhere and biting people at inopportune moments. Either all of the characters are hard of hearing or these are some ninja-ass zombies.

Writer’s Lesson #3: Beware lurking clichés. Know your genre backwards and forwards, and find ways to make it fresh.

I appreciate that The Walking Dead is not afraid to take risks.  In many action/adventure/horror stories you can count on certain peripheral characters getting offed, and the main characters making it through. But there are no certainties here.

Main characters die on a regular basis, and I’m sure that alienates some viewers. Nor are there any spotless knights in shining armor. Even the good guys make bad decisions sometimes, or crack under the strain of losing family and friends. Being good guys, they try to pick themselves up and go on, but they’ve changed and there’s no going back. And we get to see the psychologically-complex aftermath of the trauma play out.

That’s one nice thing about having a whole series worth of time. As storytellers we want our characters to unfold like origami as they interact with their environment.

Ideally, the viewer or readers should be both surprised and satisfied with each new development because, although they didn’t see it coming, the change makes sense in terms of everything they already know about the character and the world of the story.

Writer’s lesson # 4: Make your main characters complex, but believable. Study psychology, study your family and friends, study yourself. If you don’t understand human nature in the real world, you won’t be able to create it on the page.

The Walking Dead has got me thinking. For tens of thousands of years, humans lived in hostile conditions. Many still do. And here we are, just a few mega-storms away from tipping over the climate-change cliff into who-knows-what fun-filled future.

In the meantime, I feel extra appreciative of my comfy bed, stocked fridge and oppression-free environment. I’m grateful for the safety of my loved ones, and all the things that civilization (on a good day) can provide. Zombies aside, The Walking Dead is fundamentally the story of what happens when all of that goes away.

When there is no law, how do you face greed, corruption, violence and oppression? Do you give in? Run? Fight back? Do you kill those who would kill you? How about those who just want to take what you’ve got because they are trying to survive, too? If you fight and kill, how do you keep your humanity? And if you lose it, what do you become? Writer’s Lesson #5: Therein lies the wellspring of true horror.

The Walking Dead TV series is based on  The Walking Dead graphic novels, created by Robert Kirkman, which received the 2010 Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series at San Diego Comic-Con International. The TV series has been nominated for Writers Guild of America Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series (Drama).

2 Responses to “What Writers Can Learn from The Walking Dead”

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  1. Rowan Randol says:

    WOW – What a wonderful thought provoking piece! I see myself as an average reader who likes this type of genre (except for Zombies, I have never gotten into that particular story line). I am not a writer. But I want to tell writers that once I finally gave WALKING DEAD a try it consumed and dominated my free time until I caught up to the current episode. Melanie, I like your observation and agree, while the story is unpredictable by design, once the story line is played out it makes sense… AND THEN IT MAKES YOU THINK “what would I do”. If I just sit silently with the way I feel after watching an episode, I would say that it lightly stirs something limbic, primal, and almost out of reach… It is similar to the affect of a lost dream. You “feel” the memory of the dream but cannot recall the images that generated the “feelings”. I have a hobbyists’ interest in Jungian psychology and because of that I have always thought horror was on some level working out your shadow self, and I have enjoyed seeing each characters shadows emerge as the season progresses – It is powerful to see a character transform into that which “they” deny being and what my own thoughts resist as a possibility (I refer to the transformation of Carl, from a sweet innocent boy into a cold, but necessary, killer)… I am eager to find more books that have the same thought provoking affect as this TV series has had on me.

  2. Hi Rowan, I agree, and well said! Horror is not only about the menace outside of us, but within. And in some ways the horror of the shadow self is the most horrifying because “the call is coming from inside the house” so to speak. I am convinced that as writers we can’t write good “bad guys” until we have gotten cozy with the killer (or potential killer) within ourselves. Good bad guys are those with more than one facet to their personality: he may be broken, or even a psychopath, but you get insight into how his logic works, or what made him like that, or, as you said, how he reflects a piece of you. Likewise, for me, the action hero who is inhumanly strong and resilient, physically, mentally and emotionally, holds no interest. In their own way, they are as one-dimensional as zombies.

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