Writing Lessons From The Walking Dead

There’s a lot of dark shit on television, and I’m not talking just about the news.

Many of us choose to entertain ourselves watching all manner of unpleasant fictional situations and people, many of them quite horrific. That’s curious to me, and yet I am in that group.

After I recently, for example, finished watching the penultimate season of the long-running TV series The Walking Dead, I cast about for another series that might be equally gripping on Canadian Netflix. It didn’t have to be a horror show. Ozark and Dark were two series that came highly recommended.

Ozark, a crime drama, began with the main character watching porn while he’s at work talking to customers. In Dark, more in the science fiction vein apparently, the series opens with some major characters treating each other poorly in the midst of sexual betrayal.

Give Me Characters I Can Admire

I realized that I didn’t want to spend even a few minutes with these people. Give me a character I can admire or at least respect, and I will go along with the show for a long time. (I did finally settle on Prison Break, where at least the lead character is trying to save his innocent brother from execution. Lots of dark events in that show too, though.)

There’s the first lesson about writing before I even get to The Walking Dead. Give the reader characters he or she can feel sympathy or respect for.

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I’m not a horror movie buff nor one normally interested in zombies or other such boogeymen. I’ve even written about my bemusement at the entire notion of zombies (see Why Zombies?).

Yet I have found The Walking Dead (TWD), an apocalyptic story about zombies and a few survivors, utterly compelling.

It’s definitely not a show for the squeamish. Its depiction of zombies in all their mutilated and tattered glory, the necessity of killing them for keeps by piercing their nasty-looking skulls, the slavering gore of their successful attacks upon the living… well, at times the show overdoes it. But it does put into high relief the dire straits the survivors find themselves in.

The premise, for those few who haven’t encountered the show, is that a worldwide apocalypse of zombie infection has destroyed civilization. The zombies, known as ‘walkers’ to the core group of survivors we become invested in, shuffle around looking for fresh meat. Easily dispatched singly, as they become attracted by noise and commotion, hordes of them show up, and you really want to have an exit plan. An added dimension to the terror for the characters is that anyone who dies for any reason automatically becomes a zombie too, and must be put out of their misery before they take a bite out of the living.

Intensity

This was the popular television series in the early 2010s before Game of Thrones came into full prominence. It has been discussed a lot. People become very involved with the ensemble cast of characters, as I have been. The unpredictable and usually awful deaths of the occasional major character somehow adds to the involvement, a mechanism the Game of Thrones also utilized. And the show is still going on, with the final season to be completed this year.

The writing, the production, the actors have uncannily combined to launch the viewer into a world where everything is broken. With the rise of nasty living villains in the chaos, the characters are often forced to decide whether keeping alive will still allow them their humanity and a sense of hope. It’s a believable world, once you accept the admittedly way-out-there premise of zombies.

I don’t want so much to explore individual characters and the meaning they have for the plot. What fascinates me is how compelling the characters are made to be. What is the craft behind this, from the very talented bunch of writers? (I will tend to speak of this from the point of view of readers, rather than saying ‘viewers’ always but it is the same thing usually.)

High Stakes

One part of this are the stakes. A zombie apocalypse allows the writers to heighten this factor, but even if we write about less extreme situations, there is a lesson. Make the stakes crucial for the characters, and they become so by extension for the reader.

By stakes, I mean obstacles to overcome that matter. If they aren’t overcome, then somebody will die or lose love forever or life’s meaning will flee. High stakes mean reader involvement with the characters, and that is a lot of what makes TWD so enthralling. We care about what happens to these people.

The ensemble nature of the characters is also important. People react so differently to the same stresses and events. To make the situation come alive for the reader, we need to see a variety of characters, acting well and badly, and ideally in conflict, on many different levels, with each other.

Some of the people lose their sanity, some become stronger, others give up. In these dire situations, the reader or viewer is constantly, without necessarily realizing it, asking themselves: What would I do in these circumstances? If you can get this to happen in the mind of the reader, than you are well along the road of success for your story.

Suffering

Tied to the matter of stakes is that of suffering. Although we may be gentle souls in our daily life, if we want to tell an involving story, we must make our characters suffer. The type of suffering can be psychologically nuanced or physically damaging, but it must be there. And the suffering, to be successful in delineating the character, cannot be merely the occasional conflicts that the plot might logically throw up now and again. No, the suffering must be great, and tailored to the stakes and the fibre of that particular character. Craft books recommend devising severe specific trouble that puts the character’s future and desires at ultimate risk. This can be tough to do.

To briefly return to Prison Break, this is done with great skill for the main character striving to escape from prison with his brother. Time after time, the worst possible turn of events arises to challenge him, and the writers fearlessly put him through that, and somehow find a way forward for him and the story.

In The Walking Dead this is also skillfully done, but often on a larger scale for the community of survivors led by the former sheriff’s deputy, Rick Grimes. Whenever they find themselves almost secure for a time, then the next terrible turn of events can be expected to arrive. We become entrained with the survivors as they singly and together strive to meet the disasters that befall them. They don’t always succeed, and that too is a lesson for the would-be story writer.

Community

Commentators on TWD have often noted that, in the show and probably real life, communities are the source of survival after the apocalypse. In these circumstances of murderous fellow survivors and implacable blood-thirsty zombies, it is clear that rugged individualists will not last long. You can only survive in a group, and that group needs a direction after the most basic survival needs are met.

Eventually Rick’s group aspires to a re-kindling of civilization, in the midst of more vicious collections of people only aspiring to dominate each other or to create a cult around some strong, sick personality.

The reality of the need for community, and the other assemblages of people also fighting off the zombies, provides another layer of interaction and conflict in the background world going through its cycles, while in the foreground we live through what Rick’s community has to deal with. In James Bonnet’s book about writing, Stealing Fire from the Gods, he says:

“The study of the Golden Paradigm is the study of the structures, dimensions, and dynamics of this larger, whole story (frame or backstory) while the study of the story focus is the study of the structures, dimensions, and dynamics of the smaller, foreground story itself. … A single value has been isolated and is being examined in great detail which adds enormous clarity, meaning and power to the story and makes this value an important unifying force.”

He also goes on to say about the parallels between community and individual:

“Because the human group shares these similarities in organization and function with the human psyche, the human group is an excellent metaphor for the human psyche. You can see this important pattern operating in many great stories and successful films.”

So in Rick’s group we find characters embodying different functions, of cowardice, fear, boldness, loyalty, caring, ruthlessness and so on.

And as writer Tonya Thompson says in a post about TWD, audiences respond to weak characters becoming strong. For instance, in Rick’s motley crew of survivors, Carol early in the series is a submissive, abused housewife, who eventually grows into one of the show’s strongest and most complex characters.

A Moral Dimension

There is a moral dimension to TWD highlighted by the depraved actions of some of its humans, who can be far more wicked than the mindless zombies. This is especially notable in the darkness of some of the later seasons’ episodes, where any shred of kindness and compassion is proclaimed and shown to be weakness. The characters of Rick’s community must struggle with this, as do we all in lesser or greater ways. But in the end (as of season 10), most want to live by values that allow them to work towards a better life for their children and their community.

I would argue that The Walking Dead, at its best, takes on the virtues of real art. In novelist John Gardner’s book, On Moral Fiction, he writes:

“True art is by its nature moral. We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values. … Moral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action.”

The show definitely does that.


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