1. Everyone’s gotta suffer.
Suffering distills a character traits into their purest form. And nothing shows suffering better than The Walking Dead. We don’t get people, we get people in their rawest form. We get people whose leg is eaten by other people in front of his eyes.
If life didn’t suck and the world wasn’t glutted with all those eager, innard-munching zombies, Gareth might not ever eat Bob. Rick might not ever show his greatest kindness. Or greatest weakness. Or greatest courage. Or all three. (And sometimes all three at the same time.)
This suffering notion is probably something I should have picked up long ago when I read all that Greek drama in college. I remember my beloved professor repeating pretty much daily “we must suffer, suffer into truth.” Yet, somehow it never occurred to me that the reason freshmen were still reading about Agamemnon and Clytemnestra all those thousands of years later was because of the suffering as inextricably as the truth.
So give your character boils. And a limp. And let someone kick them or eat their limbs or whatever.
2. The more resonant the character, the more dramatic the swan song.
Hershel’s beheading. Andrea and Milton’s barber chair pas de duex. Lizzie and Mika’s twisted and senseless deaths. Beth’s blow-out. Think of anyone you’ve cared about on the show. Now think of the way that character ended their time on screen. There are almost always more bangs than whimpers. By his final curtain call, I was even bawling my eyes out over Merle (or to be more accurate, Daryl’s loss of Merle).
Big characters deserve a big death. It’s a mark of respect. Of course, since we’re not all writing about a zombie apocalypse, this big-for-big equation can translate into all kinds of big equivalents: big love, big failure, big discovery, big regret, big ball of string, big dream of becoming the best tutu seamstress on the east coast. Whatever.
3. Let the enemy surprise you.
Yeah, zombies are tricky b@*$tards who sometimes pop out of dark corners or rise from the mud in flash-flood areas. The point that has been made continually about this show, however, is that other humans, not zombies, are the real threat. So in some respects, the enemy itself is more nuanced than at first glance.
People aren’t just fighting zombies; they’re fighting humans. Beyond that, those human enemies can be downright surprising.
After seeing the Governor massacre his own townsfolk following his unsuccessful attack on the prison, for example, we find him wandering around like the grand poohbah of hopelessness. He has, to quote the poet Fred Chappell, let his life “grow bearded and strange.” When he then takes up with Lilly and Tara and little Meghan, it seems possible that the newly shaved “Brian” will go forth in the world as a transformed man, sharing SpaghettiOs and letting kids beat him at chess.
But lo and behold, no matter how he tries to avoid his worst self, a few episodes later, he–surprise!–amasses troops and goes all psycho Governor on the prison yard.
What can this teach us about writing? First, our villains are much richer and more interesting when other, different lives seem entirely possible for them. Simultaneously (and contradictorily), there is a satisfaction of sorts in the reader’s understanding that a character inevitably fulfills his or her ultimate path.
Plucking the cord between those two opposites (the many paths/the single path) is one of the difficulties and joys of writing.
So let your protagonist’s enemy do something surprising. And then let them do what they were born to do.
4. Let the hero surprise you.
When Rick chomped into Joe’s jugular vein, I was, among other things, surprised! Like this guy:
— Adam Powell (@Adam_Up_Bxtch) March 31, 2014
(Perhaps this belongs under the “let your heroes learn from their enemies” column, because the neck-biting thing was a technique Rick must have picked up from some zombie along the way.)
How does that relate to writing? Again, it’s the cord thing. Some tension about where exactly your hero belongs on the moral spectrum isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There can be questionable acts which are justified, just as there can be the veneer of civility (aka Woodbury) over the most savage of hearts.
What situation that will allow your character to do something unforgivable–and still be understood and forgiven?
5. When in doubt, “kill” someone.
In an “Ask Me Anything” interview on Reddit, Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman was questioned about his process for approaching a character’s death.
His response: “Sometimes it’s something I’ve planned and built to for many issues. Other times it’s just me thinking ‘it’s been a while since something really interesting happened’ and killing a character on the fly.”
Cold? You bet. Effective? That too.
Along the same lines, Kirkman had this to say in the same interview:
“In my opinion, I feel like characters ripen like fruit. So while I wouldn’t say the more popular a character is the more likely they are to die, they do have to reach a certain level of popularity before they’ve ‘earned’ the death.
No character is too popular to die. (Suck it, Reedus!)”
— lidia (@sexynorman76) April 1, 2013
First, a message to Kirkman: No killing Daryl!
And while we’re at it, no killing Carl and no (though this may be the futile wailing of the Greek chorus here) killing Rick!
Now, on to the actual objective of this post: how does all this relate to writing?
Killing off characters has long been considered one of the cheapest tricks in a fiction writer’s bag. And of course, it doesn’t–and shouldn’t–make sense for every story we write to end littered with a Hamlet-esque pile of bodies. (Of course, the bodies in The Walking Dead tend to take care of themselves–either being reanimated or devoured–so no littering there.)
That said, there is freedom in the notion of “killing a character on the fly”–whether we’re talking literal or (better in most cases) some metaphorical type of death.
The take-away? Interesting things can happen when we let go of the idea that the characters we love in a story must prevail.
And those metaphorical deaths can take many interesting forms: the loss of their humanity; the separation from whatever matters to them; the death of their dreams.
So, now it’s your turn to tell me: What have YOU learned from The Walking Dead? About writing? About life? About the zombie apocalypse? Post it in the comments below!
(A version previously posted on The BookYArd.)