by Jay Wilburn
Zombies. I want to see zombies in my zombie stories generally. They can be undead or rage. I’m okay with fast or slow as long as they have a story going on around them. I don’t need the source of their reanimation spelled out for me. If it is spelled out, I want the discovery to be realistic. I’m not really thrilled with the rag tag band that happens to stumble on the one bunker or lab with all the answers. When they do find it, it kind of bothers me that they get in very easily. I’m also not interested in seeing the unequipped citizens decipher a cure in said lab or bunker. That shouldn’t be in their wheelhouse, but zombies, yes, lots of zombies … or even just a few neatly placed ones to serve the story. They can be insanely different or distinctly Romero, but be consistent with the rules you set up and change the rules in ways that make sense, if you change them or reveal twists. You can surprise me, but don’t insult me.
Obviously, all these opinions are my own. I think I’ve put in my ten thousand hours on zombies as a reader, viewer, and writer, but what is a zombie expert anyway? Still, this is about what I want to see, so you can see which ideas you agree with or not. I’ll be happy for the feedback either way.
Like I said, I want a story in this undead world. I’m good with the typical run, fight, hide, fight some more, die or survive to fight another day stories, but make it a good one. The setting could be as the outbreak begins or deep into the apocalypse, but there needs to be goals and stakes. There has to be a point to the fight. The goal can be merely surviving, but that type of story is going to have to stretch to give me something to care about. It has to matter that the characters survive.
I want to see a character or characters worth following. They do not have to be good or even likable. It can be one, solitary character if the story and action supports their journey. It can be a group of characters as long as I’m not watching a bunch of cardboard cutouts with the same puppet master doing the same voice for all of them. I like to see a range of humanity fighting or surviving together. They don’t have to get along. They don’t have to fight all the time. They have to do something and be each distinctive unto themselves. I like diversity in a story, but not a checklist. Don’t put “one of each” in your story and then write them as if none of it matters. Also, don’t give me a story where that key difference is all that matters.
I want to see where I am and where I am going. If I can’t see those things, I want to understand the scenery in my place of mystery. If the story is unfolding and some of the details are hidden for now, let me see the step immediately in front of me. As the characters figure out their way forward in the darkness, I want their choices to make sense for them and their situation even if those choices are different from what I think I would do.
I’m okay with military based stories or characters. I’m less excited about Mary Jane super humans that find themselves able to become super zombie slayers at the release of patient zero. In any world or scenario, there is going to be a most capable person. There has to be a gifted end of the bell curve. Is that the most interesting story? Would the hyper prepared person actually screw up though? Would they find that their vigilance and training had not fully prepared them for the reality? How would the person that should be ready react to discovering that they are not well adapted like they expect to be? Would their grit be enough to help them reorient to a different apocalyptic scenario or to facing their own revealed weaknesses? That would be the story I would want to see with that end of the bell curve. There are interesting stories further down the food chain of humanity too. I really like to see characters that surprise me in the sense that I know that they exist in the world, but I’ve never seen their story fully told.
I like to see villains. They need to be more than the token Big Bad that lets readers know that humans are the ones we must really fear. I’ve seen crazy religious fanatics. I’ve seen dystopian warlords. I’ve seen the evil fellow that thinks he is the hero of his own tale. All of those guys are welcome in the story. If they are written well, I’ll gladly read about them.
I’m more interested in seeing more original characters including the villains or antagonists than I am in seeing more original zombies. Your flying butt laser zombies have potential, but if your villain’s key characteristic is that he has an eye patch, I’m not feeling confident in this story moving me. Where did he even find an eye patch? Was he running with a stick in a costume shop? Did he send his minions out on a search after a nearly fatal case of pink eye? Was it in the butt laser zombie lab bunker that the school teacher and bus driver happened to break into?
I want to see the world brought down or built back up in a realistic way. Either one or both can happen in the story. Don’t keep the power on too long and don’t have flushing toilets working in an abandoned house ten years into the apocalypse. Also, where did they get their tire armor from? Why are they worshiping the Moon, if the dude was an accountant in his thirties just a few years ago? When did that guy have time to build a fortress by himself? I like to see world building that fits the time, world, and situation.
I can forgive a lot of the above items for a good story. If I am told a tale worth following, that’s the zombie story I want to see. All of the above helps that along for me one way or the other. Am I asking too much? What do you think?
Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in Conway, South Carolina near the Atlantic coast of the southern United States. He has a Masters Degree in education and he taught public school for sixteen years before becoming a full time writer. He is the author of many short stories including work in Best Horror of the Year volume 5, Zombies More Recent Dead, Shadows Over Mainstreet, and Truth or Dare. He is the author of the Dead Song Legend Dodecology and the music of the five song soundtrack recorded as if by the characters within the world of the novel The Sound May Suffer. He also wrote the novels Loose Ends and Time Eaters. He is one of the four authors behind the Hellmouth trilogy. He cowrote The Enemy Held Near with Armand Rosamilia. Jay Wilburn is a regular columnist with Dark Moon Digest. Follow his many dark thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, and Periscope as @AmongTheZombies, his Facebook author page, and at JayWilburn.com