This blog continues on from the prior entry dealing with zombies and, since apparently I forgot to upload this one from last week I’ll be uploading not one, but two zombie blogs (today and friday)!
I almost never talk about the Worldcraft Club outside of folks who are actively interested. Except for my wife. She hears about it all the time, like, nonstop. Bless her. I’ve been party to, whether witnessing, doing it myself or being subjected, long explanations of people’s creative work and I’ve always found it a little cringey, still the excitement is hard to keep bottled up.
All this to say that it’s not too common for me to seek inspiration for content from folk in my direct vicinity, especially at work. Where this idea comes from.
I was talking to a coworker about the Walking Dead, a show that my wife and I had a brief love affair with before it got so crushingly dark that we abandoned it. This coworker, unlike me, had pressed on with the series pretty well. What was bothering him was how easily zombies get their heads crushed. No, seriously, that was it. His basic problem was that the show was flitting between zombies being the type of threat that can take a chunk of human flesh out of a man’s calf through jeans using only their teeth to getting a death level owie from a well placed boot heel.
This, right here, is a worldbuilding problem.
Once in a while I get into a little existential crisis about worldbuilding. I start to wonder what it is. I need to recenter myself and consider the reasons we (Seth and I) started this podcast endeavor and this is a prime example. It’s all about the expectation of your audience, in a word, plausibility.
An expectation about the world of the Walking Dead has been set. Zombies are dangerous, stay away. While we know the characters are rising in competency and adapting to their new environment we still want to be grounded in that reality. An example might be this, bears are dangerous we know this because of Leonardo DiCaprio. Humans have adapted and learned to cope with bears. We have semi automatic weapons now that can put down a bear with a fair amount of reliability. However, even armed with a rifle, I would not want to encounter a bear. I still respect the bear and trust that the chances of my death are non-zero during a bear encounter, even armed. Most human adaptation strategies are about avoidance. When we camp we might suspend our food up high, we know bears don’t like loud noises etc etc. My point here is this: we believe bears are scary. We believe they’re tough. We know how to stop them and we have the tools. We still avoid/respect bears, we don’t go looking for fights with bears and I think zombies would be about the same.
This is what makes zombie media hard to swallow and a long running series like the Walking Dead tricky. Retaining that plausibility and willing suspension of disbelief as you continue. The rules and boundaries need to be established early. A few zombies milling around are no problem, they’re slow, they can be avoided or they can be dispatched quietly. When the group gets bigger though, or we’re in tight quarters doing a supply run in the city then we have problems.
This essentially means that if the zombie threat remains the same new sources of conflict need to emerge or new zombies (like in Left 4 Dead) need to be revealed to change the calculation. Zombies begin as a horror element but wind up becoming an environmental hazard, one that can be adapted to or avoided entirely. Nursery rhymes and children’s stories are invented for such problems because the information about your safety needs to be contained in form that a child can easily swallow. I think what the Walking Dead has run into, at least as far as my friend is concerned, is a problem that wouldn’t exist had the series been shorter or contained in a movie. The zombies need to start as an existential threat but as we adapt they need to become the villains in nursery rhymes, understandable, avoidable but still dangerous. The threat level of the zombies has been established early and it needn’t be reiterated with exaggeration. But people started watching the show for the horror, the survival and the dread, not to find out what might rhyme with ‘zombie’.
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.