As some of you know I am a huge fan of AMC's The Walking Dead. Some of you who do not watch the show might be saying "Eeww. But it's about zombies, right?" Don't judge. I have watched the show since the pilot episode, and the reason I love it so much is not because of the zombies (which really are the maguffin) but for what I like to call the sociological conundrums that its characters face with each new turn of the plot.
If you are a fan and you did not see last night's episode, then you need to skip this blog post until you do because I'm going to spoil it a bit as I use the episode as a perfect example for today's topic. Characters in this show are constantly faced with moral choices that have dire consequences no matter the choice. This makes the story intriguing and terrifying to watch.
For example, last night newly rescued Merle (Michael Rooker), a horrible racist, a murderer and a general monster, was escaping Woodbury with our band of heroes. Merle is Daryl's (Norman Reedus) brother, but Merle in an earlier episode beat Glenn (Steven Yeun) nearly to death and possibly, at least as far as Glenn knows, raped Maggie (Lauren Cohen) who is Glenn's girlfriend. Daryl wants to bring Merle along, but Glenn wants to shoot Merle for his crimes. Daryl is also the group's best fighter and has saved the group numerous times from the zombie threat. Daryl gives the group an ultimatum "He's blood" and Glenn will not back down either. Daryl then leaves with his brother, thereby lessening the chances of the group's survival.
Another example of this is the new group of survivors who have arrived at the prison where our heroes are taking refuge. We know nothing about them, and they seem like nice people, but as soon as they get off by themselves, Allen (Daniel Thomas May) wants to kill our heroes and take over the prison. It is only through the words of Tyreese (Chad Coleman) that the danger is averted...for now.
It is plot twists like this that cause the viewer to stagger in suspense, and it is something that any adventure writer needs to do their best to include in their text. I found this out when writing This Broken Earth. Ethan, one of my characters, reveals to the reader that he is not who he says he is and often thinks of killing the group, taking their supplies, and vanishing into the woods. The reader spends the first part of the novel in suspense wondering when Ethan is going to carry out what he is thinking. Since the novel is told through multiple first person perspectives, the reader knows this about Ethan before the other characters figure it out. Later in the novel one of the newer characters trusts Ethan with his life and then the reader worries if Ethan will betray them again.
Here are some pointers on how to pull this off:
- Everything has consequences - All choices given to characters must have consequences and these consequences are more dramatic if they are all bad no matter what the chosen course. This creates instant conflict that sets things in motion toward tragic ends. Hopefully the characters can come out smelling like a rose, but it should be very difficult to reach that place. If Daryl leaves, they lose their best fighter. If Daryl stays, they house a madman. Both choices are bad, but both are very dramatic.
- Make the choices realistic - No one wants to read about a choice a character makes that is either (A) out of character or (B) completely unrealistic. The choices made by the group to either keep Daryl or let him go were realistic in that Glenn felt that Merle was a real threat. So did everyone else, however Daryl's choice to stay with Merle is because there is a history of mental abuse by Merle that none of the other characters understand or know about. Merle has a psychological hold on his younger brother, and that will probably play out in the following episodes. It is, however, very realistic.
- Don't be afraid of bad choices - Bad choices are made by people every day. Real people make them, and so should your characters. The characters in This Broken Earth choose to initially let Ethan join their group because they think he is a soldier who could be a good guide, but later he is found out to be conning them.