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Everyone knows that Night of the Living Dead is an iconic piece of cinema that paralleled the Red Scare and fears of communism slowly surrounding and consuming us. You see, when zombies first arrived, they had meaning. They were a symbol of something truly horrifying. They were a symbol of a threat against the democratic way of life. Let’s explore, briefly, what I mean.

Zombies, or undead – or whatever you decide to call them – began as slow moving and weak reanimations of those we once knew. It was easy to see them coming. It was easy to avoid them. They were very weak, and in order to break through those windows and doors had to repeatedly bang on them, weakening them until they could break through. If you encountered one, it was easy to avoid it, but if you encountered a hundred, it was much more difficult. This mirrored how people felt about communism.

Communism spread through communists. It spread slowly. You could easily identify a communist. Their words were not very strong, but repeatedly hearing them eventually wore down people’s own ideas about the importance of democracy. Communists were not random strangers from other countries, either. No, they were people you knew. They were people like sweet old Mrs. Adelman who feeds the neighborhood cats. They were people like Bill at the auto store. They weren’t exactly the same as before, but you knew them. They were familiar. You had a bond with them in some way. If there was one communist, you could avoid them. One hundred were not so easy to avoid.

I bring this up because zombies once had substance. Zombies once represented a real societal fear in our culture. I implore you to review all the books, movies, and games you have recently played, watched or read which involve zombies. Think of what those zombies represented in those stories. Mostly, the zombies are some overt representation of the Man vs. Nature conflict. They attempt to add a psychological depth to a story where there may be one. After all, how can you logically make a young boy shoot his mother, or a father shoot his only son? How can you stir up those emotions that accompany the struggle of watching a family member succumb to zombieism without zombies? Well, this is my point. It’s always possible to do those things. What zombies do is make it easy to do that.

My point is this: Zombies are LAZY.

Let’s look at some modern examples. The Walking Dead is one of the most popular shows on television right now. Based off of a highly acclaimed comic book serial, the show is loved by all, particularly apocalypse planners and zombie enthusiasts. It depicts a post-apocalyptic world where rival human factions struggle to survive in a world full of “Walkers” – the undead remnants of the past society that make nature suddenly more dangerous. Forget actual nature which, if given the chance to reclaim itself, would be drastically more dangerous. No, humans without minds are the greatest natural threat in the world. That is the message zombies are meant to portray. That is not the message they are often used to portray.

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In the show (and comic), the zombies serve very specific purposes. They are a constant environmental threat and conflict, of course, but in terms of plot, they serve a few specific functions. One of those functions is to serve as motivation for the characters to keep moving from place to place. If they stay in one place too long, the walkers find them. Another is to prevent them from doing something, or from following a direct path. (The quickest way into the city is through this tunnel? Well, Walkers hang out in tunnels, we can’t go in there. Let’s go all the way around.) And the final purpose they serve is to kill people off. Zombies kill people. That’s kind of their thing.

So why do I care? Well, as I said, zombies are lazy. Zombies also make plot boring. Let’s review the first plot purpose I mentioned: forcing characters to move. Simply saying “there are zombies and they need to avoid them” is simple. There are countless other reasons people could be nomadic. Perhaps there is a nomadic human faction that threatens them? Perhaps they are searching for something specific? Perhaps the rain is poisonous and they need to move away from storm clouds? There are a million possibilities and then a million more.

The issue with all off these options is that each one needs its own explanation. Each one needs a background, each one needs a dynamic story arc of its own. If they are being pursued by an enemy factions, who is leading this faction, why are they pursuing them? Are they going to kill them, torture them, capture them? Why? Is that faction all evil, or does it just have an evil leader(s)?

If they are seeking something then what are they seeking? Why are they seeking it? Where did it come from? Who found out about it? How does each member of the group feel about it? Is anyone else seeking it?

If the rain is poisonous, then what poisoned it? What are the effects of the poison rain? How does it affect the wildlife? What was done to try to fix it? What can save them from the rain’s poison? How do they get clean drinking water?

Now, with zombies, you can have the same questions. Where did the zombies come from? How can they be stopped? What are their main threats? However, you ask these questions once. They apply to every situation. You can’t go through a tunnel because of the zombies? Well, you already know all about the zombies. You can’t stay in one place too long because of the zombies? Doesn’t bring up any new questions. You can’t go through a tunnel because the poisonous rainwater is pooling inside? Or perhaps the poison rainwater has caused poisoned plants/animals to grow in the tunnel. This brings up new questions about why the water is pooling, why the animals are becoming poisonous, etc.

Using zombies is a lazy trick. It makes you complacent to not think of any new or interesting plot points for your story. Let’s look at the popular video game The Last of Us. This game follows a man and a young girl who many believe is the cure for zombieism. The zombies in the game pose a constant environmental hazard, but don’t really add much to the plot. They help drive the plot, because the whole idea is to try to stop the zombie disease, but they themselves aren’t pivotal to the plot. The disease could literally be anything, really.

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In the story you are introduced to three different kinds of zombies, each with different qualities. These zombies are spread out among the abandoned places of the world, and you must make your way through them to safety. However, the zombies don’t add to the plot. What adds to the plot are the gangs and cults you interact with. Sure, the zombies add a scare factor and intensity to the game that the humans may not, but they do not add to the story or the character development. The other human characters do that.

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If you are a young writer and you are thinking of having a zombie story, I urge you to think about why you want it to be a zombie story. Do you like zombies and don’t give a crap about any of this because zombies are cool? If so, go for it. Plenty of people like zombies because they’re zombies. However, if you want a more literary approach, consider replacing your zombies with some more complicated element. Take the time to think about what you want your characters to experience and craft a challenge that will lead them to that result. Don’t just use zombies as the default challenge for your entire book.

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