If you write Science Fiction or Fantasy, a major part of your work will be the process of world building. You need to carefully set the stage on which your characters will live out their lives. The easy way to do this is to take the shortcut of not being very original (see my blog Post 11. What’s it like writing a novel? Part 3. Originality – creating a scene, or a world.). On the other hand, if you want to put in the effort and strive for something unique then it’s critical that you work on internal consistency. Creating a world is not just a matter of coming up with cool costumes and elaborate locales. World building is actually developing a set of rules for your world and sticking to them. No matter how absurd your world may be from a real world perspective, if you keep it true to itself in all aspects the reader will be carried along by your story. Violate your world’s rules and you pop the bubble of belief and lose the reader. A perfect example of a very successful world creation, despite mind boggling silliness, is the current hit AMC show “The Walking Dead.”
Now, before any “Dead” fans get mad at me, let me say that I’m a fan of the show and look forward to it every Sunday. But, truthfully folks, at the end of Season 1, when Dr. Edwin Jenner, the last survivor in the Center for Disease Control (I assume that was a joke since Dr. Edward Jenner created the first smallpox vaccine), explained the ‘zombification’ process – well, I’ll just say that I was rather amused and leave it at that. There’s always a problem when you try to describe a magical event scientifically.
But consider: if you just sit back and accept the premise that a disease could create mindless zombies, well then you’ve entered the world of “The Walking Dead” and can enjoy what is basically a survivalist story.
But there do seem to be rules.
The only organ that is really important is the brain. In numerous episodes decapitated heads still growl and try to bite. Just recently (I think in episode 6 of season 6) Daryl walks by the burned remains of a motorcyclist where, despite the rest of the body being little more than charred bones, the head is still alive, apparently protected by the Full Face helmet. And, of course, the only way to kill the things is to put a bullet, knife, or whatever into the head.
Any character can die. This is a rule that has always kept tension high in this show. I recently watched the first season again, and realized how much I missed Dale, Andrea, T-Dog and a number of others. A story which is willing to kill off major characters like Lori (Rick’s wife) and Shane imparts a sense of reality – that really anything can happen – keeping the reader (or watcher) on edge.
The zombies are mindless brutes. There have never been any talking zombies, or zombie leaders. These are just creatures of a kind of instinct, driven by a desire to feed (I guess). I’ve only seen this rule violated once. I think it was in Season 1 episode 2 when Rick first meets Glenn and some of the others in the department store. The zombies are banging on the glass doors trying to get in, and one of them picks up a large rock or paving stone and uses it to break the door. This is the only time a zombie used something as a tool (which I guess can be forgiven since it was in such an early episode).
Other than that one mistake, I’ve not seen any violations of the rules of this world. This allows you to just sit back and enjoy the stories and character development (especially Carol who’s evolved from a church mouse abused wife to a self-assured stone cold killer – wow!).
It’s when rules start to get ignored or bent that you start to notice, and lose interest in the story. That bending of rules may be going on in the 6th season of this show, which is unfortunate.
But more about that, and internal consistency, next time.