Last time, I used ‘The Walking Dead’ as an example of consistency in world building, but ended with an implication that this may be changing. The main reason is the way they’ve skirted their “rule” that any character can die. The most egregious case is the character of Glenn. Now he’s a good character and they haven’t fooled with him, except that he’s now twice been presented in near death situations from which he’s magically survived.
In Season 5 Nicholas tried to kill Glenn while they are alone in the woods, and the last shot we see is of Glenn on the ground with zombies (apparently) diving on him. Since no one gets away once the zombies start pilling on, Glenn’s dead – right? Nope. In a later scene, where Nicholas is trying to get back to Alexandria, Glenn suddenly jumps from behind a tree to continue his fight with Nicholas. How’d he survive? Beats me.
In Season 6 the kind-hearted Glenn seemed to dedicate himself to reforming Nicholas, but the two of them ended up stuck on top of a dumpster surrounded by zombies. Nicholas blew his brains out, and as he fell toward the waiting dead his momentum took Glenn with him. We are then treated to a shot of Glenn’s horrified face while blood spurts and intestines are ripped out. Is he dead this time? After what seemed like an interminable number of episodes we finally learn that he somehow managed to drag himself under the dumpster while the zombies fed on Nicholas (I guess poor Nick just tasted too good for the zombies to waste their time on Oriental cuisine).
And as if that wasn’t enough, Rick got stuck in a stalled RV which was rapidly being swarmed by zombies only to appear in the next episode running really fast! Oh, okay so I guess all those who died in the earlier seasons were just slow runners – right!
So what we have here is basically lazy or downright deceptive writing. Take your pick. Either the writers came up with an idea, which unfortunately painted them into a corner, and their solution was just to ‘skip the details’ and have the character survive. Or it’s a cheap way to drum up suspense. Either way its sloppy writing and doesn’t help the show.
My point is that the writers’ bending the rules has cost the show intensity – the nail-biting ‘will he/she survive’? Now we know that the main characters always will, no matter how implausible their survival may be. The next step is to just introduce a minor character every episode who will end up as zombie chow, just as the famous Redshirts on the original Star Trek filled out each landing party, but had a bull’s eye on the back of their uniforms. So while bending the rules hasn’t destroyed ‘The Walking Dead’ it has wounded it.
But while bending the rules is a self-inflicted wound, breaking the rules can be fatal. Now you don’t often see this problem because when you do this the result is generally a rejection slip from a publisher, or, if I stick to tv shows, a quick cancellation. One example I can give is based on a book I read over the summer. I won’t name it because it was posted by a writer looking for feedback. I very much liked the book for the most part, and hope some changes will be made, which I think would make it quite publishable. The problem here was simple. The book is a Terry Pratchett-like fantasy – a light-hearted and fun read. Now in a setting like this, characters can be killed, but it almost has to be at a Road Runner/Wiley Coyote cartoon level. A character gets blown up early in the story, and all that is found of him is his rather large nose. The silliness of the situation makes us ignore the fact that someone has been murdered, because it’s cartoonish. Unfortunately, the author later presents a scene in which a building is bombed (terrorist-like) by the killer. The writer then goes on to describe screaming, badly injured victims and bloody body parts in the street! The real world intrudes into his make-believe one; the bubble is burst and the reader, cringing and distraught, flees!
Note an important rule here: comic relief works in a real world story because funny things happen in real life, but a comedic fantasy world has to be strictly true to itself or it fails. Try to add dramatic aggravation (okay, I made that term up, but couldn’t think of a formal antonym to ‘comic relief’) and you break the rules!
So when writing, be careful with the rules of your world. Bending them can make plotting easy, but it also causes your world to take on the aspect of a slightly under inflated tire – squishy, squeaky and unexciting. But breaking those rules can fatally damage your world for the reader, making it as appealing as, well, a zombie.