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What Authors Can Learn From The Walking Dead

When Sheriff Rick Grimes rode on a horse across a deserted stretch of five-laned Atlanta highway, the stark imagery that would make The Walking Dead such an iconic tale was born.

Rick's horse
Did you know that Rick's horse was the first animal besides birds that was shown in The Walking Dead?

Developed by Frank Darabont for AMC and based on the comic book series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard, The Walking Dead debuted on October 31, 2010 and at one point attracted the most 18 to 49-year-old viewers of any cable or broadcast television series.

So, what has made it so popular across audiences and multiple seasons? Much of it has to do with the writing, and there are several lessons The Walking Dead can teach authors about setting up an amazing, engaging story.

It's all about people

One reason The Walking Dead appeals to such a large audience—some of which are not horror genre enthusiasts—is its intense focus on characterization. While there are zombies (known as "walkers" throughout the show), and in some episodes, a lot of zombies, the people dealing with them are the most important part of the story.

The first perspective (and most important character arc of the series) audiences see is that of Sheriff Rick Grimes, a small-town cop who is shot in the line of duty and wakes up in the hospital only to discover that the world as he knew it had changed. As he struggles to understand what has happened, the audience is likewise confused at the famous imagery of the hospital doors smeared with blood reading "Don't open, dead inside" and the grotesquely deformed corpses lying unattended on the otherwise abandoned floors.

From these opening scenes and continuing throughout the first episodes introducing the other survivors, viewers see a gamut of emotions and characters who handle the apocalypse in varying ways. Since it is an issue of survival, and since the normal rules of society no longer apply, the resulting humanity is fascinating to watch. Some lose their sanity, some become stronger, some give up—and each character's choice speaks volumes on who they are as a person.

Interestingly enough, the ones who might be considered "crazy" in a non-apocalyptic world are the ones who not only survive—but thrive in a post-apocalypse setting. In the world of The Walking Dead, this contradiction makes logical sense. Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, explains the concept like this: All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.

It's this complicated dichotomy that gives The Walking Dead some of its most powerful moments and characters. In this way, the show appeals to audiences who might not enjoy the blood and gore, but are fascinated by the themes of human survival, community, and societal breakdown.

Photo by Nathan Wright on Unsplash
Photo by Nathan Wright on Unsplash

Societal breakdown is a fascinating premise

While we're on the topic of the breakdown of society, let's also look at how The Walking Dead appeals to audiences for this very reason and why the premise is so fascinating. First, it's important to notice that in The Walking Dead, as well as other stories and films about social collapse, a way of living that was once individual becomes collective. In survival situations, being alone can mean death and the group can provide necessary protection. This switch from self-preservation to group preservation is notable and creates dynamics that are fascinating on their own (without zombies lingering about).

Second, social breakdown creates a need to re-establish order. In much the same way as William Golding's Lord of the Flies shows the process of this reclaiming of order, The Walking Dead gives us Rick Grimes who is intent on finding order in a world that seemingly has none. Then when some semblance of order is gained, another group or caravan of zombies threatens it yet again. This creates a powerhouse one-two punch of tension and suspense, keeping audiences engaged on a psychological level, episode after episode.

Third, there is no better situation to see human beings at their most honest (be that good or bad). Human nature is never quite so revealed as it is in situations of survival during a social collapse, and concepts such as trusting others become literally a life or death situation at every turn. Rick Grimes understood this as the self-appointed protector of his group, and even letting another person into their camp became a heavy burden for him to bear, knowing that it could mean the death of those who trusted him for their protection.

Audiences like seeing the weak become strong

The character arcs of Carl Grimes and Carol Peletier create some of the most memorable moments in The Walking Dead, and arguably, without these characters, the story wouldn't have the same appeal.

Carl, Rick's young son who appears in the first episode onward, experiences the horrors of the zombie apocalypse from a young child's perspective. This perspective, within itself, creates incredible tension for the adults watching the show—particularly those with young children who perhaps vicariously envision their own child facing such horrors.

Initially a shy boy, Carl's character arc is one of innocence lost. But it's also one in which a young boy becomes a survival-hardened teen, in many cases handling the groups' encounters in a way that's mature beyond his years. In Season 3, episode 4 ("Killer within"), Carl experiences his most traumatic loss—the death of his mother, Lori Grimes, while she gave birth to his half-sister, Judith. Making the experience even worse, Carl is forced to shoot his mother before she reanimates into a zombie.

Carl Grimes
Carl Grimes' strength and resolve grows from season to season.

From that point onward, Carl's shooting and survival skills sharpen, but the toll that the apocalypse has taken on him is clearly delineated in the plot. He becomes depressed and sullen, and the third season witnesses him mercilessly killing a young boy who is surrendering. The fourth and remaining seasons—until his death in the midseason premiere of season 8—show Carl adjusting to his role of strong protector of his little sister, but the loss of innocence he clearly demonstrates is one of the most powerful parts of The Walking Dead story.

Carol Peletier is another character whose arc moves from weak to strong, and her strength plays an important role in the story throughout multiple episodes. As the longest-living character on the show (to date), Carol was first introduced in the comics in the third issue of the first volume ("Days Gone Bye") and the third episode ("Tell It to the Frogs") of the television series' first season.

Her character is first introduced as an abused, submissive wife who meets up with Rick and Lori Grimes' group after escaping with her husband and daughter to Atlanta. After her husband meets his death by one of the walkers, Carol begins to evolve into a strong, independent, and brave woman who is arguably one of the favorite characters on the show. In the third season's episode, "This Sorrowful Life," another character, Merle, tells Carol that she has transformed from a "scared little mouse afraid of her own shadow" into someone much stronger. Then, after losing her daughter, she becomes closer to another of the show's most beloved characters, Daryl Dixon, and the two are quite often the group's best warriors throughout the remainder of the seasons.

Carol Peletier
Carol Peletier is another character who becomes stronger over time.

Carol's character arc shows the same innocence lost that Carl experiences and she often makes the hard decisions for the group that no one else is able to morally make. For example, in season 4's "Isolation" episode, when a new disease begins to spread throughout the prison, Carol kills two infected people in their sleep and burns their bodies, thinking it would keep the others safe. She is banished from the group for this decision—a decision that ultimately did save the group's lives. In a later episode in season 4, Carol takes it upon herself to commit an even more disturbing act—shooting a mentally unstable child after the child killed her younger sister.

In the unique cases of Carl and Carol, The Walking Dead's writers enter into an exploration of the darker psychology of humanity, especially when forced to survive by any means necessary. These characters are not only some of the longest-living (in Carol's case, the longest living) characters in the story—they are also some of the most intriguing. Their individual and mutual growth from weak to strong becomes a type of catalyst for many of the plot's most significant events, as it simultaneously shows the price one must pay for strength in such circumstances.

Audiences understand the darker parts of our nature

Finally, I think one of the most important lessons The Walking Dead can teach writers is that many of us hold an innate pessimism toward our own darker natures. That's why exploring this theme—particularly in an apocalyptic setting—works on so many levels.

However, there are some critics who argue that The Walking Dead has lost its massive audience, particularly toward the later seasons and following the infamous baseball bat scene, because there is only so much exposure we can have to our darker selves before losing the stomach for it. In her article, "What Really Happens After Societal Collapse," writer Rebecca Onion critiques The Walking Dead for taking this fascination too far. I had to finally stop following The Walking Dead, once one of my favorite shows, because I couldn't stand to watch the baseball bat scene, she writes. And then she quotes her colleague's response to that particular scene as the reason: There's no trust in [the show's] world, no kindness, unless it's exhibited by some soft-hearted fool who's about to end up as walker chow.

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