Dissecting Zombies in Fiction Writing

In this post, we explore the history and technique of using zombies in fiction. We dissect zombies in fiction writing.

Zombie stories are a fan favourite, and a writer’s playground.

While not always popular, zombie tales rise from the grave every so often. Western zombie stories shot to public attention from the 1800s. Many blended genre forms exist now, including romance, horror, and action.

Here’s where zombie stories come from, and which techniques can help you to craft a great zombie tale.

Dissecting Zombies in Fiction Writing 

A Grand Zombie History

Proposed theories about the origin of zombies point to Haitian voodoo, which tells of corpses brought back by priests – usually to serve, or do evil deeds.

Tales of corpses brought to life exist in other legends, including South African and Brazilian myths. Like vampires, early zombie legends contained the common element of fear.

Early zombie stories travelled with victims of the slave trade, and the story would spread and evolve.

In English, the word ‘zombi’ was used in poet Robert Southey’s ‘A History Of Brazil‘ between 1810 to 1819. The next popular, credited early use appeared in ‘The Magic Island’ by WB Seabrook in 1929.

Imagination was sparked, and many writers would use the basic idea of reanimated or drugged ‘zombies’ from here.

Film would follow. ‘White Zombie’ released in 1932 was one of the first big zombie features. ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ from 1968 brought zombies back again.

Modern zombie tales would move further away from bewitched, cursed people zombies. Instead, post-1930s zombie tales often use a viral, bacterial, or chemical cause.

Zombies In Fiction Writing 

  1. Zombies Defined

According to the Merriam-Webster definition, a zombie is: ‘a will-less and speechless human (as in voodoo belief and in fictional stories) held to have died and been supernaturally reanimated’

We know, though, that the zombie story can be more than supernatural.

Zombie stories have taken a turn for the biological or viral in the 21st century: most modern zombie stories make little mention of faith or supernatural origins.

Fear is different.

Readers are more likely to fear unstoppable viruses, isolation, and survival. Thus, the story has evolved to become more effective.

  1. What Causes Fiction’s Zombies?

A zombie can be created by three things:

  1. Being bewitched or drugged,
  2. Being bitten (by a zombie),
  3. A virus, bacteria, or chemical.

Other causes exist, but if authors steer too far away from the accepted myth, you will end up with something that is not necessarily a zombie story at all. 

If you had describe a square badly, a reader can’t possibly draw what you have described. It’s too far away from what a square is, right? 

Treat stories with myths (including zombies and vampires) like how you would describe a square. Describe with creativity, but make sure the reader still knows what you meant.

  1. Zombie Characteristics

Let’s talk about the things zombies are (and are not).

Zombies are always human, and either (1) brought back to life, or (2) degenerated by a virus or disease. A zombie-bite can sometimes turn another person ill, or infect them with the cause.

These simple threads run through almost all zombie stories.

More optional elements are out there.

Zombies are slow, though might be fast. Sometimes, they can be fixed, but in other stories their heads have to be destroyed.

Once you’ve got the base of a ‘zombie tale’, you can play with the secondary elements and get away with it.

  1. When Is A Zombie Not?

Zombie tale drafts can miss the point far enough to stop being a zombie story, too. Edit if you have done this to your plot or story.

Zombies are human: the moment they are not, then they are no longer a traditional zombie. Zombies are undead, but separated by their traits from other undead myths like vampires.

One more example: sure, you could set a zombie tale in space, but the moment zombies are aliens from another planet you have crossed into another genre. Not a zombie tale anymore now, is it?

Matheson’s ‘I I Am Legend‘ sits between genres, and is more often called a vampire or apocalyptic story.

  1. Traditional Zombie Stories

Zombie fiction can take several turns, and become a sub-genre of zombie story. Survival, horror, and apocalyptic or dystopian themes are common through zombie fiction.

Home Delivery (collected in Nightmares & Dreamscapes)‘ by Stephen King is a good example, using fear, survival, and isolation in the zombie story.

Cell‘ is a return to the zombie genre for King, but used cellphone towers as plot device.

  1. Modern Zombie Fiction

Modern zombie fiction is more willing to incorporate freedom in the genre. Sometimes, stories don’t have to be horror (or survival horror) at all.

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion and ‘A Girls’ Guide To Dating Zombies’ by Lynn Messina made zombies romantic.

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies introduced zombies for effect in a known classic work.

All kept the ‘zombie’ element, but played around with the rest.

The Last Word 

In this post, Writers Write explored what makes zombie fiction different from other, popular undead stories.

By Alex J. Coyne. Alex is a writer, proofreader, and regular card player. His features about cards, bridge, and card playing have appeared in Great Bridge Links, Gifts for Card Players, Bridge Canada Magazine, and Caribbean Compass. Get in touch at alexcoyneofficial.com.

If you enjoyed this, read other posts by Alex:

  1. Dirty Journalism: How Journalists Can Keep Research Legal
  2. How Writers Can Research Settings Remotely
  3. The Use Of Real People As Characters In Fiction
  4. 8 Proofreading Tricks (That Save Valuable Time)
  5. 7 Techniques Of The Faustian Story
  6. Famous Rejection Letters & Their Lessons For Other Writers
  7. 8 Self-Published Books (That Went Big)
  8. The Art Of The Complaint Letter
  9. 6 Bits Of Writing Advice From Authors’ Letters
  10. The Art Of Writing Fiction With Fewer Settings

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Posted on: 12th October 2022