The other day I was meeting with some fellow teachers and writers and the topic of zombies came up, particularly why people seem to love them so much. I started thinking about the flesh-eating, walking dead who make squishy sounds when they’re killed and why we do seem to love them. And yes, in case you’re wondering, I am one of the many Walking Dead fans currently going through squishy, gory, skull-stomping withdrawal!
I think we love zombies because in a world with many shades of gray, zombies are easy. They’re bad. They want to eat us. They don’t feel any emotion or seem to feel any pain. As a matter of fact, killing them seems more like an act of mercy than cruelty. So often in society we’re not quite sure who’s good and who’s bad. Do we trust the person who pulled over to help us with our flat tire, or the person claiming to have a flat and needing to use our phone? Do we trust the ice cream truck driver who has the eerie sign tacked to the side of the truck that reads Beware Children or our neighbor who spends countless hours in the garage each night, with the door shut.
We like zombies because they’re scary and clear cut. But what about in our writing? Do readers like villains who are just plain bad?
There may be something comforting in the serial killing psychopath hiding behind the shower curtain, but as writers, we have to beware the Disney-ish bad guys who are all bad.
For one, readers can see them coming a mile away. And two, they can be boring and cartoonish. Three, complex characters tend to be more interesting.
My favorite “bad guy” from any movie is Russell Crowe’s portrayal of the murderous cowboy in 310 to Yuma. He was SO bad, but there was something likable about the guy. You never doubted that he was a ruthless killer, but you started to doubt whether or not he was a heartless killer. It caused a complexity that was intriguing because you’re cheering on the protagonist but…you kind of want the bad guy to get away too.
I suppose in writing, there is room for the 100% evil bad guys — the Cruella Deville’s of the world. But if we’re going for a realistic feel to our writing, the reality is that most people aren’t all good or all bad. There truly are a hundred shades of gray, maybe a thousand. So beware what kind of villains to write about, and don’t take the garbage out after dark. You never know what’s going on behind the neighbor’s garage door.