As a tutor of Creative Writing I find myself saying the following titbit more than I’d like: ‘You have to know the rules before you can break them.’ I think this is as close to a universal truth as you can get in any creative endeavour – so universal it has quite rightly fallen into the realm of teaching cliché. But when I have a student raise their hand and say: ‘What about author X and their book Y?’ I like to have a quick and to-the-point rebuttal. Because everyone knows that authors break rules all the time, especially in the nuts-and-bolts like grammar, syntax, formatting, or point of view. So it will please my students no end – the handful that might read a post like this – to know I broke the rules without knowing them. Big rules. For Your Brother’s Blood I broke the rules of the zombie without knowing them properly.
I know the basics. Most people do. Zombies eat people, specifically brains. They move slowly, shuffling, and like to do so in large crowds. A bite or even a scratch from a zombie can turn you into one. They don’t stop and, despite their penchant for consuming brains, they are mostly mindless.
I’m aware there are numerous critical and theoretical studies into zombie fiction and films and their cultural appeal. But looking at my bookshelves I can count a grand total of four novels involving zombies, two of which I haven’t got round to reading. You could say, and I’d be the first to agree with you, that I am no zombie expert.
It was from this shaky position that I began to play with conventions and tropes. I always advise my students to learn as much as they possible can about a literary tradition before engaging with it. . . Do as I say, etc, etc. Instead, I jumped right in. From a very early stage I knew I wanted to write about characters that died and came back to life, but kept their memories and feelings. It seemed like a simple idea but one that got me really excited about the possibilities it presented. What would you possibly be thinking when you came back? What kind of things would be immediately important? My characters had to be able to think. Broken rule #1: zombies in Your Brother’s Blood are not mindless. It’s at this stage that I expect to lose the hard-core zombie fans, but hopefully also interest the casual or non-zombie fan.
The breaking of this rule led to breaking more, as is often the case. Thinking is all well and good, but talking is where it’s at. I couldn’t have my reanimated characters going around thinking at each other; I’ll let another author tackle telepathic zombies. (That there is a freebie.) I gave my zombies a voice, and not in the ‘Walking (and Talking) Dead’ sense – a great Youtube vid; check it out.
That’s broken rule #2: zombies in my novel speak, and their vocabulary is not limited to braaaaaaaaains. And if you took my cue and did watch that Youtube clip, you might be able to spot an issue with this particular choice: talking zombies are funny. Or at least they can be. It’s a classic comic technique that relies on defamiliarisation – taking one thing and presenting it in a new context. I didn’t really want to write a comedy. I wanted to tackle big ideas in a big person’s book. So I had to introduce the idea of talking zombies gradually and in a way that would be convincing. It couldn’t just be deadpan (sorry) because that could be funny too. I used a common device, and had my protagonist find his voice after death alongside the reader; that way they were both experiencing it for the first time. Grounding the writing in the physicality of the experience also helped to remove all danger of humour.
This led to broken rule #3: zombies in Your Brother’s Blood are point-of-view characters; they’re not plot or thematic devices. It seems to me that often in zombie narratives, both on screen and on the page, the zombies are used to up the tension. Need characters to move on to a different part of the world? Zombie horde. Need an exciting way to end a disagreement? Zombie attack. And then there’s the classic emotional moment when a character has to kill a now-zombie relative. I’m not knocking it. Narratives like The Walking Dead are edge-of-the-seat gripping. But I wanted to try something different. I wanted to bring the zombies into the emotional content.
To do that, I needed to tell the story from my zombies’ point of view. Otherwise, I’d have human characters saying things like: ‘Boy, that zombie looked real sad’ and we’d be back into comic territory. This was something I struggled with as a writer, until I got some great advice from a tutor. I was battling with how to even begin writing a father character who had died at war, come back to life, and then wanted to see his family. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I also had to figure out how a wife would feel about the whole situation. When I started asking: ‘How would a woman—?’ my tutor interrupted me. She explained it wasn’t ‘a’ woman. It was ‘this’ woman. I needed to think about these characters as individuals, not representatives for their entire gender, race, age, culture, or state of life. It can be easy to lose sight of this as a writer – characters are so complex and we make them endure so much that they start to stand for things. They become thematic. Keeping in mind a character is still a unique individual made it possible for me to write such a strange and difficult situation for my protagonist; I only had to worry about how he would react. If that was consistent and well-handled the reader would be convinced.
There are other rules I broke: #4 my zombies don’t eat brains, they don’t eat people, in fact they don’t eat anything at all; #5 my zombies rarely congregate in hordes, most of them are loners, and they’re not locked into one speed of walking; #6 my zombie-ism is not contagious. I would love to go into detail about all of these, but I think the kind of reasons I broke the first three rules should explain the last three. I’m sure there are more rules of the zombie-canon that I broke in Your Brother’s Blood, and I invite readers to tell me all about it on Twitter and at Cons. You can buy me a beer, and if I really broke the rule badly, I’ll buy you one.