Writing lessons from the zombie apocalypse

While running today’s Zombies, Run! episode mission, I ran into some children who’d been turned into zombies. It’s a rough apocalypse, so pretty much everyone is a potential zombie, children included, but of course, all the Runners around me were nonetheless horrified. (I, Runner 5, was presumably horrified too, but one of the amazing things about this game is that it’s actually written in a way that doesn’t tell me what I’m thinking as I play it.)

Anyway, often when children are put in peril in stories it doesn’t work for me, because too often–especially in stories aimed at adult readers–children are only put on stage in the first place because they represent helplessness or innocence or an opportunity for painfully transparent emotional manipulation. That is, they’re only in the story at all so they can be in peril.

That didn’t happen here though, and the big reason it didn’t happen here is that these aren’t the first children we’ve met in the story.

In earlier episodes I’d already met children who kicked and screamed as zombies grabbed at them. I also met a troop of utterly awesome Girl Guides who are among my favorite characters in this game, and who save the day and roll their eyes at the clearly-less-competent-than-them adults who keep wanting to protect them and get them to safety. In other words, I’d already met child characters who clearly had agency, so meeting child characters who were denied their agency by being turned into zombies didn’t feel like manipulation. It felt like bad things had happened to happen to otherwise sympathetic characters not because they’re children but because, well, this is a zombie apocalypse.

I’ve felt the exact same way when female characters have come to bad ends. There are enough awesome female characters on stage (enough that you might think we were, like, half the population or something) that when a female character does die, it’s not like she was put there to be a convenient victim. She was put there because women are part of this world, and it’s a dangerous world and a dangerous story, and things happen–to everyone.

One of the best ways to keep a character from turning into a token victim is to make sure they’re not token–not by removing them, but by making sure that whatever group they’re a part of, they’re not the only representative of that group.

It’s awesome that when I go out for a run as Runner 5, I’m entering a world that has this down cold.

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