July 18, 2013

A Classic Theme: Redemption in Zombie Fiction


Steven French

Redemption in Zombie Fiction: A Classic Theme

I think the theme of redemption is an easy concept for writers and readers to grasp and the theme works well with a zombie outbreak or apocalypse from the angle of Judgment Day. I think a lot of us, readers and writers both, are haunted by our past in some way. We seek to be absolved of our past perceived transgressions.

Redemption also makes for a great plot device since writers are often told to make our heroes haunted by their past. Writers can use it to show character growth throughout the storyline. We’re supposed to give our characters, particularly our villains, a critical flaw and a redeeming quality. Thus, it is the most logical theme to tackle when presenting character development within the setting of an apocalypse of any kind.

The Classic Purpose of Redemption Stories

The story of a zombie apocalypse is not all that much removed from the Hero's Journey or the Monomyth as proposed by Joseph Campbell.  The zombie outbreak is typically the story about reluctant heroes who must strive to set aside their differences in order to work together to survive the hostile new world in which they now live.

This is another theme we see over and over again in the zombie genre and may have its roots in Romero’s movie Dawn of the Dead. It was the quote of one character, Peter, who said "When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth."

What I want my readers to learn is that the real healing begins with forgiving ourselves first and foremost. Once we have done that, we can set our perceived transgressions to rest, learn from them, improve ourselves, and evolve into the people were always meant to be.

We can change; we need not remain the monsters we once were.

Our past does not define who we are; it is our present that defines us–especially if we have made the necessary changes in our lives to become better and stronger individuals. We can always do something to make our past wrongs right.

Even if you can’t apologize to someone you might have wronged, or if you can’t fix something you did wrong a long time ago, we can still say that we are sorry by not doing that thing–whatever it was–ever again. Lastly, if we can’t pay it back, we can always pay it forward.

Redemption in Independent Zombie Fiction

Admittedly, I totally capitalized on the theme of redemption with reckless abandon in my zombie apocalypse novel, They Feed. I feel the zombie outbreak and following apocalypse also offers the characters a clean slate. What they did before the outbreak matters little–it is what they do after that makes the real difference.

I still capitalized on the aspects and themes concerning the decay of society and rebirth of community through setting aside differences and working together in order to survive the zombie mayhem.

I suppose there was a sense of redemption in character development concerning a few of the characters in my story.

*Warning: Plot Spoilers*
Derek ‘redeemed’ himself when he selflessly decided to leave the group–after having been bitten–in order to avoid risking the other characters lives.

Pamela ‘redeemed’ herself when she attempted to reconcile with Kayla concerning an affair she had with her husband.

Marshall ‘redeemed’ himself by giving up his authority status in order to better work together with Stan.

If any character was beyond redemption, it was Andy. He went ballistic, for lack of a better term, and endangers the lives of the entire group over a personal grudge he had with Marshall.
*End Spoilers*

I used such development to add conflict and tension within the storyline. I also used it to move the plot and show character growth.

Redemption in the Zombie Classics

I think social commentary enriches the literary representations of the zombie apocalypse, and the classic motif of redemption. Also, some of the characters had to die along the way; body count is a must.

Romero often showed us–in his movies–that more often than not, the zombies did little killing themselves. The zombies were no worse an enemy than our own fallibility. He shows us that we are our own worst enemies.

Ultimately it was the pride, greed, and stupidity of the characters that led to them being killed through tragedy or by killing each other.

Taking George’s example, following his lead, and being a Romero loyalist, I too wanted to show such drama unfolding in my own works regarding the zombie apocalypse.

Steve French is the author of  the zombie novel

They Feed (Bloodborne)

He is also the author of three non-fiction works
  • Suspects & Sleuths Murder Mystery Design Guide
  • Zombie Writing 101: How to Write Your Own Zombie Apocalypse Novel
  • Horror Writing 101: How to Write a Horror Novel.

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