The Survival Dynamic: Zombies, Shipwrecks, and Magical Apocalypses

It works just as well for a Fantasy series…

My Domains of the Chosen Series takes place in an Empire that has risen from the ashes after a magical disaster called the Reckoning, caused by the fallout of an all-out war between the world’s greatest magic users, has warped the fabric of the world and reality itself. One of the most common story requests that I receive is for tales that take place during or just after the cataclysm. You see, in my books, while the disaster still effects the psychology of  the Domains and taints the land outside of the Domains, it is a settled, historical event. It lacks the survival dynamic of a running apocalypse or sudden catastrophe.

The survival dynamic is a cute shorthand for all of the drama that can occur in disasters, cataclysms and other traumatic upheavals, big and small. The characters are thrown out of their comfort zones as the normal social orders are eroded or outright removed and replaced with more primal concerns like food, shelter, and not being eaten by hungry Zombies. Here a some thoughts on what the survival dynamic can bring to a fantasy story.

1) The simplicity of survival: everyone, instinctively at least, understands survival. People often talk about what they would bring if they were stranded on a desert island, or with shocking frequency these days — what their plan to survive the zombie apocalypse would be. Because we all understand it, or think we do at any rate, survival is an easily accessible hook for almost any genre. It is nearly procedural following the simple needs of safety (getting away from danger), finding food and water, finding shelter, and contacting other survivors. It is a great starting point for many types of stories, and works just as well for a fantasy.

2) Lawlessness: Whether society collapses or the characters are merely temporarily isolated from it, lawlessness is a big part of the survival dynamic. In many kinds of disaster the temporary disruption of the institutions that modern life are built around such as the courts, the police, banks, the power grid, and international trade compound the problem. The whole premise of classic books like Lord of the Flies is built around the reactions of characters who can no longer rely on institutional authority and law, and the pitfalls of creating a new social order. The idea is that that without social norms, some people become monstrous, This has become a rather big theme in zombie games, shows, and movies where the human survivors are more dangerous than the undead. The walking dead tagline “fight the dead, fear the living.” is a good example of this.

3) Moral Dilemma?: The survival dynamic does place characters in interesting dilemmas, pitting morality against the needs of survival. Food and resources are scarce, other survivors may be liabilities that endanger the main character and so on. Personally I feel the negative aspects moral dilemmas of survival are a little overplayed at this point. Generally, only a truly heroic character or a fool will sacrifice themselves for morality and I’m tired of cynical writers hammering this home as if to say we are all bad people at heart. I’d love to see something more uplifting where a grizzled survivor type takes a risk to help others and is actually rewarded instead of doomed by their kind actions. I know, i know… I’m getting soft.

4) Tabula Rasa: Eventually the successful survivors will start again. In small scale disasters they will have to re-adjust to societal norms that may seem wrong to them now. In large scale disasters they may have to start society anew.  Removal from society and history as a result of the survival dynamic allows the writer to experiment with what happens when the survivors adjust to the new paradigm and get around to rebuilding. This is a very exciting field of writing, especially if the author follows closely to the logic of the situation. As a reader I just love series where characters cobble together new social norms and grow civilizations from a disaster organically. This goes double if the series starts with the cataclysm and follows through uninterrupted.

5) Scaling, from epic to personal: interestingly, the survival dynamic works just as well in large scale tales like a worldwide zombie apocalypse to smaller, more personal stories like that of shipwrecked pirates on a monster infested island. This scaling allows writers to choose their focus, or even vary it over the course of a series.

So what kinds of survival dynamics can be created in Fantasy? I can think of a few…

1) The usual:  Cataclysms, shipwrecks, and Zombie invasions all work just as well in fantasy. The elements of magic and the wondrous do allow the author to tackle it from a different direction. Robinson Crusoe would be way different if the island was home to the ancient elven ruins, and the Walking Dead would have an entirely different feel if necromancy was in the mix…

2) The magical disaster: something changes the way that magic works, and everything gets messed up as a result. In my favourite published RPG, Earthdawn, a rising tide of magic allows monstrous beings called horrors to cross into the world from the astral plane and survive. The people are forced to build magical shelters and try to wait until the magic ebbs enough for most of the horrors to dissipate. In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time the male half of the power gets tainted, which drives most male magic users insane.

3) Divine intervention: Several fantasy settings I have enjoyed have involved distasters that were cause by divine wrath or are cause by a war between the gods. The main difference here is the anthropomorphic element of the disaster and the reaction to it. The characters have to factor in the will of the divinity into the disaster to survive and prosper. Love it or hate it, the Left Behind series is a good example of this; the survivors must also deal with the will of God. Variations of this can include the waking of the ancients, dragons razing society, and so on.

4) Revolution: There is even a case for revolution, perhaps the most modern of upheavals, as a survival dynamic. A revolution can be just as destructive as any other form of cataclysm, but is entirely man made… The difficulty is in dealing with the politics of revolution.

However the writer chooses to use the survival dynamic, it is as compelling for Fantasy fans as it is for any other genre. I mean, really look what Zombies have done for westerns…

Yeah, I’m saying it is a Western.

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One comment on “The Survival Dynamic: Zombies, Shipwrecks, and Magical Apocalypses

  1. […] expediency, no matter how it the act is justified. As I discussed in a recent blog post about the survival dynamic, having to make ugly choices when faced with immediate and certain death, such as a rampaging horde […]

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