Overturning Convention

Guest Blogger: Joe McKinney

Zombies are the monster world’s equivalent of a good pair of blue jeans: they go well with just about anything.  In recent years, they’ve gone up against everybody from the police and the military to superheroes, the cast of Star Wars, vampires and unicorns.  They’ve even taken on Jane Austen.

The living dead have worked their way into our hearts…one bite at a time.

So it’s not hyperbole to say that zombies are the hottest thing going.  Unfortunately, with that popularity has come a flood of mediocre works that at best read like carbon copies of each other.

This is perhaps an inevitable consequence of success.  Somebody does something great and the herd follows.  Soon, even the really great stories are lost in a sea of worthless drivel.  And that begs the question: In such a flooded market, how do you make something that is both genuinely and meaningfully unique?

For me, the answer has always been about character.  A really interesting character has a cascading influence throughout the story in which they find themselves, coloring our perception of everything from the setting to the plot’s central problem to our attitudes about the other characters in the novel.  The truly great characters even teach us something about ourselves.  And when we close the cover of a book, it is always the characters we miss the most.  They are the Scarecrow to our Dorothy.

But how does one go about creating a character capable of breathing life into a book about the shambling dead?  How does one do the unexpected?

I’m sure there is no end of answers to this question, but for me, the best characters are outsiders in their own world.  There are at odds, not only with the zombies who have invaded their world, but also in their daily lives.  And that’s the kind of person is was looking for when I came up with Eleanor Norton, the main character of my most recent zombie novel, Flesh Eaters.

Allow me to explain.

During my fifteen years as a disaster mitigation specialist and homicide detective for the San Antonio Police Department, I watched female officers treated as second class citizens, both by their fellow officers and by the public at large.  If the woman in question was pretty, or petite, many assumed she was too much of a girly girl to do a job that frequently demands raw physical strength and the ability to kick some bad guy’s ass.  But if she was tough, people called her mannish, or butch.  They assumed she was a lesbian.  They snickered behind her back and called her a bull dyke.

The situation was even worse for those who promoted.  Officers working for a female supervisor sometimes assumed she promoted because she couldn’t handle the street cop’s job.  Or worse, they spread rumors that she slept her way to the top.

Respect for the female cop is still hard to come by in what may be the last remaining boy’s club in the American workforce.

It’s sad, but it’s true.

I watched the women I worked with endure that inequity with mounting frustration and sometimes heartbreak, all the while struggling to live within the more traditional roles of lovers for their husbands and nurturing mothers for their children.

The cop in me felt for them.

I wanted to help them, champion them, if I could.

But the writer in me often reacts differently than the cop, and where the cop saw injustice, the writer saw a character simply ready to burst off the page.

Sergeant Eleanor Norton, executive officer of the Houston Police Department’s Emergency Operations Command and the main character of my novel Flesh Eaters, was the result.

Eleanor Norton is a twenty year veteran of the Houston Police Department.  She’s seen it all, and despite the fact that she’s lived with the usual prejudices, has still managed to maintain a loving relationship with her husband and managed to be a fairly good mother to her teenage daughter.

But when a series of hurricanes levels Houston and floods the ruins, stranding millions of survivors in seawater and giving rise to an army of the undead, Eleanor Norton finds herself struggling to hold her life and her family together.

Quite a few recent zombie novels have featured superhuman leading characters.  A few of them, most notably J.L. Bourne’s Day by Day Armageddon series and Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger novels, are amazingly well done.  There are even a few films, such as the Resident Evil franchise and Quentin Tarantino’s Planet Terror, that feature superhuman female leads.

When a superhuman character is done well, he or she can keep readers glued to the page.  We naturally project ourselves into that character’s circumstances, and their successes become our successes.  It’s a form of wish fulfillment.

But most zombie stories written in this vein fail to achieve any real sense of humanity.  The authors fail to show us the man behind the superhero.  Their characters don’t live and breathe.  They don’t share recognizable problems or dilemmas.  In short, they have no humanity.  And humanity is really the essential element to any zombie tale.  After all, what is a zombie but a body separated from the soul, that one ineffable thing that makes us human?  If a character lacks that soul, that uniqueness, he or she is no different than the zombies trying to break down the door.

So I saw the trend toward superhuman zombie killers, and started looking for a different angle.  I saw what had become a convention, and I looked for the type of character that would turn that convention on its ear.  A cop assigned to the Emergency Operations Command was a natural choice for my character’s occupation, given my own background and the circumstances of the novel, but a male officer might have easily been lost in the background.  He had a good chance of becoming another soulless superhuman character.

So, in the hopes of doing something unique, I turned back to the frustration and heartbreak I remembered from the female officers with whom I’d worked, and put a woman in the role of Emergency Operations Commander.  Suddenly, I had a character with a built in history, someone with a unique set of struggles.

A stranger in her own land.

Going for the unexpected, overturning the conventions of a given genre, can make all the difference in a story.  It can, and usually does, separate a work from the rest of the pack.

But a great character has at least one more major advantage.  Looking for the unique perspective, and staying true to the character voice that drives that perspective, can force the writer to engage their craft in ways they haven’t done before.  Every page forces the writer to focus on character development, and when the character develops, most of the time the writer does too.

And if a story doesn’t make you grow as a writer, chances are it’s not worth telling.

Joe McKinney is a sergeant in the San Antonio Police Department who has been writing professionally since 2006.  He is the Bram Stoker-nominated author of Dead City, Quarantined, Apocalypse of the Dead, Dodging Bullets, Flesh Eaters and Dead Set.  His upcoming books include The Zombie King, St. Rage, Lost Girl of the Lake, and The Red Empire.  As a police officer, he’s received training in disaster mitigation, forensics, and homicide investigation techniques, some of which finds its way into his stories.  He lives in the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio. Visit him here for news and updates.


  1. Ok. I’m sold. I’ll have to check that one out. Kudos for wanting to write a strong female character!

  2. Nice bit of insight into what to expect from FLESH EATERS. I’m half-finished with APOCALYPSE, and I think the most refreshing thing about the series is the different approach you’re taking with each book, Joe. Not focusing on one character (or characters) from one book to the next, having some focus on an ensemble cast while others have one primary protag… keeps the stories fresh, IMHO.

  3. Excellent blog, Joe. Good insights.

  4. Wayne A. "Tony" Conaway

    Outstanding post, Joe! I shared it on my Facebook page.

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