How to Defeat the Plot Zombie Menace ….. by Nicole Kimberling

Okay, here’s the scenario: Our Intrepid Hero, Dr. Binky, has just found the man of his dreams.

Commander Brutus is everything that Dr. Binky could have asked for and more. A strong soldier, good leader to his men, Brutus also writes poetry. Unbeknownst to anyone, Brutus has been extensively published. He wants to be a father, even though he’s gay. Strong, yet sensitive—that’s our Brutus.

After meeting in Afghanistan, where Dr. Binky had been volunteering for Doctors Without Borders on a massive inoculation program, Binky and Brutus begin a whirlwind affair that leaves them both breathless and infatuated.

Then tragedy strikes—a roadside bomb leaves two men under Brutus’ command dead while Brutus is only mildly injured. Binky rushes to his bedside but meets with only a cold stare.

“See what harm you do, treating anybody who comes for you?” Brutus asks. “Those men died because of you.”

“No! It’s not my fault!”  Binky cries.

“It is. Those men would have been dead if they hadn’t been given medical care at your facility. You’re just making the insurgents stronger and better at killing us. It’s over between us.” Brutus glances to the MPs on duty. “Get him out of my sight.”

Binky is thrown out of the army hospital and onto the dark streets of Kandahar, where he is immediately kidnapped by bandits.

As he is bouncing around in the back of the truck with his head covered by a burlap sack Binky thinks, “Brutus will never come for me now. I’m done for.”

If you’re like me you think, “What the hell, Brutus? I though you were smart. Any idiot can see that Binky inoculating eight year olds and helping old ladies with their diabetes did not cause those soldiers’ deaths. Why are you being such an asshole?”

But Brutus being a complete prick is not his fault because Brutus is a Plot Zombie.

“Plot Zombie” is a term that I picked up from Ginn Hale a while ago. It describes a character whose slavery to the author’s plot choices render their actions emotionally and motivationally incomprehensible.

Why did Brutus accuse Binky of somehow being complicit in the killing of his men? Well, one need only turn the page and realize that the plot called for Binky to be kidnapped. Only an idiot would be walking around alone at night so to avoid TSTL, Dr. Binky’s vulnerability has to be someone else’s fault. Enter Brutus’ unprovoked and rationally improbable temper tantrum.

Plot Zombies are not motivated by their thoughts, goals or their emotions. They cannot remember that two scenes before they expressed ethics and morals in direct opposition to their current actions. They behave in a way that is convenient to the scene they are in, regardless of who they are supposed to be. They can’t help it, because they are not really characters, merely functionaries performing the events of the story.

It’s hard to care what happens to a Plot Zombie. They’re hard to get attached to on account of their unpredictability and nonsensical behavior.

Leafing further along in the book, one comes across another sequence of events: Brutus has just rescued Binky. The bandits have escaped, but Brutus and Binky have had make-up sex because there’s nothing that mitigates the trauma of being kidnapped like unprotected anal intercourse in the back of an army jeep.

Immediately following orgasm, Binky forgets everything that has happened in the last forty-eight hours, turns to Brutus and says, “How could you have done this to me? I don’t think that I can trust you.”

Oh, Binky… You can do the old in-and-out with Brutus, but not trust him twenty seconds later? What is wrong with you? Are you bipolar?

But we readers know. Binky suffers from a much more sinister disease. He has become the Plot Zombie now. His freak-out keeps the relationship conflict going. It ensures that the book can go on for a hundred more pages before he and the guilt-ridden Commander Brutus can, after a stand-off against the bandits in the Doctors Without Borders clinic, resolve their relationship in a frenzy of tears, apology and mad-hot mansex.

Pulled along by the plot, we readers make it to the end of this story, but at the end discover that we truly do not care about either of these characters because they make no sense.

So what is to be done? Both these characters need better reasons for doing the things that they do. That doesn’t mean that the plot must change. The characters must be given better motivation for their actions than ‘the outline says I reject you hurtfully, but it all turns out to be a big misunderstanding 100 pages later’. They also need a logical train of thought that explains why they’re feeling the way that they feel and making the choices they make.

There are a million reasons Dr. Binky could be out on the street alone that don’t involve Brutus throwing a hissy fit. The burden of the author is to go beyond that first, easy solution. Maybe Binky could have been lured out by a false cry for help. Maybe his car could have broken down? Or Binky might be betrayed by his young driver, who is secretly working for the bandits.

Why, then, does Brutus feel guilty? That’s easy. He wasn’t there for Binky. It doesn’t matter that he could not have been there for Binky. That’s not the way guilt works. But let’s give Brutus a solid reason. Let’s say the driver who betrayed Binky had been personally recommended by Brutus. Let’s make him an orphan who Brutus has been mentoring.

Okay, then after Brutus rescues Binky what keeps their relationship conflict going for a hundred more pages if Binky doesn’t dissolve into plot-advancing automaton and reject Brutus just because the plot requires him to?

Well, first it’s important to understand that the first scenario, where Brutus’ illogical tantrum sends Binky away to be kidnapped, does not constitute a real relationship conflict in the first place. Conflicts between characters (and with real people) have to do with clashes of personality that are amplified by external forces.

Because Plot Zombies have no steady characteristics, they don’t have genuine personalities. So now the author must think soulfully upon how both Binky and Brutus might react to Binky’s ordeal and find the conflict between them. What about if Brutus wanted to pursue and kill the bandits, who are no more than poverty-stricken teenagers? What if Binky stopped him because there had been enough bloodshed?

Then Brutus could have a real beef with Binky—he’s naïve and reckless and therefore Brutus may fear he’s not the man for him. And Binky could perceive that Brutus has the capacity to be vengeful and unjust and therefore is a far cry from a perfect match for him, regardless of physical attraction.

Their conflict is now with each other—and has the advantage of mirroring a real conflict between military organizations and NGOs. That creates resonance, which is like anti-serum Z to Plot Zombies. Also it requires both the characters to consider each other’s beliefs and ideas—not just smoking hot asses—to reach a resolution. Now the plot has to be about something instead of just being a list of dramatic actions and sex scenes.

This brings us to the end of the book, which is the stand-off in the clinic. How the author resolves the stand-off should be informed by the conflict between the two protagonists as much as it is by a plot outline. Ultimately, that depends on what the author wants to say about the conflict. If the author agrees with Binky, then Binky should be able to talk the bandits down.

Should the author’s opinion be more in line with Brutus, Brutus goes in with guns blazing.

So, both the Plot Zombie version of the story and the more naturally motivated version end happily. Both feature an abduction as well as bandits but it’s only when the characters are developed and their personalities are built into the plot that they evolve from being mere functions to people we can care about.

Which kind of book would you rather write? Which kind of book would you rather read?

I call upon authors to eradicate Plot Zombies wherever they occur and give readers genuine characters to care about.

Got any thoughts on this? I love comments so fire away.

21 comments

  • I’m late to the party, but what a great post. I’m so happy to have a name for this plotting technique! I’ve never known what to call it.

    I’ve been reading a lot of horror and thrillers lately, and they are lousy with Plot Zombies. In fact, I’d say Plot Zombies outnumber real characters 10:1. The lady detective who goes looking for clues in the dark woods at 2 am. The wife in the haunted house who screams at her husband to take the dog out of the room when all she has to do is LOOK to see there is no dog. The man who argues with his disbelieving wife about strange things happening, but forgets to mention the dead, rotting corpse he found in the water tank. (I didn’t even make any of those up. Those are all Plot Zombie stories I’ve read recently.) It’s so aggravating to watch the characters bounce around from one plot contrivance to the next with no real purpose.

    And like Mercedes said, it seems to happen a lot in TV shows too. I’m a bit more likely to just roll my eyes and carry on when it’s on TV, but when it’s in my books? It makes me stabby.

    Reply
  • Thanks for this essay. The plot zombie is one of the biggest reasons I put a book aside without finishing it. I find it incredibly frustrating when characters suddenly do idiotic things. You just can’t respect them or care about their romantic journey afterwards.

    Reply
    • Hi MandyM!

      I feel your pain. To me it seems as though they are proliferating as well, because of the gaming phenomenon that I mentioned above.

      Reply
  • I’m so glad that someone wrote about this!
    At last, I can stop muttering about it to myself.

    That said, one of the reasons I noticed Plot Zombies is because I once caught myself just about to create one. 😯
    For an author, it can be really tempting to use devices like this one or THE BIG MISUNDERSTANDING to just get the characters to the next step in an outline but the fact is that readers notice and it’s worth while to take the time to craft a plot that works with the characters instead of just cramming them into a plot like poorly packed luggage.

    Reply
    • Say it isn’t so, Ginn! You nearly wrote a plot zombie?

      Actually I can totally see that. Anybody who writes actual plots has a huge burden of motivation to manufacture and your massive, cast-of-thousands plots would require constant monitoring to avoid some of the characters becoming functionaries.

      Thanks for giving me the term “Plot Zombie” by the way. 😉

      Reply
  • Love this! Het romance is filled with the BIG MISUNDERSTANDING. I put that in caps because the misunderstanding is so petty and dumb, it has to be blown up in a ridiculous way to look important. So know I know they have a better name, plot zombie!

    Seems like this is good thing to have beta readers for. I’m sure it can be difficult to see this type of thing when you are absorbed writing the story but a beta should be able to pinpoint it and ask why Binky hit Brutus with a 2×4 right after professing undying love.

    Reply
    • Good afternooon, Issa!.

      “…the BIG MISUNDERSTANDING. I put that in caps because the misunderstanding is so petty and dumb, it has to be blown up in a ridiculous way to look important.”

      Ha ha ha! That is really cute! I also love the idea of “The 2 x 4 of Pointless Conflict.” If I were in a writing workshop I would go buy a board and write “WHY?!?!?!?!” on it and just hold it up at appropriate moments in the critique circle.

      Reply
  • Also it requires both the characters to consider each other’s beliefs and ideas—not just smoking hot asses—to reach a resolution.

    Ha, ha! This is a wonderful essay. Too often as a reader, I can almost hear the uncomfortable groans of both plot and characters being forced into unnatural configurations to serve the author’s purposes.

    Too often as an author, I’ve forgotten my insights as a reader, and went ahead and done this because I’ve been so desperate to get from plot point A to B anyway I can. When I’m in a fog of mental fatigue after working nonstop on a draft, it can be hard to see anything but the easiest solution.

    I love how you don’t just tell us about this concept, but show how the same plot points here can be engineered in a bad way (Plot Zombies picking pointless fights with each other) and a good way (the traitor driver kidnapping one of them, which engages both men’s past experiences and paves the way for real emotional turmoil).

    I especially like how the good way to engineer the plot involves reactions that come from deep inside each character’s background and personality, which feels authentic. The few times I’ve managed to do this in a story have always felt like random luck.

    But now that I’ve seen this information articulated here, I can start applying it consciously. I’m going to file this essay with the best editing advice I’ve ever received. 😀

    Reply
    • Hi Val! Wow! That’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever received!

      “Too often as an author, I’ve forgotten my insights as a reader, and went ahead and done this because I’ve been so desperate to get from plot point A to B anyway I can. When I’m in a fog of mental fatigue after working nonstop on a draft, it can be hard to see anything but the easiest solution.”

      This happens to everybody. And after an author is done writing, oftentimes she can’t stand to read the story a gain for a while so the zombie moments never get addressed. This is where a good editor can make all the difference in a story by asking questions and making comments like, “I don’t get why Brutus would do such a thing,” or “I wonder about Dr. Binky’s reasoning here.”

      Oftentimes that’s all it takes to prompt an author to bolster a character’s personality by providing real reasons for the things that they are doing.

      Reply
  • This has been more evident to me in TV shows. I guess I have just not been pinpointing this in the books I read. But yes, these characters can be frustrating.

    Reply
    • Hello Mercedes! My actual inspiration for this Plot Zombie column was watching Madagascar 3, which seemed to me to be just a sequence of events that sort of made sense edited together.

      Reply
  • I loved this analysis, so clear sighted and creative. Thank you.

    The underlying premise is that characters have to be real vibrant people not paper puppets who would blow over in a draught never mind in real life. Real people are complicated individuals with a wide variety of motivations. I can suspend my disbelief with the best of them. I don’t expect my romance novel heroes to be the product of exact psychological analysis, but it would help if I felt they could actually be a living functioning person. Recently I have met enough ‘ plot zombies ‘ to fill a cemetery.

    Reply
    • How very funny – mostly I want to thank you and echo what Raine said but I wanted to ask two main characters whether they are bipolar in the book I was reading a day or two ago.

      Reply
      • Hey there, Sirius!

        I cannot tell you how many times I have wanted to whip out the psychiatric manual and attempt to diagnose characters. Maybe sometime I’ll try to create a diagnostic tool to help pinpoint the exact mental illnesses suffered by characters. I’d definitely have Zombie Biopolarism, Compulsive Boner Disorder and Sob Story Torrets Syndrome on my list of afflictions.

        Reply
        • You are so very funny Nicole. I am going to start printing your columns – I am obviously not a writer, but your essays help me better visualize what bothers me in certain books, when I know something is off for me, but not sure what is it.

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        • What a great post, Nicole — and I would love to see more of these problems get their own takedown! I know Compulsive Boner Disorder has made me roll my eyes all the way through stories that were supposed to be exciting. (In the middle of a high-stakes police investigation, currently at a crime scene? Time out! This boner will not be ignored!)

          Reply
    • Hi Raine! Thank you for coming by.

      “Recently I have met enough ‘ plot zombies ‘ to fill a cemetery.”

      I know what you mean! I have this theory that game play is contributing to the massive influx of plot zombies in modern media–especially visual media like film. Many younger people, especially young men, seem to prefer them to real characters.

      For example, recently I was watching one of the Bourne movies (the one with Matt Damon and that chick from Run, Lola, Run) with a 25 year old friend of mine. I remarked that I couldn’t get into it because Jason Bourne had no characteristics whatsoever and was therefore badly written and boring.

      My young friend argued that I didn’t perceive that modern action films try to put the viewer into the POV of the main character and therefore the lack of personal characteristics made him easier to enter into. This made Bourne into a gameplay character that you didn’t actually have to play. He challenged my conclusion of bad writing because the film had effectively done just that.

      He had a point.

      I still didn’t care about the character though. 🙂 I do still believe that the challenge of a writer of non-interactive media is to make the reader/viewer care about the character, rather than create a vessel to inhabit.

      Reply

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