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.