I’m a fan of stories about the end of the world as we know it. It’s an element I’ve used in my own fiction – in Higher Ground, where natural disaster is the threat and Patient Z, all about the struggles to survive after a zombie apocalypse. And when it comes to other people’s stories, I’m a fan of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and Stephen King’s epic The Stand. Right now I’m watching the show The Walking Dead for the first time (I had to wait until Patient Z was out before I dared watch it!) And I like stories where the disaster really happens, it’s not averted at the last moment, so the characters have to live with the consequences.
So why do I like them so much? What’s the appeal?
High stakes – it’s life and death stuff, which can keep the reader very strongly invested in the story. You know that there’s a good chance some of the people won’t make it out alive. And for the characters the high, life and death stakes push them into actions they’d never have contemplated before. It makes their emotions stronger – and if they’ve just fallen for someone at the same time this all kicks off…
Teabag characters – I think I’ve mentioned teabag characters before – they are characters who you only know what they are made of when they get in hot water. A lot of the fun of these end of the world stories is seeing characters ripped out of their normal, safe lives and forced to cope, or not, with what’s befallen them. Some you will find out are weak and wishy washy. Others will be stronger than they ever imagined they could be, and discover hidden depths. That idea comes up plenty in Patient Z.
They make me wonder what I’d do in that position – these kinds of stories always get me thinking. How would I cope in that situation? What would I do in a zombie apocalypse. Will my copy of The Zombie Survival Guide be a good guide?! What would I do in The Day of the Triffids if I was one of the blinded people? If I still had my sight? Would I survive? In some ways that isn’t only idle speculation, it makes me think about how dependent I am on all the things making my life so comfortable, and if something happened (not as drastic as the end of the world, but bad) how would I cope without them?
Diverse groups of characters thrown together by the situation – this might be the most fun of all. If only a small number of people manage to survive, they have to work together, they have to leave their attitudes to each other in the past and learn how to survive together. Sometimes those differences can be exaggerated for effect – a white supremacist and black and Asian characters. Police officers and criminals. A rich person and a homeless person. Or it can be more subtle than that. In The Stand a deaf character who can’t speak and who communicates by writing stuff down finally meets someone to team up with, after almost everyone else is dead – only to find out the guy can’t read. They manage as best they can.
Managing as best they can. That’s what I like about them really. End of the world stories sound like they should be depressing, and of course they have lots of sadness in them. But the tenacity of even a handful of people who struggle to hold onto life, struggle to maintain their humanity in the face of disaster is ultimately a hopeful idea.