Storytelling

How to Use Undead in Your Stories

Ivan Bilibin's Koschey depicts the lich riding around on his giant steed.

Undead creatures aren’t limited to shamblers and neck-biters. They come with a wide range of options, and each has its own strengths. A little thought and planning will help you choose the best creatures for your story and help set your undead antagonists apart from the horde.

Pick a Theme

Kashchey the Deathless appears human, but he is a clearly a twisted reflection of the living. Kashchey the Deathless appears human, but he is a clearly a twisted reflection of the living.

While you can choose any theme, these are particularly suited to help your undead feel memorable and meaningful.

A twisted reflection of life: The undead take a deep dip into the uncanny valley by corrupting and perverting the natural order. Many appear similar to the living, and some can even pass as them. Still, they are distinctly inhuman, and this disconnect makes them extra creepy. Stress both their human and inhuman qualities to make them unnerving.

Predatory instincts: Vampires, zombies, and other types of not-so-dead things are decidedly predatory. Many still need to eat, and their prey is exclusively human. They lie at the intersection of insatiable gluttony and unopposed predation, making their relationship with humans even more complicated. Unable to control their hunger, they can be driven to eat even their loved ones.

Fear of death: Some undead are the result of voluntary transformations, and the choice to trade a heartbeat for near-immortality. That said, theirs is a corrupted form of life. Those that choose unlife show a fear of death, a disregard for taboos, and a willingness to make sacrifices. Undeath is a way to drive home the point that death is the natural and necessary end, and anything else is horrific. A refusal to die can make a powerful motive for your villains.

Choose Abilities

In Let the Right One In, vampires have super strength and can climb walls. In Let the Right One In, vampires have super strength and can climb walls.

Make your undead threatening by giving them more than tooth and nail as weapons.

Spellcasting: The undead are usually created with unholy magic. Necromancers will cast foul rituals to bring forth hordes of monstrosities, or an innocent will stumble on a forbidden tome. So it’s natural for the undead themselves to wield dark magic. This connection to the eldritch and supernatural gives them a fantastic yet horrifying feel and offers storytellers a flexible range of abilities for their villains.

Animal affinity: Vampires and other undead have a special affinity for animals that’s been underplayed in recent years. In many old stories, they control or shapeshift into wolves and other predators. This not only provides minions for your heroes to contend with but also ties them further to their carnivorous nature. Undead are already gluttonous, and this ability deepens that theme.

Corruption: Many undead spread their curse even further, killing and corrupting their former brethren as they go. In storytelling, this raises the threat level and provides the opportunity to flip allies into enemies. Increase conflict by turning characters into abominations. What’s more, you can create dramatic moments when heroes first encounter their newly-dead friends.

Select a Weakness

Bram Stoker's Dracula has all of the classic weaknesses of vampires. Bram Stoker’s Dracula has all of the classic vampire weaknesses.

Every monster and villain needs a weakness that can be exploited by heroes, and the undead are no exception. Besides personality flaws, they should have specific things that weaken or destroy them.

  • Vampires have a whole laundry list of Achilles’ heels, ranging from garlic to running water. Sunlight is particularly common.
  • Liches put their souls in receptacles known as phylacteries, which allows them to avoid true death, but cunning heroes will capture the artifact and use it as leverage.
  • Zombies come in many types, but every one can be killed with a specific method. In addition to the tried-and-true destroying the brain, I’ve also seen incineration, dismemberment, and even nailing them to the grave.*
  • Ghosts are often tied to an item or location, such as a piece of jewelry or the place they died. Once everything is made right, they may be released into the afterlife. Sometimes, they’re also affected by salt or holy water.

The weaknesses you choose should be interesting to your fans, challenging to the heroes, and fitting for your type of undead.

Unless it’s a threat your protagonists aren’t supposed to overcome, every problem should have a solution, and the undead are no different. Undeath usually spreads like a disease, so unless you want to wipe out humanity, a cure is needed. Sure, that cure is usually true death, but the deaths of heroes and villains can be powerful moments in stories. They’re not always even tragic. When an undead character becomes truly dead, the natural order is made right again.

Overdone and Bad Examples of the Undead

Instead of skeletons, imagine Jason and his Argonauts fighting bears. Little has changed These skeletons Jason and his Argonauts fought were interchangeable with any generic foes.

Neither zombies nor skeletons are interesting foes for protagonists as they can’t talk or strategize. Imagine: instead of a necromancer who summons skeletons or zombies, your story had a wizard that conjures bears. Would anything really be different? If your monsters are interchangeable with mundane animals, you should re-examine why you’re using them.

There is an absolute glut of zombies in pop culture these days. Most of the time, it’s not the zombies that make the tale interesting; it’s the characters. Once again, zombies can be replaced by any number of better monsters. Unless your zombies are especially novel or used in a unique setting, it’s like every other tale we’ve already heard.

While they are often used as monsters, the undead function better as villains. What sets the undead apart from other monsters is their connection to the living. They’re creepier if they are close to regular humans. Villains have motives and a voice; making them mindless monsters takes that away.

Underused and Good Examples of the Undead

Revival features creepy spirits and undead that can pass for living Revival features creepy spirits and undead that can pass for living. Image by Mike Norton

Making your undead break molds can do a lot for your story. One of my favorite examples are the revivers from Tim Seeley and Mike Norton’s Revival series. A mysterious event causes some people to rise after death. They have amazing powers of regeneration, allowing them to regrow lost limbs and organs. However, by all appearances they are still living and can pass for normal. This unique form of undeath creates intrigue, provides interesting psychological issues for the undead, and brings up the question of how to treat them.

Another interesting undead is Koschei the Deathless,* a character from Russian and Slavic mythology. He possesses numerous abilities, including great strength and the ability to turn into a tempest. According to numerous pop culture sources like Hellboy’s Darkness Calls,* he hid his death away inside of a needle, inside of an egg, inside a duck, inside a hare, inside a chest, tucked away on an island. While putting his soul in a receptacle prevents his death, it’s also a weakness that can be exploited. It’s a blessing and a curse, which gives storytellers room to work. While its unique, it’s still consistent with the nature of many undead.

Ghosts are frequently used, but they rarely live up to their potential. Cheesy horror flicks neglect their most interesting aspect: their deep human ties. Ghosts aren’t necessarily villainous, giving writers a lot of versatility. They provide a great way to create antagonists that aren’t strictly evil. They could be misguided, confused, or just angry because they’re stuck, instead of being intentionally malevolent. Obviously evil villains are boring; the best villains have some positive traits or are at least somewhat relatable. Used correctly, ghosts can be good grey-zoned antagonists.


The undead are fantastic for creating creepy and horrific tales. They are a perverted reflection of mankind; a catalyst for meaningful discourse. Their ability to corrupt others creates an interesting and unnerving threat. If you play to their strengths, your fans will be on the edge of their seats.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

Read more about , , , ,

 

Comments

  1. Rand al'Thor

    Great post! How did you end up doing it David?

    • David Mesick

      I consult only the best soothsayers and oracles when divining the best topics and sources.

      In all seriousness, I read a lot, and the editorial staff at Mythcreants is also extremely helpful. Go thank an editor today, as that’s the reason you’re enjoying a well-cooked dish instead of a poorly mixed word-salad.

  2. Skylark

    Zombies these days seem interchangeable with either “the swarm” or “the plague”.

    One story I’ve found that does an interesting twist is the webcomic Stand Still, Stay Silent. While the creatures aren’t zombies per se, their origin and threat have a lot of similarities (started as plague, turns infected, killed by fire). What’s different here is that the plague doesn’t always show symptoms at first, an be airborne, and infects more than just humans, making the whole post-apocalypse scenario much more plausible (and why the Mythcreants article about zombies vs armies doesn’t ruin the whole story – see my comment on that one for more). There’s also a bit more mysticism in it, tied into Nordic myths (the creatures are called Trolls, for instance).

    In my own novel-in-progress, the “spirits” are actually more like aliens, coming over from another world (but not the afterlife). The problem is that they’re very empathic, sensing auras and emotions – if they pop up where someone has died, they pick up on it (especially if people around them are still mourning) and become overwhelmed, convinced they must be the ghost of this person. To defeat them, the protagonists have to reason with them and get them to realize they are not in fact ghosts, then send them home. How these “spirits” are ending up in our world is another matter entirely (and the main plot of the book).

  3. Beth

    If you’re looking for an example of an undead character as the protagonist, the CW’s iZombie is a good example. The main character is a zombie, but she’s able to talk and think and be a regular human for the most part. The only thing keeping her humanity is eating brains. They also spend some time working on a cure for zombies that will turn her fully human again, because even eating brains regularly can’t keep her functioning as a human forever.
    So though it’s not common, having an undead character as the protagonist instead of the antagonist can be done. You just have to tweak the expected a bit.

  4. Brigitta M.

    I don’t think the problem with zombies is the zombies themselves, it’s more about how they’re approached in stories. Primarily as backdrop and setting, a constant plague if you will that just happens to walk around (or shamble, as the case may be).
    Slowing down the rate of infection and making the focus smaller in scale, like Beth pointed out in CWs “iZombie” but from what I’ve seen it’s done to humorous effect (nothing wrong with that) but if twisted to the point that humanity is lost on a much darker scale and getting inside the mind of someone who is becoming a member of this particular class of undead opens up some strange and potentially horrifying possibilities.
    Also, there are many tales that focus on the beginning of an apoc, George R. Romero did it best with “Night of the Living Dead.” And a lot of people imitate this mould (some with more success than others).
    Then there’s the other end, where the cure has happened (after a mini-apoc of sorts). Which may or may not be a cure… and may bring out something worse with hints of Lovecraftian eldritch horrors and other mythological daemons abound.
    Maybe you could even have someone who is becoming a zombie and is already a serial killer so the idea of becoming cannibalistic doesn’t really phase him but instead inspires him to expand his repertoire of culinary (and macabre) delights.
    Or heck, they can be outright fun, time-travelling, slow-developing zombies from a superhuman serum experiment that went terribly wrong who end up going out in a blaze of glory on a futuristic motorcycle in order to distract the robotic uprising in a future far removed where he originally came from.
    In short, don’t knock zombies just because of how they’ve been approached in far too many markets and because currently they’re in full-saturation mode. With different approaches and angles they can be terrifying in an entirely new way.
    PS. Yes, in case you’re wondering most of these ideas I’ve developed into stories because I too, got tired of the same ol’ same ol’ when it came to this particular breed of the undead.

    • David Mesick

      I agree that the problem isn’t with zombies. In addition to overuse, I think it’s often forgotten that they’re are monsters, not villains. Monsters don’t have voices or complicated motives, so they need to be used alongside strong and compelling heroes. When you also consider their widespread usage. I haven’t seen iZombie yet, but it’s a novel concept, so it stand out. Similarly, Fido is an interesting take on living with zombies, and Pontypool has a really interesting transmission method. Point is, they require a bit more work than is often afforded to them. There are plenty of great examples of them, and in fact one of the most personally terrifying things I have read involved a brand of “infected” but those examples are notable either due to a phenomenal story, or a novel setting. Most of the other times they show up, they aren’t bad movies or shows, but they get lost in the white noise of a saturated market. Vampires have gone through this too, though they seem to be showing up less in the last couple years, losing grounds to the zombies.

      As an aside, I really do like you idea about the serial killer zombie- that’s a new and interesting idea, and I like the thematic tie between the killer’s cannibalism and the already gluttonous nature of the walking dead. It also reminds me of Revival, and fantastic Noir comics series about the dead that rise. They don’t hunger, they aren’t inherently violent, but how do you react when your dead brother rises from the ground a week later looking for a place to stay? It makes for a pretty dark plunge into the uncanny valley.

      • Brigitta M.

        Not his brother, but there’s a short story called “Zombie Nights” by Tom Lichtenberg that’s about one that comes out of his grave to move in with his uncle.

        I think I found it on goodreads (and I know it was free, so that’s a bonus if you’re on a tight budget). It’s a good story as it doesn’t just explore the zombie aspects, but the humanity of who he was before he died and who he wants to be now.

    • SunlessNick

      In short, don’t knock zombies just because of how they’ve been approached in far too many markets and because currently they’re in full-saturation mode. With different approaches and angles they can be terrifying in an entirely new way.

      “Are you my Mummy?”

      • El Suscriptor Justiciero

        “GO TO YOUR ROOM!”
        (The zombies leave)
        “I’m really glad that worked.”

  5. Tumblingxelian

    A really solid post there’s tons of alternate takes on the undead and their abilities as you noted and I liked the various bits of advice you gave.

    Honestly its make me want to try and tap into that fantasy zombie revenge’ story I was toying with. Though rather than the traditional zombie these undead could think and feel more or less as in life, having had their souls ‘captured’ before death and placed in mummified bodies before entering a trance. The society that did this were playing the long game after humans had chased them out of mot of their lands and were leaving them to slowly whither and die. 200 years later, the last people die out under the care of a death priest and boom, two hundred years worth of angry undead people and whatever else they could get rise up to deliver a final ‘screw you” to humanity.

    Well that was one of the ideas anyway XD

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy (updated 9/3/18). We send comment data to outside parties for spam filtering and other services. See our privacy policy for details.