Apocalypse has been a recurring theme in literature for hundreds of years, but today the genre (and it is it’s own genre) is more closely scrutinised; people want to believe they too could survive the situation, and they want to at least believe that what you’re character does would work in real life.
Call it the modern climate, the political situation, or the degeneration of society as we know it, but readers today are less giving when it comes to suspension of belief in the post-apocalyptic genre.
With that in mind, here are the main things you, or your character, should be thinking about at various stages of the end of the world as we know it (Cue R.E.M).
D-Day, E-Day, and the falling bombs;
When your character is living through the literal end of the world there are a few things you need to consider if your readers are to believe you;
- Are they within the “danger zone”; are they in the immediate vicinity of falling bombs, boots on the ground invaders, or other negative side-effects of whatever world ending disaster you’ve thought up? If they are how will they survive? Do they have shelter? Some kind of privilege, e.g. are they “important” enough to be evacuated? Or is it luck (readers will accept this now and then, but much like the adverbs it should be avoided at most points).
- What skills do they have; are they ex-military? an athlete? trained in self-defence, weaponry, or even less common skills like hacking, lockpicking, and/or battlefield medicine? What is it that they have which makes them particularly qualified to survive the immediate events and aftermath?
- Do they have local knowledge? It would be much easier for a local to survive on their own turf even if they were less qualified or skilled because they know where all the resources and/or hiding places might be found.
- Their moral position; will their morals help or hinder them? Or will they be discarded?
When you write an apocalypse in progress, for lack of a better phrase you need to focus on action; it should be breathless, messy, and it should make your reader afraid. As a writer you need to walk the fine line between presenting a character capable enough to be interesting and plausibly survive whilst being vulnerable enough to make your characters fear for them.
Chaos, desertion, and dereliction;
It’s most common to see this intermediary stage in literature. Metro 2033 (Dmitry Glukhovsky) does this particularly well; this is the stage after the happening, so to speak, but before a more widespread recovery and in some universes the apocalypse stalls here with small settlements and vast swathes of lawless Badlands. Things to think about when you throw your characters in here;
- Are there local settlements? If so are they friendly, or at least neutral? Can your character trade with them? Do they live within one of them? How advanced are they? Does your character have access to even rudimentary medicine?
- Is there an economic system in place and where do they sit in the scale? Is it a bullets as money situation a la Mad Max, or are we talking bottlecaps and like for like trade? Have people begun to make things again or are they still scavenging?
- What is your characters mission? Are they looking to rebuild their world, or do they have an agenda all their own? This will really change how they interact with their world, and have an effect on how they approach each situation.
- Do they have shelter? Exposure will kill long before starvation, dehydration, or illness, and if environment is also toxic in some way or another somewhere to take shelter from the elements becomes even more important.
- How do their skills help them get by in this world, and what knowledge do they have that sets them apart? Perhaps more importantly what is it that allows them to fit in?
Light at the end of the tunnel, or endless night?
If you’re writing hundreds of years after the Event (whatever it might have been) you’re getting into less travelled territories; are you going for a hopeful and brave new world, or are you looking at a steady decay of the world and the inevitable dissolution of society (think The Road, by Cormac McCarthy)? When you do this you are, in fact, in danger of straying into literary territories. Consider these factors;
- How your character, once again, fits into and distinguishes themselves from the world around them. How recognisable are they, all things considered, to a person living in todays world? Do they represent something fearful or hopeful?
- Do they have shelter and resources? How scarce are they? Are people creating, raiding, scavenging? Just how harsh is this world, and how do they deal with it?
- What toll has being born into and raised within this world had on them? What’s the average life expectancy? Are they old for their society, or very young to be on such an adventure?
- Is there a society at all?
- What is their goal within this world? Do they want to fight against the tide of decay, or do they revel in the freedom it provides? Are they lonely, or do they fear other people?
Your character has to be very much of the world you envision unless you explain plausibly why they are not; whether they were in cryo sleep or they fell through some kind of portal, your readers only need your reasoning to follow logically from your premise and the set up of your world. What kills a good post-apocalyptic novel, for me anyway, is finding a character who, without explanation, has no ties, no cultural similarities, and no sympathy with the world they were supposedly born into. A novel can be a statement, but first it must be a story… and stories need to grip, inform, and nurture the reader.