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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Guest Blogger L.Avjean- Writing Survival Characters: An Undeadly Epiphany

[Today it is my pleasure and honor to introduce my first guest blogger who doesn't take up residence in my own head.  Lauren Avjean has written about her experiences with Run For Your Lives 5k.  In addition to a wonderful insight into the ever growing and wildly popular zombie genre, she also shares some insights about Live Action Role Playing (LARPs), which I have written about in the past being a wonderful study in character in Six Ways LARPing at Dun Dra Con Made Me a Better Writer.  If you've ever read a Stephen King novel, or any well-written horror, you know that the actions of the people usually end up being as bad or worse than any of the monsters.  Lauren's article is a good study into the mindset of survival and can bring life to those characters for anyone considering writing survivalist fiction, horror, or especially about zombies.  Because not all these feelings will be warm and fuzzy or about saving the love interest....]

Writing Survival Characters: An Undeadly Epiphany       
by Lauren Avjean
The Conundrum  
Whether or not to hit on a zombie in a short schoolgirl skirt is NOT the Conundrum.  

I’ve recently been trying to determine why we as a geek community are so enthralled (heh) by zombies and the thought of the coming zombie apocalypse.  It’s kind of like the bacon syndrome, where everything zombie related has suddenly become as revered as those crispy strips of pig.  Not that I’m necessarily complaining, I’m just struggling to understand how the popularity of the undead rose so quickly to where it is today.  Between video games, movies, T.V. shows, graphic novels, how-to-survive books, “break glass in case of,” and even plushies, zombies have become an integral part of our day to day lives.  But is that a good thing?  Has that desensitized us to the horrors that the rising dead actually bring?

The realization that we as a populace are so desensitized to the real terror of the undead got me thinking about how we would actually act were a zombie outbreak to happen.  But what tools short of hiring a mad scientist to release the Z-virus in a controlled environment and seeing the results do I have?   As an avid LARP (Live Action Role Playing) writer I would typically take this conundrum, draft up some characters, stick them in an outbreak area, and let them loose to see what the players do.  The only problem with this plan is that 1) my next opportunity to run a LARP is in February, and 2) I’m too impatient.

The Race

That’s when I had the marvelous opportunity to participate in the Run For Your Lives 5k Zombie Infested Obstacle Course Race in Temecula, CA at the end of October.  Not only was it that magical time leading up to Halloween where everyone is in full-on zombie mode, but it gave a real opportunity to run from zombies in the hills of California.  I had seen pictures of previous races and fully anticipated (as the event title suggests) running for my life, but I was not prepared for the basic human instincts that it brought out in the runners.  This rare insight into the human psyche will undoubtedly be an invaluable tool in future writings and all I can do, short of sticking you in a similar situation, is recount some of my experience with it.

See Lauren run.
Run Lauren run!
Upon arrival the event itself had a huge festival feel with camping in one area, a stage in another, food, the ever important beer garden, and off in the corner was the start of the course.  With costumes and revelry all about it was hard to believe that this could be turned into a zombie infested obstacle course that instilled fear into the hearts of its runners!  After fueling up at the beer garden I started donning the items that were in my race bag.  Race bib: check.  Timing chip: check. Flag belt: check.  Wait, flags you ask?  That’s right; during the whole race the zombies on the course try and grab your health flags.  If you cross the finish line with at least one flag, you’re good to go and in the clear.  Lose your flags?  Well you have that wonderful Z-virus incubating inside of you and will turn into one of the flesh eating monsters that you just spent 3.1 miles running from!

The Course

Unfortunately due to unforeseen circumstances instead of running with a team I made my way to the start line by my lonesome to face down the zombies on my own.  Sure it was a little nerve wracking, but seeing all of the costumes and lightheartedness heading to the start corrals was reassuring.  There were three start corrals: Appetizer, Entrée, and Dessert.  My first survival decision was to throw in with the Entrée lot so that I was neither leading the charge nor was I lagging towards the end like a wounded wildebeest.  You could almost feel the adrenaline permeating the air as the race officials turned on the fog machines and began the countdown.  When they threw aside the gates that had us corralled in, our meal group shot out to the course only to find… a giant hill.

I have to say I was a little disappointed that the first quarter mile was entirely uphill and would have tried jogging it except that I was utilizing my next survival tactic: I had heard that at the top of the hill there was a horde of zombies and decided to conserve my strength.  Halfway up the hill the dynamic of the runners also changed dramatically.  We were no longer close enough to the event site to hear the music or the people.  It was quite literally as quiet as the back hills of California during a zombie apocalypse.


That’s when I realized that I was no longer just running in a race, I was immersing myself in a LARP of sorts where I could truly connect with other characters and discover the motivations of both the runners as well as myself on a basic instinct level (no, not the movie).  As I came to this realization I heard the first of the screams.  Our group had reached the first group of zombies so what did I instinctively do?  Position myself in the very center of a group of people.  Well, it worked, but in the process I got a true sense of what it is like to group up with a bunch of strangers to outrun flesh eating undead.  The zombies were so good it was hard to think of them as people, and that was the point!  Incredible makeup and acting made us feel the urgency of moving as quickly as possible to get past them with our brains intact.

The race quickly devolved from a timed 5k obstacle course to a basic walk/sprint survival course where the strength was in numbers, and cooperation (or sacrifice) was the key.  Maybe it was easier for me to position myself in the pack so that other people ended up as zombie bait because I didn’t know them?  That’s what I’d like to think, but I’ll never know for sure unless the apocalypse comes or I run it again with friends.  This insight into my survival mode made me reflect on how easy it would be for the characters that we write to do the same.

The Epiphany

There are some key moments throughout the course that really shed light onto what I would to survive, and how quickly morals I would have on a day-to-day basis disappeared.  I was in full survival mode, and a good number of runners lost their flags in situations where I did not.  Strangely though, I felt validated that my tactics had worked whereas theirs hadn’t.   I’ll highlight a couple of other instances where I sacrificed other runners while during a normal day would do anything I could to help them:

1)      The maze: I was the first to reach a maze in the course and realized immediately that it would be a bad idea to go in first.  Did I group up and strategize with a group of people to ensure maximum survival?  No.  Did I communicate my concern so that no one else would run blindly in?  No.  What did I do?  I stood by the entrance quietly until someone else ran in first and then went in behind them.  It paid off though: they lost a flag and I didn’t!

             No, you guys go ahead.  I'll guard humanity's rear.            
2)      Drafting:  this was actually pointed out to me by a spectator.  I didn’t realize at the time what I was doing but I would allegedly slow down before a group of zombies to allow other runners to pull them off to one side and then dart past the undead while they were chasing down the poor runner(s) who ran out first.  Apparently I used this tactic on the same person multiple times and they were giving me nasty looks by the end of the course.

3)      Winner takes all: this was perhaps the worst of everything I did, looking back.  During one of the walking stretches where there were no zombies and no obstacles, I began chatting it up with a group of runners who had all come as a group.  One of the girls had mentioned that she was just finishing the race for fun because she had lost all of her flags.  I had two left.  Moments after she had spoken a course official began driving by on a golf cart with holding out an extra flag for anyone to grab.  Why wasn’t anyone grabbing it?  I darted over and snatched it from him and briefly considered giving it to the poor girl who had been infected during the race. I briefly considered it silently right up until I tied it to my belt where my one missing flag had been, bringing my count back up to three.  Neither of us said anything about it and I finished the race uninfected.

The Point

Seeing these actions not only in myself, but also in other runners made me reevaluate basic human instinct and what it really means to be a survivor.  It gave me new insight into the entire zombie craze as well as into the psyche of humans under the pressure of a threat to their lives.  It’s incredible how quickly one’s morals can dissolve and as well as how quickly people can throw each other to the wolves, or in this case the undead, to protect themselves.

"I don't have to run faster than the zombies.  I only have to run faster than you."

Maybe the current desensitization is a good thing in the sense that our survival instincts won’t be stifled by initial terror with the onset of the coming zombie apocalypse.  Or maybe it just makes us throw our fellow man to the zombie creeping up on you like your Player Two that left to go grab a beer.  What I can tell you is that the insight that this race has provided me is inspirational gold when it comes to character creation, development, and situational motivations.  If you get the chance to run in a race like this I highly recommend it, even if you’re not a runner.  If you can’t get that chance, I hope that I’ve helped any moral/motivational questions or concerns by sharing my as-close-to-real-life-as-it-gets zombie experience.  Who knows, the Mayan Calendar says that since December 22 is right around the corner maybe we’ll get to find out first hand after all…

[If you would like to guest-blog for Writing About Writing, then W.A.W. wants you!  Check out what few limitations there are and contact Chris Brecheen at chris.brecheen@gmail.com]


  1. Nicely done, Avjean!

    "It wasn't coldhearted ruthlessness, it was STRATEGY!" ;)