Friday, March 25, 2016

Survivors in post-apocalypse stories

Becky and I were talking about her story yesterday, specifically how many people should be in a group of apocalypse survivors. It made my brain start buzzing, and as I could find no excessively helpful resources online, I thought I’d write about it here.

First, the established quasi-rules of the apocalypse.

  1. The monsters aren’t the problem—other people are.
  2. The size of the group should be reduced by 50% before coming to rest.
  3. If around at least ¼ of the characters to whom the audience has become emotionally attached don’t die in the course of the story, it won’t feel particularly apocalyptic.

Rule number one really works across all apocalypse stories, even ones that aren’t monster apocalypses. You can just replace “monster” with whatever the main antagonistic force is. You (the survivor protagonists) wind up dealing with idiots, megalomaniacs, and people who actively want to destroy you. If it weren’t for the people you are trying so hard to save and protect, you’d be just fine. That’s a pretty little dependency loop error, because after the end of the world, the only thing that makes life worth living is the hope that there are still other people out there, to bring back the human race.

Rule two: You start out with a big old group of people, but you’ve got vulnerable people in that group. Old people, sick people, injured people, children, pregnant women, people who can’t handle the pressure… the list goes on. These people get culled down fairly quickly and with minimal heartbreak to the audience. You are still left with people who aren’t hard-core survivors, here, but neither are they liabilities. They have what they need to survive and fade more or less into the background.

Then you have the core group of survivors, but a few of them have fatal flaws—usually, they will risk themselves to save someone who isn’t worth saving (by the metrics of the apocalypse), and they both die in the process. Aw, that’s sad. We feel the punch more logically than emotionally, though. He or she was the only doctor! S/He was the only one who knew how to run the power plant! S/He was practically a ninja and could gather resources like a motherplucker! We shall miss them. These will come and go over the course of the story, depending on how long the story is.

After they’re all accounted for, you’ve got your core group. The people that you really care if they live or die. And sadly, for both author and audience, rule three: a whole bunch of them have to die. None of them are sacrosanct.

Having addressed these core tenets, there are things that help structure your survival group.

  1. Are they nomadic, or have they found a home base?
  2. What are the risks of the world?
  3. What are your group’s advantages?
  4. What is the end goal?

Nomadic survivors are going to have to be smaller groups, essentially by necessity. Not so small as to appear weak, but not so big that you end up with a power struggle or a difficulty caring for and protecting the more vulnerable of the group. Groups with a home base can grow larger, but that comes with its own problems: how will leadership work? How will they fortify their position? How will they provide for everyone?

Which brings me to issue two: what are the risks? For example, in a zombie apocalypse, sound draws zombies. The risks with them is they might just wander on into your camp and start bogarting your snack food. You’d probably want to build a fortified wall, to defend against both the zombies and the human monsters.

If you have a more intelligent antagonistic force, you may be being actively hunted. Building a wall might draw unwanted attention to yourself. Are you more at risk at night, or during the day, and why? Who’s searching, and how? And how diligently? What must be done to provide for the community, and what’s threatening that?

Issue three: how does your group counter the threats? What special knowledge does your group have that can protect them from the monsters? In The Walking Dead, they figure out that covering themselves with gore will make them invisible to the zombies, as long as they don’t otherwise draw attention to themselves. So, is the Adversary organized enough that they recognize 100% of their allies, or could a member your group plausibly infiltrate their institution?

Issue four: is the goal “to survive,” as in zombie apocalypse scenarios, or is there an enemy your group will ultimately have to vanquish in order to start restructuring human society? If a war is the end goal, you’re going to want to be training warriors, seeing if you can gain access to languishing military resources, etc. If the goal is survival, training farmers and having babies might be more the focus.

For a moment, I will focus on larger groups that have found a home base. How big should this group be? It seems obvious that the bigger the group, the bigger the government. Lawyers were invented the moment two people disagreed; bureaucracies were invented when the lawyer and the two conflicting parties couldn’t come to an arrangement. Depending on the size of the settlement and how important subterfuge is to the group, they may have strict population limits, branching off groups to colonize nearby areas when the population grows too large. This might also be a favorable strategy if you have two or more alpha personalities who can’t agree on how the settlement should be structured and governed. But any splinter groups may become your enemies if you don’t maintain positive relations with them, so that’s something to be considered. What commandments would your settlement have? What is the extent of the technology? How are you keeping the lights on and the water running, if in fact you are doing so? Who’s doctoring, who’s janitoring, who’s patching and repairing? How are you getting gasoline? So many things to think about.

It’s becoming obvious to me why there is no how-to guide on the internet regarding apocalypse survival groups.

Any thoughts, fellow preppers?

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