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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | What I Learned from The Walking Dead

What I Learned from The Walking Dead

During Spring Break in April, I started working on my new WIP and wrote 15k in that week alone.  I might have written more … if I hadn’t spent so many hours watching The Walking Dead on Netflix and Amazon streaming.
It wasn’t wasted time, though, as far as my writing went.  I learned a lesson – something I probably should have known already, but it was a good reminder.
If you want your audience to root for an unlikely character, set their expectations low … and then surprise them.

Daryl Dixon is definitely not the type of character that I would normally like.  I can’t call him a diamond-in-the-rough, because I doubt there’s diamond quality there.  He’s such a marble-mouth, you can barely understand him when he speaks. He’s a loner and not particularly good-looking – although it’s pretty cool when he shoots that crossbow.  So, why did he become my favorite character on the show?
Because he was a surprise.  The audience was set up to hate him.  We meet his brother Merle first – a drug dealing, foul-mouthed, racist maniac who is such a loose cannon that the other characters are forced to leave him handcuffed on a rooftop when they flee from the walking dead. (Merle saws off his own hand to escape, and it gives me shivers to think he’s still out there somewhere.)  When Rick (the main protagonist) expresses regret about leaving Merle behind, he’s told no one will miss the guy … except his brother Daryl.
We expect Daryl to be just like Merle. Maybe even worse.  But he’s not, and every act of decency from Daryl makes us like him a little more.  He rescues T-dog from the undead, and later produces the antibiotics that save T-dog’s life. He’s the last to give up looking for the child Sophia when she’s lost in the woods, and the first to sit by Carol’s side when her daughter is discovered undead.
In a way, he reminds me of Sawyer from Lost, although Sawyer had more charm – and I don’t want to see Daryl with his shirt off.
But it was a great reminder for me, and perhaps useful for my WIP.  Once you’ve trained your reader to have low regard for a character, that character has great potential to surprise and delight the reader later on. Use it.

19 Responses to What I Learned from The Walking Dead

  1. Sarah says:

    Great post, Dianne! I tried to do this in the sequel to Sanctum with a secondary character … not sure yet if I succeeded.

  2. I haven’t seen the walking dead although I know it has a huge fan base. Zombies gross me out. LOL But I loved your character analysis!

  3. This is so true. I gave up on The Walking Dead for a while, because I got tired of them hanging out on the farm, but I’m very excited to see that Michonne finally showed up.

    I try to do this with characters all the time – defy expectations – but it’s easier in its conceptualization than it is in its execution.

  4. SA Larsenッ says:

    Hmmm…low expectations from a character. I need to try that. I’ll have to change my mindset, though. I think by nature I’m an overachiever, driving myself crazy. lol It will take a lot of letting go to give a character the freedom to underachieve.

  5. Linda G. says:

    Excellent post! I love The Walking Dead (though I admit to closing my eyes during the “gooey” parts), and Daryl is one of my favorite characters, too, for exactly the reasons you state.

    (Okay, my absolute favorite character is, of course, Rick Grimes. I mean, come on. A hero named Grimes? How could I possibly resist?)

  6. LTM says:

    I’ve never watched TWD, but what a great point about setting the expectations low and then surprising them-! It reminded me of Sawyer on L O S T… Good stuff here, Diane! <3

  7. JEM says:

    Ah, interesting. I too like to learn lessons from the TV shows I watch, because we all end up crafting story the same way. I also like the complex characters that you don’t necessarily have to love or hate. You root for them, and then cringe when they fail your expectations. But don’t we all feel that way about ourselves sometimes as well?

  8. Oooh! I’ve been looking for something new to watch on Netflix. This looks really good!

  9. I never watched any of the ‘Walking Dead” shows, even though they were filmed here in Atlanta. (I know… blasphemy, right?) But I do appreciate the insights you gleaned about character development from watching it. Thanks.

  10. Angela Brown says:

    Hmph. Well isn’t that something. It’s often pretty good to gain some knowledge from various sources. TV is a very good source. However, I hadn’t thought of the pot of gold a writer can find for themselves when they do what was done for this Daryl character. It opens the opportunities wide open.

  11. mshatch says:

    oh, what an excellent post. You are so right! I did want to not like Daryl at first, but then he did all those things you said and damn, he’s like my favorite character now; I might even like him better than Rick 🙂

  12. Robin says:

    Great post! And an excellent reminder for my WIP as well. I feel the need to turn on my Netflix and see Daryl in action.

  13. DL Hammons says:

    The hard drive on my DVR fried and I lost the last four shows of the season. 🙁 I rooted for Daryl as well, because for some reason we always want to see the “shady” character redeemed. 🙂 You inspired me to search out a source for those last four shows!

  14. Mina Burrows says:

    I had’t really thought about it like that, but you’re right. Daryl is a total surprise. Great post!

  15. That’s a lot of writing! Wonderful.

    I like characters that surprise me too. It’s probably good you didn’t write more because taking time to do other things influences our writing.

  16. Hi Dianne! Great post. I’m a Walking Dead fan. : )

  17. Great post!
    I love The Walking Dead and you absolutely nailed why Daryl is such a popular character with the viewers.

    And I also love it when the writers surprise us with a little bit of unexpected bad behaviour from the good characters. When Sheriff Rick blasted those visitors in the bar – totally unexpected for me but wow! it got my attention.

  18. Pk Hrezo says:

    I’ve read that before somewhere else too… setting the expectations low. Perfect example is Sawyer from Lost. Every time we got a glimpse of the good guy he COULD be, it was this monumental growth and experience.

  19. oooh, love this post. you are so right! great insight here. Yes, I agree, he’s quite a character. I think the first thing that had me admiring him was his loyalty to his brother.
    And now you’ve reminded me that I’m in mourning over the end of Lost and no more shirtless Sawyer.