THE WALKING DEAD VERSUS TRUE BLOOD
How Game Theory Can Help Your Fiction Plot
I recently got into a debate with my husband about why he enjoys TRUE BLOOD (HBO) but not THE WALKING DEAD (AMC), which is “appointment TV” for the rest of our family. We concluded that the reason had to with neither the scripts nor the acting, but with Game Theory.
WHAT IS GAME THEORY? Don’t run! I’m not going to math geek out on you. But we do need a quick definition, courtesy of THE CONCISE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ECONOMICS (David R. Henderson, ed.):
GAME THEORY is the science of strategy. It attempts to determine…the actions that “players” should take to secure the best outcomes for themselves in a wide array of “games.” (http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/GameTheory.html)
TRANSLATION FOR WRITERS: Let’s look at “games” as competitions, or better still, relationships involving a struggle. Think Monopoly, football, war, school play auditions, first dates, business exchanges and, most importantly, STORY PLOTS. The PROTAGONIST and ANTAGONIST are the PLAYERS in our game/manuscript.
Now, back to blood-suckers and rotting meta-dead, meet TRUE BLOOD and THE WALKING DEAD first print versions (not television adaptations). I’ve underlined what I identify as the MAIN CHARACTER (protagonist) and MAIN ENEMY (antagonist).
DEAD UNTIL DARK (True Blood, Book 1) by Charlaine Harris
Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress in small-town Louisiana, can read minds, making relationships tricky. Then she meets Bill, whose thoughts she cannot read which would be perfect—except the reason is that he’s a vampire. Then a co-worker is murdered, and Sookie worries that not knowing what Bill is thinking may put her in mortal danger.
WALKING DEAD (Issue 1 - comic format) by Robert Kirkman, illus. by Tony Moore
Small-town sheriff Rick Grimes awakens from a coma to discover that a worldwide epidemic has caused the dead to become zombies whose only apparent goal is to consume the living. Armed only with scanty supplies and his strong will, Rick sets off to try to find his missing wife and son.
Featuring small towns, non-human characters, and lots of death, these stories seem superficially similar. But there is a critical structural difference.
VAMPIRE STORIES are GAMES AGAINST OPPONENTS.
When a policeman interrogates a suspect, his tactics affect the responses given by the would-be. Similar to criminals, vampires may have appealing characteristics balancing their blood lust. The human protagonist is not necessarily bent on destroying the vampire but may seek some kind of relationship. The definition of “best outcome” changes as the players, protagonist and antagonist, learn more about each other.
ZOMBIE STORIES are GAMES AGAINST NATURE.
Consider a race, pitting runner against the track and time. The runner cannot change the duration of a minute. Like time, zombies have neither redemptive qualities nor strategy. They are forces of nature--kill-or-be-killed antagonists. Change is evoked only through the protagonist’s changed approach or through scenarios established by secondary protagonists and antagonists
Depending on which type of scenario you have created in your book, you face the task of telling a story in which the character must invoke strategies to CHANGE the outcome of the narrative OR a story in which the character must come to terms with an UNCHANGEABLE situation or fact. Understanding this is critical for making your plot move forward in a believable fashion.
EXAMPLES OF GAMES AGAINST NATURE IN YA (realistic & dystopian)
THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE by Jandy Nelson. The primary antagonist is the DEATH of protagonist Lennie’s sister. Lennie must face life in this new reality. Trying to deny Lennie’s death would be unrealistic. Failing to come to grips with the loss and, instead, pursuing only plotlines involving secondary antagonists would make an unsatisfying book.
THE FIFTH WAVE by Rick Yancey. Cassie seeks to survive—and find her brother—in the wake of an alien invasion. Questions of the aliens’ identity drift in the background while whether Evan Walker, Ben and others are aliens in human shells or still actual humans are critical to Cassie’s survival. However, the aliens themselves are unchanged, throughout the book.
EXAMPLES OF GAMES AGAINST OPPONENTS IN YA (historical fiction & fantasy)
WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED by Judy Blundell. When handsome stranger Peter disappears, Evie must decide who he really was, and whether her parents played a role in his fate. The actions of these antagonists shift in response to Evie’s words and choices. So while the nature of lies is a critical motif in the novel, the mystery is perhaps summed up best by Evie: “He would come back. He would tell me the truth behind the lies.” (p. 194) Peter. Parents. “Opponents.”
THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN by Holly Black. Tana must sort the wannabe vampires from the infected and outwit famous Lucien Moreau as she tries to help her newly-bitten ex, Aidan, and sort her feelings for mysterious Gavriel. There is a way to NOT turn vampire if bitten, and choices to be made that result directly from the words, actions and loyalties of others. In Coldtown, Tana is not the only character who “changes” (not a spoiler, pun intended).
HOW CAN UNDERSTANDING THIS DISTINCTION HELP MY WRITING?
When slogging through the “messy middle” of your manuscript, or struggling to write an organic, satisfying conclusion, try applying these principles of game theory analysis to literature.
Who are the players?
What is the primary game?
Is it a game against nature or a game against opponents?
Based on this determination, what type of outcome does the reader need to discover?
What types of plot threads are essential to make the story flow naturally forward?
Have you satisfied the reader by making clear the outcome of the primary game?
And, if you’re really miserable working through a manuscript, ask yourself whether you prefer zombies or vampires and what it says about the story you are telling versus the kind of story you enjoy. Because, unlike the undead, a manuscript can be resurrected myriad times on the author’s terms.
I’ll leave you with a final Game Theory tip, courtesy of The Hunger Games’ Haymitch
“You just remember who the enemy is…”
(CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins, p. 260)
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About The Book
But one person won’t let Daisy forget who she used to be: Irish exchange student and brilliant musician Cal. Does she want the bad boy or the prodigy? Should she side with her parents or protect her brother? How can she know when to hold on and when—and how—to let go?
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