Story is about character. Even when it’s also about zombies or dragons or the emergence of the internet, a good story will keep characters at its core. We come for the novelty but we stick around for the people.
As writers including Film Crit Hulk have pointed out, what makes a truly compelling character is their internal conflict. The divide between what they want and what they need can drive an arc that leaves us yearning to see how it will all end.
This is particularly clear in M R Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, a story about scientists and soldiers surviving in the aftermath of a zombie plague. When circumstances force a small group together on the run, there are obvious conflicts between them and with their environment. But it’s the conflicts within that make the characters so engaging.
The wants are carefully shown in the earlier parts of the story. Melanie, a ten-year-old girl infected with the zombifying spores, wants to be loved. Helen Justineau, Melanie’s teacher, wants to protect the children in her care, despite their apparently monstrous nature. Caroline Caldwell, a research scientist, wants to understand the cause of the disease. Sergeant Parks, the commander of their research base, wants to maintain order in a disintegrating world. Kieran Gallagher, a young soldier under Gallagher’s command, wants to please the people around him.
As the story progresses, each character reveals a deeper need, related to and often in conflict with their desire. Melanie, too bright and wilful for a life of captivity, needs to find a place of purpose in the world. Justineau needs forgiveness and acceptance. Caldwell needs to feel heard and recognised for her work. Parks needs to see the limits of his world view. Gallagher needs to escape the traumas of his past.
These needs become the driving engine behind the story, placing the characters in conflict with each other and with themselves. Gallagher, the least prominent of the five, has one of the arcs that moved me most, exactly because of those internal divisions. His past has left him desperate to please but incapable of doing it. As the pressure mounts, traumas he’s never admitted to other people tighten the screw in his mind. We face the awful question of whether he can even look after himself, never mind the people around him.
In a story as dark as The Girl With All the Gifts, not everyone is going to get what they need, never mind what they want. But sometimes those needs can make a tragic arc satisfying. We feel sad for characters who don’t get what they want, but may feel satisfied to see them get what they need. The satisfaction of the story comes in seeing the characters move towards those ends.
In this story, the characters’ divisions also become symbolic of a bigger issue. With the future looking increasingly bleak, what humanity wants and what it needs may not be in line. The revelation of that terrible division becomes the climax of the book, an arc as satisfying as those of the individual characters.
When a real person finds themselves divided, the best port of call is a counsellor. When a fictional character feels strong divisions, it’s time for a publisher. The Girl With All the Gifts is a great example of why these stories work and why, even in the apoclypse, character is so important.