Strong characters are key to effective storytelling, but do they have to be likeable? Do they have to be anything more than average? For me, fantasy fiction is at its finest when it maintains an air of believability. Even the most far-fetched scenarios can be made plausible if events are played out by a cast of characters who behave in a way you’d expect them to and if those events progress logically and sensibly and without undue reliance on coincidence and far-fetched twists of fate. In my mind, post-apocalyptic fiction that maintains this air of believability and anchors events in normality massively increases the effect when ‘it’ happens and our ordinary ‘civilized’ world begins falling apart (though many would argue it already has!).
Witness Mad Max. Although his situation and his world is extreme, the character of Max Rockatansky in the first film of the series is, first and foremost, a father and a husband who has a job to do. In fact, it’s his reaction to losing his family (his normality?) which shapes the way he lives and survives through subsequent films. By film two, The Road Warrior, the world has been devastated by wars caused by a severe lack of energy resources. The filmmakers created one of the most iconic visions of the apocalypse and I’d argue that much of the film’s success was due not just to the incredible battles and action sequences which followed, but also to the grounding in normality of Max’s character. We knew why he did what he did… we felt the pain that he felt…
Battlestar Galactica is another excellent example of getting it right. BSG is pure science-fiction through and through, but the actions, reactions and interactions of its large cast of brilliantly-drawn characters—ordinary, tired, desperate, flawed characters at that—elevate it from the realms of ordinary space opera into something else entirely.
As far as I’m concerned, though, the most powerful example of the ordinary becoming extraordinary in a post-apocalyptic story was produced by the BBC in 1984. ‘Threads‘ detailed the impact of a nuclear attack on the UK through the eyes of two ordinary families in the city of Sheffield. Shown at the height of the Cold War, it was simply the most harrowing, horrifying and thought-provoking vision of what might be which had ever been committed to film. Even now, almost 25 years later, I don’t think its impact has been topped (and I’m not alone in thinking that—have a look at some of the IMBD user comments here). For a while in the late 90s I had a job working out of Sheffield. On my first day at the office I rounded a corner and found myself standing in a shopping centre shown during the attack in the film. It’s no exaggeration to say that even then, some fifteen years later, my legs went weak at the knees. This quote from the film’s narration perfectly summarises the point I’m making:
“In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.”
I know drama like this isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Many people want their fantasy to be as far-detached from their reality as possible. Others will always prefer a ‘by-the-numbers’ plot and a stereotypical hero: the jet-pilot president who fights the aliens; the brilliant lone scientist who fears the worst when no-one else will listen; a boy wizard or warrior prince; and so on. For me though, I’ll always choose an ordinary, accidental hero over any of these. Heck, maybe ‘hero’ is the wrong word altogether? Be it Mad Max, Bill Masen in Day of the Triffids, Piggy or Ralph in Lord of the Flies, The Man and The Boy in The Road, these are the kind of characters who, through their normality, bring fantastic fiction alive and inspire me to write.