Podcast Episode 10 (Part 1) – How to Create Undead


Episode 10 (Part 1): Learn How to Create Undead

Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how and when to create undead. Decide whether you should create undead at all, what their minds are like and how this will affect them, their origins and how that influences their behavior, and learn to classify them.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Why no one expects us to create undead
  • How to invent undead that are different from the usual ones
  • How to decide whether you should create undead or not
  • How the classification of undead helps us make something original
  • Why their origins is crucial to understanding their behavior

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Episode 10 (Part 1) Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number ten, part one. Today’s topic is how to create undead. This includes talking about whether you should do it at all, how to classify them, and how the origins affect them. This material and more is discussed in Chapter 7 of Creating Life, volume 1 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Should We Create Undead?

As is often the case with a world building subject, the first thing we should consider is whether we should create something. And in this case, that’s undead.

Most ideas we have about undead are public domain, so we can use them. No one else owns it. This is true of vampires, zombies, ghosts, skeletons, and more. While all of those are public domain, there might be an idea that you might want to use and you’re not sure, in which case, you should just Google it. If it is public domain, then you can use it. But if it’s not, you’re going to have to make some alterations if you want to do something similar.

Remember my Rule of Three – make at least three important changes to an analogue so that no one realizes what it is. This will also reduce your risk of being accused of plagiarism. Remember that these three or more changes should be significant and not something as trivial as a color. That said, we can change basic appearance and its origins, not to mention the most important thing, which is its behavior. One thing about these standard ideas is that they are widely accepted and no one is going to roll their eyes that you are yet another person using them. There is arguably less expectation for new undead types from the public.

On the other hand, in science fiction, we tend to expect new species and races. Why do we have that expectation? Well, if the story is not connected to Earth in any way, then we’re only going to have humans and probably other species. Even if the story is connected to Earth, but people are traveling very far from home, as is often the case with Star Trek, then we’re going to expect them to encounter new life forms. By contrast, the expectation for standard undead seems to be almost universal. The primary reason for this might be simply that some people don’t invent undead. On the other hand, a show like Star Trek so often has a new species to the point where it’s almost like a “species of the week” kind of thing. Almost like the X-Files had the “monster of the week” sort of thing going on that we just expect it. In the end, I think that we are pleasantly surprised when someone shows us a new type of undead.

Maybe more of us should do that, and learning how to do it well is the goal of this podcast episode and the following one that will continue the subject. Since there is no backlash to using existing undead, you should do this unless you have a good reason not to. Inventing anything takes time and effort that is maybe better spent on story craft, for example. But the most important decision point is whether you have an idea or not. Because if you don’t have one, then what’s the point?

You should also think about how you are going to use this undead. If you’re thinking of a ghost that’s going to do typical ghost behavior, then you might as well just use a standard ghost. You could call it something else and this is fine but when doing so, you may want to have given it a property that is unexpected. This could be its appearance or behavior.

There is a direct correlation between how many changes we make and whether we give it a new name. The more changes we make, the more we justify a new name. On the other hand, if we make almost no changes and we give it a new name, that may actually be off-putting to some people. We might get their hopes up that this is a new interesting thing and then it’s just something that they’ve already seen before. In other words, it can cause a backlash.

If using a known name for something like a vampire, we should consider whether or not we have made a fundamental change and therefore should not use that name. In the case of a vampire, if it doesn’t drink blood, this is too basic a change. You probably shouldn’t call it a vampire. You could still do it, but it’s ill-advised. Your audience may not like it. There’s a good way and a bad way to defy expectations, and this is probably the bad way.

Should you create undead? Probably not. But if you’re still curious, the rest of this episode and the next will probably give you some ideas on how to go about doing so.

More Resources

Let’s take a quick break here and talk about where you can get more useful world building resources. Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes links to more podcasts like this one. You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

And the thing that you might find most useful is that by signing up for the newsletter, you can download the free templates that are included with each volume of The Art of World Building series, whether you have bought the books or not. All you need to do is join the newsletter. You can do this by going to artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter. Sign up today and you will get your free templates, and you will never miss an update about what is happening in the great world of world building.

Our Undead’s Mind

The next thing I want to talk about is the mind. After all, the mind is going to control much about this undead and how it acts. And this mind could be present or absent to one degree or another depending on what we believe about whether the mind goes with the soul (if one exists) when someone dies or whether that comes back with them if they are reanimated. If you believe in the soul and the afterlife, I think most of us assume that the mind basically goes with the soul. Otherwise, concepts like having Heaven and Hell have no meaning. After all, if your mind is absent then you can’t exactly enjoy the pleasures of Heaven and being reunited with lost loved ones. And if you’re in Hell, then you’re not going to be able to appreciate the torture. Now some torture is physical and in theory you would be able to experience that, but of course the horror of that is going to be significantly more pronounced if you are mentally capable of really perceiving it. Some torture is more psychological and emotional and both of those aren’t going to work as well if you’ve got no mind.

So let’s say for the sake of argument that the mind goes with the soul upon death. This exercise brings up some interesting scenarios, and we can use this to our advantage when inventing a new type of undead. Based on this idea, we can probably assume that a ghost has its mind. After all, a ghost is considered to be a spirit or a soul. Now just because a mind is present does not mean that there is nothing wrong with that mind. Any number of things could have traumatized it.

Depending on the manner of one’s death, that certainly could have done it. This is especially true if you were murdered, for example. The opposite extreme would be dying peacefully in your sleep. We can imagine all sorts of incidents in between these two extremes that would cause someone’s mind to be a little bit impaired. Or depending on our purposes, very impaired.

Once dead, that could also cause trauma depending on where one went. For example, if you went to Hell and you were being tortured, before you returned to being just a soul wandering the Earth, that is obviously going to be something upsetting to you.

On the other hand, if you went on to an afterlife that was more pleasant like Heaven, then in theory, that’s going to be something that’s comforting to you. Or at least, that’s how we typically see Heaven is a place where everyone is at peace. But it could certainly still be upsetting to discover that you’re dead. And while it’s great that you’re reunited with your loved ones, for example, there’s still the reality that all of you are dead. If you’re reunited with someone you haven’t seen in fifty years, that could be kind of upsetting in some way. Maybe their personality isn’t even what you thought it was or what you remember. Or maybe someone you expected to be here isn’t there, because they’re in Hell instead, so that could certainly upset you.

We like to believe that Heaven is a place where nothing is going to upset us, but we have options when it comes to this. The basic idea here is that the time one is not alive or undead could also be a period of in between time. That might be upsetting and alter the mind in some way. If you are in this in between place for let’s say hundreds of years, and before you become a spirit that’s wandering somewhere, then that would presumably cause you to have extensive experience being in that state. And then you were suddenly thrust into a new state of being a wandering spirit. The simple fact of a change having taken place after such a long time and already adjusting to another major change could also cause a lot of distress. And of course we have the option of an instantaneous change from death to being a ghost. We don’t necessarily have to have a long time in between, but it’s an option.

Of course, some undead have a body, and possibly a mind as well, and it could face the same problems. On the other hand, what if the body does not have a soul in it? That would suggest it doesn’t have a mind either. Maybe it’s only as intelligent as an animal. Either way, we can use this to rationalize what our undead is capable of. There’s one specific way that a ghost can be mentally impaired and that is by denying that it is dead. Logically, this might seem difficult to do if you’re a spirit, but that might be because we are assuming that the spirit is, for example, floating in the air or it’s passing through solid objects, or it just looks like a white sheet or something, not a white sheet, but you know how a ghost is often depicted as being white. If it looked down on itself or its outstretched arm, it wouldn’t see the normal arm that we had when we were alive. It would see this white arm. Well, that’s just a popular depiction of ghosts, which is not real to most of us. I’m leery of saying that, because some of you are going to say, “Yes, they are!” But for most of us, this is just an imaginary thing that we have invented to tell stories.

And we have invented this typical appearance as well, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many old ghost stories where the ghost appears just like a living person. They are still dressed. They still have a normal skin tone to them, and for all practical purposes, from at least a distance, you cannot tell that you’re looking at a ghost instead of a living person. This idea is equally common in ghost stories, and it’s something that we can use. One justification for a ghost looking this way is that if it doesn’t realize that it’s dead, then it’s retaining its self-image from life. That means that its appearance is a projection from its own mind.

These ghosts often will pass right through objects, but that’s not because they realize it’s doing so. The idea is often that it doesn’t realize that something is different from when it was there in life. For example, if the ghost is haunting a place where it lived and renovations had been made, there might be a wall where there used to be a hallway. And this ghost goes right through the wall, because it doesn’t recognize that the wall is there. This is a justification for having a ghost do ghostly things without it being aware that it is dead.

Another common idea for ghosts is that they are going about a behavior that they carried out in life, as if they are still alive. The big problem with inventing a ghost that does this is that we are not inventing a ghost that does this. It’s a common idea.

Such a ghost may not be tormented by the fact that it is dead, because of course it is in denial that it’s dead. Or maybe it’s going about these repeated behaviors to prove to itself that it’s still alive. Regardless, what this demonstrates is that something is not quite right about this ghost’s mind. It is mentally impaired. A ghost may be well aware it is dead and behave in a very different fashion while also having a different projection of its self-image. Maybe we are implying something about the ghost’s mind when we show what it looks like. A particularly cunning ghost might even use that as a way of fooling people. If I was a tormented ghost who wanted to wreak havoc on the living, I might initially present myself in a peaceful manner. And with my body image reflecting that I think I’m still alive before surprising somebody. If you decide to invent a new type of undead, give some serious thought to its mental capability.

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Classifying Undead

Let’s talk about classifying undead.

The first choice we should make is whether it has a body or not. If it does have a body, the word “undead” is most often used, and this implies that it has a body that is animated once again. If it has no body, it is usually called a spirit or ghost. For the rest of this episode and the next, we’re going to use the word spirit to mean it has no body. We’ll use the word corporeal to mean it has a body, whether it has a soul or not. And we’ll use the word undead to generically refer to both of these.

Spiritual undead are theoretically more limited, because they don’t have a body, and therefore can’t touch anything. However, we’ve all heard of stories where they supposedly can, under usually extreme circumstances, such as being very upset. This gives us the option to have the spirit normally unable to touch anything, but under certain circumstances it can. We might find it useful to give a limitation this way but then have an option to overcome it at times.

We could also decide that the ability to physically affect the world will weaken a spiritual undead. They could get more vulnerable. We can also decide that it can pass through objects, which is an advantage, but that it cannot move them, which is a disadvantage. And by doing this, we can basically balance out this spirit, so that it can’t do everything.

Making decisions this way is one way we can invent a new kind of spirit that hasn’t been seen before. Something else we might consider is where the spirit’s body is. Maybe the spirit wants to reanimate it or repossess that body. Maybe the body has something about it that is unique, such as an ability. Maybe when the spirit last saw its own body, it had something like a magic item or a weapon of technological origin, and this is something that it desires. Of course, this is only an option if the spirit recognizes that it is dead.

As for corporeal undead, they come in two varieties – those with a soul and those without. If the mind goes with the soul and the soul is absent, that could explain the mental capabilities of our undead. Maybe this is why zombies act the way they do. All of this is make believe, but thinking about it this way can give you ideas.

Our corporeal undead may have senses that are altered, either for the better or worse. It seems logical that senses would be worse. After all, things like taste, smell, and sight are going to be affected by the body having decayed. However, we generally accept that if undead exists, there is some supernatural agent at work here, and that same agent could have given super senses to the undead.

Maybe it can smell human flesh farther away than it would have in life whether that flesh is alive or decaying. This could allow it track down others of its kind or track down the living to attack. Perhaps it sees better now but only in moonlight. Maybe they can hear farther away than they could before, and now they can eavesdrop on conversations, learning things they never would have known before.

These new abilities could give them a feeling of power and also alter their mental state. Maybe they feel cocky now. In theory, being dead means that we have a loss of our bodily functions. However, the case of Dracula and other vampires by extension shows that we are willing to accept an undead that looks just like it’s alive and can do everything that we can do. In some recent stories, we’ve even seen vampires giving birth.

The point here is that we can decide for ourselves whether an undead is a vision of health, a rotting corpse, or a skeleton. It’s really up to us. We can get away with extremes, and the best example of this is the living skeleton. It doesn’t have any muscles to control its body, not to mention the brain, but yet it can do all sorts of things. This always implies something supernatural, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense.

For corporeal undead that have more of a body but one that is still decayed, that decay would seem to explain the hampered movement. On the other hand, we’ve all seen zombie movies where the zombies are running around just like they are perfectly healthy.

Something to consider when it comes to corporeal undead is how long it has been dead. There’s a tendency to assume that the longer something that is dead the more it has decayed, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with it. The exposure to air and the amount of water in the soil around it is partly responsible for how fast something decays. We don’t want to get too technical about it, but something could be dead for a thousand years and look relatively well-preserved. On the other hand, something could be dead and exposed to the elements for only a few years and be a bare skeleton.

Try not to fall into this trap of thinking that the age of corporeal undead has something to do with its appearance. I think this is actually good news for us world builders, because it gives us a little more freedom to just decide something is the way it is and that’s kind of all there is to it. No one is expecting us to explain the level of aridity in the soil, for example.

While we don’t have to justify it, bear in mind that some people will probably try to call us out anyway and say, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense.” And we will know better, but we do run the risk of that kind of reaction from people who think that they know everything.

Let’s talk a little bit about non-sentient undead. What do I mean by that? Plants and animals. If you think that an undead plant doesn’t seem very terrifying, I kind of agree with you on that one. On the other hand, most of us have seen the Lord of the Rings and the Ents, which are giant trees that can walk and talk and do other things. So there’s no reason one of them can’t be turned into undead. If it was once alive, it can be dead, and if it can be dead, it can be undead.

Most of us think that plants don’t have a soul, which means that spiritual undead are not an option. Since plants can’t change their location, it’s pretty easy to get away from one or stay away from one, unless we change this. Earlier, we talked about supernatural elements being present in all undead, so wouldn’t it be interesting if a plant had not been sentient but now that it is undead, it is sentient. That opens up some options you can explore.

Finally, let’s talk about undead animals. Just like the supernatural can give plants the ability to be sentient, maybe we can give animals the ability to speak, for example. That adds a new level of horror to encountering one of them. We’ve often seen them be given great strength or speed, and these are clichés but they are done to make them more formidable. Sometimes, they appear to have an increased ability to work in conjunction with each other. Something that can be fun about undead animals is that maybe now that they are reanimated they want to feed on something they didn’t use to feed on, such as our new species and races. It may not have a sinister purpose behind doing so.

Another classic idea is of the undead animal that bites a living person, who then becomes undead. The only problem with this idea and some of the others we’ve been discussing is that none of these are new. However, it’s still a good idea to keep these in mind, and one of the reasons for that is that we can take all of these different elements and combine them into something new. Sometimes being original means piecing things together in a novel way, not necessarily inventing things that have not been done at all. This might be our best bet with inventing undead.


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Their Origins

One thing I’m not going to discuss in this particular episode, but which is discussed in the book, is how many of this particular undead type exists and the effect this has on them. Another subject we will not cover is whether there are prerequisites for this type of undead or not, and how someone might prevent themselves from becoming one.

The final subject we want to talk about today is the origins of our undead. Knowing where the undead originated is often a basic part of their identity, and this is one of the ways we can make them original. After all, if we’ve created a world or more than one world where there are unique phenomenon or technologies, then this gives us an opportunity to create a specific type of undead. The more unique the world and the lifeforms that live there, the more unique the types of undead we might have.

A good story behind our undead type also makes it more interesting. Our two basic options are accidental undead and those that are created on purpose. Whether it’s nature, supernatural, or technological forces, it’s pretty easy to create undead by accident, and yet it’s never happened here on Earth. Imagine that.

In theory, most undead will be accidental, because even if someone actually wants undead to exist, they probably don’t also have the skills to make that happen. On the other hand, if they somehow caught and trapped an undead type and that undead has the ability to do something like bite someone and turn them into an undead type, then someone could still do this.

However, that doesn’t explain the original origins of that undead type. And on that note, we don’t necessarily have to reveal where it came from. It’s entirely possible that nobody knows. No explanation is certainly the easiest but is not necessarily the most satisfying, so if you happen to think of a good explanation, that’s better. Unless of course, you would like a mystery. However, with every good mystery, we usually want to find out the answers sooner or later, and the reveal should be good. Otherwise, we’ve disappointed everyone.

So it might be best to have figured this out first, especially because knowing the origins can really help us invent something interesting. Just like with monsters, an undead that has resulted from an accident might want revenge on the person or people who created that accident in the first place. This gives it a goal, and we’ll talk a lot more about goals in the next episode.

One thing about an accident is that if it’s something like an explosion, this could affect a lot of people in the same area. This is the easy way to justify many of them existing. In time, these undead may spread out and cover the entire world, especially if they can replicate themselves. Absent a large scale explosion to create many of them at the same time, each one of these undead type might be rare, and if something is rare, especially if there’s only one of them, it might be particularly hard for anyone to figure out how to deal with it. Why? Because maybe they’ve never encountered it before. There might be no record of what to do or how to kill it.

We could also decide that specific types of phenomenon are known to cause specific types of undead. We talked a little about this in a previous episode about creating monsters, but the same idea holds true. It’s possible that the location of such phenomenon is subsequently guarded so that no one can have this happen anymore. The phenomenon might also be destroyed in some way so that it can’t happen again.

Finally, let’s talk about the undead by design. When someone wants to create one on purpose and has the ability to do so, one question we should ask is whether the perpetrator is able to control the result. Such an undead could be sent to do anything we can think of. If our perpetrator cannot control the undead, then he might end up the first victim of it. This means that there won’t be any more of that type of undead unless it has the ability to replicate itself.

Then again, maybe this person left a journal for how they were doing it, and this is later discovered by others. Such a person might be trying to do something else and accidentally created the undead. What if our perpetrator was unhappy with what he had done and tried to destroy it? Did he chase it away, or did it retaliate and kill him or wound him? What if it turned him into the first duplicate? What about how the undead feels about its new status? Does it like being a servant? Probably not. Does it like being undead? Probably not. It may chafe at its new role and want revenge or to be freed from it, and this is another goal that we’ll talk about in the next episode.


All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from my album Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid, called “Mantra Dreamscape.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!