Podcast Episode 10 (Part 2) – How to Create Undead

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Apr 102018

Episode 10 (Part 2): Learn How to Create Undead

Listen as host Randy Ellefson continues exploring how and when to create undead. Learn about their goals, traits, how to kill them, and what uses we can put them to.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to goals can make your undead stand out from the competition
  • Learn to choose what traits your undead has
  • Learn the importance of deciding how your undead can be destroyed
  • How to get started inventing undead

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

Episode 10 (Part 2) Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number ten, part two. Today’s topic concludes our discussion about how to create undead. This includes talking about their goals, traits, how to kill them, and what uses we can put them to. 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.

What Do Your Undead Want?

Even the undead want something. Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about what they might want and why. Just because someone is dead doesn’t mean that all their desires have left them. But, this will depend on the desire. It’s probable that they don’t have desire for food, for example. So, someone who was a glutton in life is not going to have that preoccupation in death, most likely. But, you never know. They might have a ravenous appetite for something else. In the case of vampires, that would be blood.

This brings up the question of whether an undead type needs some sort of sustenance from the living, or even just from the world that it inhabits, in order to remain in its current state. We’ll talk about that a little bit more later when discussing traits, because the ability to consume something is one of those traits. That said, a goal for any undead would be to continue its existence. Now, by that, I don’t mean that it wants to remain undead because that could be very unpleasant. But, if it converts into a living person or goes back to being just fully dead, that is still some sort of existence. So, it might have a desire to go from being undead to alive, or being undead to dead, or just remaining undead. Any of these could be a goal.

Why might death be a preference? Well, if being undead is just extremely unpleasant, that’s an obvious choice, but there’s also the reality that this person who is now undead could’ve come from a pleasant afterlife like heaven. And, as a result, this is horrible by contrast. It’s possible that some undead are that way by choice, but many of them will not be. So, someone who was in heaven probably doesn’t want to go from that to being undead because it’s probably not a positive change for them.

That does bring up an interesting idea. What if you could willfully go back and forth between being in heaven and being undead? How and why someone might want to do that, I’ll leave up to you, but it’s an idea that I’m going to throw out there. It’s possible that someone might enjoy being an undead because they are very powerful. And the example that comes to mind are vampires. A common idea that we often see is that someone doesn’t want to die and become a vampire, but, once they become one, they are suddenly infused with all this power and super senses, and they kind of enjoy it.

We typically see that transformation from dead to vampire as being nearly instantaneous, so it’s not like the person spent 20 years or even 1 year inside a place like heaven before becoming a vampire. But, it’s a possibility we could certainly do. There’s no rule saying that someone who is dead for a long time cannot be resurrected as a vampire. It doesn’t have to be a vampire, of course. It could be an undead type of our own invention, which is the point of this podcast episode. So, we can create something where this has happened, where someone who’s dead becomes a new type of undead that we have created. And, as that type of undead, they are very powerful, and they actually enjoy being undead.

I do have to say, though, that my personal preference is not to make the undead state be something that’s really cool. You know, we see this a lot in a lot of the modern vampire TV shows, for example. And it takes the whole idea of being dead or undead and turns it into some great holiday or something. And I think it kind of fundamentally goes against the idea of horror in undead. So, it’s something to consider.

If you decide to go this route and make the undead state be somehow enjoyable, you should still probably try to find a way to make it also a torment for that character. There certainly might be individuals who enjoy this, but there are going to be others who find it horrifying. It’s going to really depend on the character of that person before this happened, and even their character after it happened because something like death and then reanimation as undead could certainly change one’s personality, especially if you gained super powers when it happened.

I just want to caution against making undead some idealized state. There may be people in that undead state who are romanticizing how great it is and sort of ignoring the reality of it, in some cases, and they may be trying to trick the living into thinking it’s great so that someone voluntarily becomes that kind of undead. You know, it’s one of the things that we think about with undead, especially with vampires, is the way they seduce people. And this is another version of that.

What I’m getting at is that some undead characters might think it’s great and honestly believe that, and others will just be trying to trick the living into becoming one of them. Because, of course, misery loves company.

One of the things that we see in the world of vampirism that we can leverage for our own undead type is the idea that if a vampire creates another vampire subservient to it, that vampire actually becomes physically or spiritually stronger. This is a good motivation for an undead to lie to the living. If converting you into that kind of undead makes me more powerful and makes my misery less miserable, then sure, I’m going to lie to you.

So, there’s a difference between the idea of it being romanticized and the reality of it being actually horrible, and I think that this is a viable way to go if you would like to have characters who are acting like it’s great. But, having it be actually great, that might not be the smartest or most believable idea. Some listeners might think that the idea of being believable is out the window because we’re talking about something as make-believe as undead, but making something believable actually makes our inventions more credible and understandable for the audience.

Make it believable and you may it better.

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.

More Goals

An undead type may want to go back to being dead so that it can get some rest or go back to a pleasant afterlife. On the other hand, if that afterlife was one where it was being tortured, then probably it doesn’t want to go back. This is one reason why you may want to consider how long someone who is living must be dead before they become this type of undead, and don’t be afraid to decide that it can typically be one way, but then, sometimes, it’s another way. For example, with vampires, they usually go from living to dead for just maybe a minute before they become undead, and maybe we decide that that’s what typically happens. But then, there’s a case where someone’s dead for a year and then they somehow come back.

I’m using vampires as an example, but you can do this with any undead type of your invention. But, what about regaining life? Is this something that an undead might want? Sure. Why not? If you’re walking around this world as undead, surrounded by the living, you probably want to get back to that state. That won’t be true of everyone, but this kind of goes back to what I was talking about earlier where if being undead is unpleasant, then you probably will want to stop being in that state. And there are plenty of people who will say that life is unpleasant, but we should probably decide that undead is significantly worse. And, therefore, however much you might want to complain about how life was for you, you have a second chance here and it’s going to be better than being undead.

Your undead may say that they prefer being undead, but they might just be thinking that because they had a horrible life. If given the chance for a new life where it could turn out better, and they have all the knowledge that they have now – you know, we often ask that question, “Would you do it over again?” – they may decide to choose life.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that an undead type does want life. Well, how are they going to go about this and what challenges do they face? If you are a spiritual undead, the first problem you need to solve is where are you going to get another body? In most cases, your old one is dead and probably not much use. Now, it’s possible that it’s being kept in some sort of stasis chamber, because we’ve got that option in science fiction in particular, but, in most cases, the body, the original, it’s no good.

This will certainly be impacted by how you died. If your head was cut off, well, reanimating that body’s not going to do you much good because you’re just going to die immediately again anyway. Even if you died peacefully of old age, well, that body is done. So, you can’t use it again. There are very few scenarios where you could reuse that body. Any sort of injury or disease that ruined it and caused you to die is still, essentially, in effect, even if you reanimate it minutes later.

And the timeframe brings up a very important issue because the body starts decaying and becoming useless pretty quickly. The odds are that your old body is not an option. However, that said, in science fiction and fantasy, we have an option, such as technology or magic, that could restore that body. The issue is that you’re going to want to get that body restored before you reanimate it. So, how are you going to convince someone who has a life to do this for you? Or does your spiritual undead have the ability to manipulate physical objects such as a device that would do this?

Now we’re starting to get into something plausible. If it doesn’t have the ability to take care of this itself, then it’s probably going to have to appear as an apparition that appears alive, possibly, or as an obviously, spiritual undead to some person who has the ability to make this happen. Is that person going to cooperate? Well, of course, it’s going to depend on who they are. If it’s a family member and they miss you, then maybe. If it’s your enemy, then no. Unless, of course, you have some ability to threaten that person.

Being threatening fits more into the idea of what undead are like because these are supposed to be frightening, right? That brings up an interesting scenario, though. What if, as a spirit, you are able to threaten this person into restoring you to life, but then you re-inhabit your body and, as soon as you do that, you lose the ability to threaten that person, and then they kill you? It’s easy to imagine a story where someone doesn’t realize that could happen, but the person they’ve been threatening does, and that’s the outcome. Or is our spirit thinking that far ahead? If so, then it’s a little bit more wily.

Now, one thing to be aware of is, if the body could be restored this way, it begs the question of why wasn’t this done when the person was alive? And the easy answer for that is that something happened too quickly, and the person died. Medical, magical or technological intervention was unable to do this in time. We have another possible issue there, and that is that if someone’s body is burned to ashes, is the technology good enough to restore them from that state, or does the body have to be in a state that’s a little bit closer to normal? You may want to decide on some sort of limitation like this to, again, make it more believable and like your characters don’t have just incredible options at their disposal.

A story where characters find it too easy to get by or get around a situation is one that just lacks conflict. Generally, you don’t want to make things too easy for them. Creating a restriction might seem like it’s no fun, but what happens is that this gives your character something that they have to work around, and this causes plot, storyline and actions. Generally, this is one way that you can move your story forward, by creating a limitation.

What if restoring the body is not an option? What else can they do? How about possess somebody? Even if the individual’s body is available, it could, instead, try to take someone else’s. One question is whether the target body needs to have a soul in it for this to happen. This is normally what we assume, but there’s no reason it has to be the case. There could be reasons that a spirit is missing. For example, someone could be having an out-of-body experience, which we often think of as the soul being gone. During that time, what if somebody took over your body? Now you’re the one who doesn’t have a body you can go back to.

This might seem farfetched, and, of course, the whole thing is, but I have a species that has the ability to willfully separate its soul from its body. If I were living on that world and I was a spiritual undead, I would probably hang out with members of that species while I’m undead and then try to take over one of them once one of them leaves their body. In the cases where there is another soul in that body, now we’ve got a situation where there are two of them. A standard idea here is which one of those spirits is stronger than the other one, and which one of them can take over.

Something we should consider is what happens to the one who gets suppressed? Does the invading spirit get expelled or does it remain trapped in that body, but it’s now being dominated by the person it tried to take over? It might find that, rather than improving its situation, it has now made it significantly worse. However, what storytellers have typically done is decide that the invading spirit is the stronger one for whatever reason. After all, that’s one of the reasons why it has managed to cling to this undead state rather than going to an afterlife. This implies it has a certain amount of strength and, therefore, it’s stronger than the average person, since what usually happens is someone goes to the afterlife. Since it didn’t do that, it’s therefore, stronger. And, therefore, once it invades someone else’s body, it is strong enough to suppress the soul that’s already in there.

The only real problem with this idea is that this is not something new. So, we wouldn’t be inventing this if we decide to do this. However, as I mentioned in the previous episode, combining ideas into something new is a viable option.

What happens if someone is successful at acquiring a new body, whether it’s theirs or not? Now what? If it’s their old body and they decide to reacquaint themselves with their former acquaintances, then how are people going to react to their appearance, especially if they are known to be dead and they have been buried? Your answer to this may depend on how common it is for someone to reanimate their body this way. If it’s never been done, or hardly ever, then people will probably have a strong negative reaction. If it’s common, then they might think, “Oh, why did it take you so long to reanimate your body? We’ve been expecting you.”

What if they try to go and get back all their worldly possessions? Have they all been sold? Has their house been given away to somebody? They’re not going to be able to reacquire all this stuff. Once again, this will depend upon how long they were dead before becoming undead, and then regaining life. If it is common for people to come back like this, then maybe there are laws that you can’t give away someone’s stuff for about a year. Do they get back any of their rights now that they have returned? In the United States, at least, people are declared legally dead. But, if you reappear, then what is your option here? What if they’ve got a new body and they try to reinsert themselves into their old life that way? No one’s going to recognize them. Are they even going to try to pretend that they are their old self in a new body, or are they just going to pretend that they are this new person whose body they’re in now?

The attempt at doing so might have them showing undue familiarity with someone they just met. That other person will think that they’re strangers, but this new undead person who is now alive again will be very familiar with them. There are other, similar questions that we can explore about this, and more of them are in the Creating Life book. Have a look if you are looking for more options.

What about undead that have a body? Since the body is moving around, they may have the ability to restore their own body. A device that does this makes this especially easy for them. On the other hand, they still might need someone else to do it for them, and they are still going to need the ability to threaten that person if they don’t want to cooperate. Once their own body is restored, they have all the same problems that we already just discussed.

In the last episode, we talked about the option of a corporeal undead that has no soul in the body. Whether this person can return to life is an academic debate that I will leave for you. However, it does beg the question that we went over in the last episode, and this is if the mind goes with the spirit and the spirit is not in this body, is this body even going to be smart enough to think of this plan? And, if it does, it if works, how is this body going to get its soul back if its soul is somewhere else? Its soul could be wandering the Earth, or it could be in an afterlife, which raises the stakes and the difficulty of getting it back and getting them back together.

What if the body doesn’t want that soul back, or what if this body is walking around and one of those spirits that’s looking for a body is the one that takes over? As you can see, a lot of fun can be had with this kind of thinking. It is possible to create new undead types by combining different ideas that have already been done.


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Unfinished Business

Let’s talk a little more about goals.

One of the frequently used ideas is that undead have unfinished business, and this is why they have stuck around. Once again, this is nothing new, but you can use this idea when inventing something. What kind of unfinished business might keep someone here? If someone feels honor bound to complete a request that remained unfinished when they died, then this is one reason they might remain. One obligation could be looking after family members. The spirit might want to provide for them or protect them. In the Star Wars universe, sometimes dead Jedi look out for living Jedi. How many times do we hear Obi-Wan Kenobi say, “Use the force, Luke,” to Luke Skywalker?

Now, when it comes to unfinished business, it’s unlikely that two undead are going to have the exact same task that they want to complete. Why am I bringing this up? Well, because we’re talking about inventing a type of undead. So, if two undead are unlikely to have the same goal, then it’s unlikely that we can identify this undead type by the goal. Now, if the goal is regaining life by getting the body back, for example, that is something that can be common to an undead type. But, a specific goal for unfinished business, I think that’s a little bit harder to imagine. What I mean is that the more specific that goal, the less likely it is that two people, or two undead, are going to share it. The general goal of unfinished business could be shared among an undead type, but the specific thing that each one of them wants to do is going to be different. This will likely be based on their personality and their life.


Another goal we might have for our undead type is to cause torment. If someone was a bully in life, or just obnoxious in general, then there’s no reason to believe that they’re going to change once they’re dead, and then undead. In fact, their personal torment is probably significantly worse. And, therefore, their behavior might also be worse. The idea of tormenting people is kind of an old one. And, in more modern works, we’ve seen this idea of trying to understand undead types or monsters and just say, “Oh, well, they’re not really evil. They just want something, and we’re scared, and we’ve misunderstood.”

And that’s certainly a viable option, but there’s no reason we can’t go simple and just decide, yes, it’s an evil spirit or an evil undead. It just wants to freak people out or scare them, even get them to kill themselves in some way, by accident or even just driving them to the point of committing suicide. If you have a number of undead types in your world, I would certainly make sure that one of them is simply evil. It’s not misunderstood.


On the other extreme is finding peace. Maybe this is what the undead really wants. And there are several versions of peace, one of those being a new life or going back to the afterlife, and then there is the option of simply being obliterated so that there is no afterlife for it at all and it is done, it’s over. We might not think that this is a kind of peace, but, of course, there’s no memory for this being once it’s been completely destroyed. Here on Earth, we have this idea that the soul never really goes away. It just enters into a different state. And that’s fine, but one of those states could be, yeah, that’s it. It’s done.

Since we already talked about regaining life, what about the option of regaining death? An undead might know that it wants this, but it might be unsure how to go about achieving it. In the case of a corporeal undead, it might assume that it can have its body be destroyed, and therefore able to return to the afterlife. But, it may not actually be true. The body could just end up really decayed or something else, and the undead finds itself in an even worse situation than before.

Spiritual undead are often depicted as having no idea how to go about going to the afterlife, and that’s one of the reasons why they are still here. They didn’t do this on purpose. They’re just stuck. These undead might be trying to find people who can help it. However, its ability to communicate what it wants might be impaired, and we’re going to talk about traits next. That includes communication.


So, let’s talk about how to subscribe to this podcast. A podcast is a free, downloadable audio show that enables you to learn while you’re on the go. To subscribe to my podcast for free, you’ll need an app to listen to the show from.

For iPhone, iPad, and iPod listeners, grab your phone or device and go to the iTunes Store and search for The Art of World Building. This will help you to download the free podcast app, which is produced by Apple, and then subscribe to the show from within that app. Every time I produce a new episode, you’ll get it downloaded right onto your device.

For Android listeners, you can download the Stitcher radio app, which is free, and search for The Art of World Building.

This only needs to be done once and at that point, you will never miss an episode.

Undead Traits

It’s time to talk about traits. These are what will define what our undead can and cannot do, and this is one of the best ways to distinguish one type from another. First up is speech and other sounds. In theory, a skeletal undead would have no ability to speak or make any sounds that don’t involve its bones clacking together because, of course, it doesn’t have a tongue. There are other parts of the body that are also missing, such as lungs and things in the throat that I’m not even going to name because I’m not someone that good with anatomy, but you know what I mean. All of that is gone.

However, as I mentioned in the last episode on undead, we assume that, if undead exist, that some supernatural agent is at work here, and that same agent could have given any of our undead the ability to speak. Even so, you may want to consider this when deciding if yours can. The inability to communicate effectively, or at all, is one of the reasons why they can be frightening because we don’t know what they want, and misunderstanding is one of the basic things that causes tension in a story. For that reason, having an undead speak perfectly is not something we typically see. A big exception to that has typically been vampires. But, remember that a vampire is usually only dead for just maybe a minute at most, so no decay has actually taken place. This is another reason to consider how long your undead must be dead before it can become undead.

Other types of corporeal undead have a decayed body, but it’s not so far gone as a skeleton. And if they have decayed, then that could explain why the tongue is dried out and it’s hard for them to communicate. This is a justification for something like moaning. We could always decide that our undead has telepathic abilities. However, once again, the ability to communicate so effectively might make them significantly less frightening. But, maybe that’s what you want.

We could also have an undead produce a sound that has an effect on the living, and I don’t mean just frightening them. I mean that maybe it causes us to go into a trance or be someone who is now easily manipulated. Perhaps the sound draws us closer to it. Maybe it causes us to stop resisting.

Let’s talk about touch. We briefly touched upon this in the last episode, but spirits are usually portrayed as being unable to touch anything in this world. However, sometimes we give them the ability to do so on rare occasions, such as being very upset. We could also decide they can only touch certain types of objects, or maybe they can only touch things at certain times of day, for example. Maybe it’s only twilight and dusk. Maybe they can only touch certain types of people, like priests of a given religious order.

Something we’ve often seen is a spirit shown as being somehow weakened by this contact with the physical world. Giving someone a price is a good way to balance out the fact that they can glide right through walls, in this case. In other words, if there’s a pro to being in this undead state, then there’s also a con to it. Whether it’s a spiritual or corporeal undead, there is the idea that if they touch a living person, that maybe something happens to the part of the body that is touched. For example, they could become infected, and maybe it has to be removed because nothing will stop this infection from spreading. Or maybe a magic spell or a technological item must be used to stop the spread. And what happens if that is not available? Well, possibly, this person turns into an undead. Or maybe they just turn into a monster of some kind. There’s no reason undead have to create undead. They can always create a monster.

When it comes to spiritual undead, there’s also the opposite problem. Can the living touch that spirit? Decide what impacts them. This is going to be relevant in a few minutes when we talk about how to destroy an undead.

Let’s talk about movement. Spirits are often portrayed as having the ability to move right through a solid object. We can decide that they are doing this on purpose or that they don’t recognize that the object is there. We could also decide that spirits don’t have the ability to cross over certain types of materials, such as water or silver. There’s a popular TV show called Supernatural where there’s a kind of salt that they can spread on the ground and, therefore, nothing can pass over it. Then there’s the most infamous idea, and that is that spirits or corporeal undead cannot go onto holy ground. Give some thought to whether your spirits or your corporeal undead are restricted in their movements. And once you create that restriction, decide how they can overcome that. You don’t want them getting past it all the time, but you should use this as an option. It’s always entertaining in a story when characters think they’re safe because of some thing that’s happened, and then it turns out they’re not.

Another trait we should talk about is consumption. Does your undead type need to consume something to remain viable? Vampires are a good example of this. Besides blood, what else might something need to consume? We have a few options such as magical energy, consuming someone’s soul or consuming some sort of energy that we would find in a science fiction story. The question then becomes how do they consume it? A skeleton has nothing to absorb something with if it tried to drink it. Another corporeal undead might have a mouth, but once it drinks something that’s going to go into the stomach, it will probably leak out.

And, of course, spirits can’t consume something that way at all. However, consuming does not necessarily mean drinking or eating, which is what we do when we’re alive. Maybe they just need to expose themselves to something like radiation and absorb it. Give some thought whether your undead can consume anything, and how it does so. If you’re looking for more ideas, there are more inside the Creating Life book.

Let’s talk about their residence. After all, an undead has to be somewhere when it’s not out and about terrorizing everybody. When it comes to spirits, we often don’t consider this. I guess we assume that the spirit is in some sort of in-between place when it’s not visible to those on Earth. After all, if it is returning to an afterlife and then coming back to the world, it’s going to be doing this repeatedly. So, we might need some sort of explanation for that. Or we can just ignore the whole subject, which is what people seem to do typically. But if you’re looking for one way to make your undead stand out, making a choice about this and making it interesting could be one way to do so.

You may want to invent another realm of existence, and this is where wandering spirits are when they are not on the world itself or in an afterlife. These alternate landscapes can often be useful, partly because we can send our characters into them in search of something or someone. I did this in my novella, The Ever Fiend, which you can download for free by joining my fantasy fiction newsletter.

When it comes to corporeal undead, they are either going to be wandering perpetually, even during daylight hours, or they’re going to have to find somewhere to hide. This is essentially their residence, although it’s certainly possible that they could be in a different place from night to night. One obvious place for them is a cemetery. But, of course, there’s nothing new about that. Where else might they be found? Well, it’s going to be anywhere where people don’t typically go, and a ruined place is a good example of this. This could either be a place like a building or an entire city, or it could be an abandoned ship, for example.

Just like with monsters, you may want to decide where your undead is when it’s not out terrorizing people, because this can really help you characterize it.


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How Can Your Undead Be Destroyed?

One of the subjects I’m not going to talk about today, but which is discussed in the book, Creating Life, is the appearance of your undead. This is a great way to make them different from other undead that we’ve already seen.

What I want to talk about next is death. Nothing lives forever, including undead. One of the things that your characters will most want to know about your undead type is how can they destroy it? For spirits, we often think that the final outcome is banishing them to some sort of afterlife. We tell ourselves that this is where they belong. Something like a prison for a ghost would seem like a temporary measure instead of a final resolution.

A soul being destroyed utterly is another option. This oblivion is considered the worst possible outcome. After all, nothing is more final from this. You cannot come back from it. There is no chance at redemption or another life. If your manner of obliteration causes people to forget that you ever existed, that’s even worse. Dead and forgotten forever is the worst possible fate, even though that’s the one most of us will end up with. And that’s probably one of the reasons we invented the idea of the afterlife.

Whether obliteration or being sent to an afterlife is the end result, how does our spirit end up getting there? We tend to assume that if it could do so on its own, it just would. Since it hasn’t, it must be unable to. And, therefore, it needs help. Decide what form that help comes in. Is it a priest, or is it a magic spell or a technological item?

If the spirit was possessing a body, we should decide what happens to the person whose body has now been vacated. Have they gone insane? Have they recovered and they’re just fine? Do they have no memory of what happened? Or, in the most interesting case, do they remember everything? And were they privy to knowledge that the other spirit had? They may have even experienced a kind of Stockholm Syndrome where they are in love with the spirit who has now been driven out. Are they now an ally of that spirit, and do they want to get it back or, in some way, help that person?

What about corporeal undead? How can they be destroyed? The most cliched answer is by fire, so we might want to do something different. Maybe this corporeal undead is, indeed, feeding on some sort of energy, and this energy can simply be drained from them. Maybe there’s another kind of energy, whether it’s technological or supernatural, that can have the opposite affect of, instead of giving them life, it gives them death. We tend to like this kind of symmetry.

There’s a tendency to focus on destroying the body of a corporeal undead without much regard for what happens to the soul. Maybe we are all assuming that if you destroy that body, the soul then goes to its rightful afterlife. But does that really need to be the case? What if the soul just ends up becoming a spirit that’s wandering and we’ve just traded one kind of undead for another? Regardless of your choice for how you destroy your undead, you must make one because this is one of the primary things your characters are going to wonder about.

Where to Start

Now I want to conclude today’s episode by talking briefly about where to start with creating undead. Arguably, the first thing to do is consider whether there is an existing undead type that we can use instead of inventing one. It is almost certainly public domain. If you don’t use it verbatim, you can still use it as the basis for your own undead by changing its basic appearance, behavior and imagining scenes of how this undead would frighten people or attack our characters.

I, personally, find it very helpful to imagine these scenes because it helps me figure out what I want to do, what I want to accomplish, and what I have already seen before and don’t want to repeat myself. If you haven’t already decided on whether it’s a spiritual or corporeal undead, this is the time to do so. For ideas on what you can do, you can listen to this podcast episode, the previous one, or read the Creating Life book, the chapter on undead, which is chapter 7. And if you want, and you really want to get a head start on this, you can download the template on how to create undead from The Art of World Building website. You can start working on its fighting style and its behavior and abilities. And then, of course, there is deciding on how it can be killed.

Most of this can be invented in any order. My usual advice holds true. Do whatever you have an idea for first, and don’t worry about getting it right. You can always review information on how to go about doing this and then come back to it later.


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 “Just Passing Through.” 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!

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

 news, Podcasts  Comments Off on Podcast Episode 10 (Part 1) – How to Create Undead
Mar 272018

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.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

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

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

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.


If you’re enjoying the podcast, please rate and review the show at artofworldbuilding.com/review. Reviews really are critical to encouraging more people to listen to a show haven’t heard of before, and it can also help the show rank better, allowing more people to discover it. Again that URL is artofworldbuilding.com/review

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!

Where Do Your Undead Live? Can They Eat?

 Book Blog, Volume 1  Comments Off on Where Do Your Undead Live? Can They Eat?
Mar 222018

If our corporeal undead needs to consume something to remain animated, is it really dead? Logically the answer would be no, but we accept the idea that vampires need to consume blood, as if a dead body has any ability to process liquids, not to mention oxygen in blood. What else might our undead need to consume? Souls is a good answer, as is energy of some kind. Maybe there’s a supernatural substance they need. In SF, this could exist only in space, causing the undead to be a traveler.

If we’ve invented plants or animals with special properties, perhaps our undead is compelled to feed upon them for some advantage thus gained. Decide if our undead can’t survive without it or just gains something else like abilities. Or maybe it uses narcotics to dull the misery it feels. Imagine a drunk undead. Finding that narcotic would give it a goal.

Our undead might be consuming out of habit, as in the case of a primitive, mindless undead. In this case, it may not even be aware that it can’t digest food, or that drink just leaks out of its innards. This can give our undead a typical, identifiable appearance—freshly stained with food and drink.

Spiritual undead have no body to consume with, but physical items aren’t the only sustenance available. Maybe the spirit wants or needs to feed on emotional turmoil it causes. Or it could drain the life energy from the living. Or devour their soul. It can feed on magic or energy from technology. Are there supernatural phenomenon that attract spirits? Can our species harness those and use them as a lure?


Corporeal undead have to be somewhere when not terrorizing people, so decide where it resides. We’re looking for a dwelling type more than a specific place, unless we’re creating something that’s only found in one region of the world. Do they return to a grave or spend time in caves or abandoned ruins? The latter is arguably the most interesting. Undead are sometimes depicted as being only a creature of the night, but they still exist during the day. There’s no particular reason they must be in hiding, with one obvious exception—if they’re hoping to do bad things without getting caught, fewer people are out at night and they could meet the goal more easily.

Spiritual undead have less need of a residence but are often thought to be tied to a place by sentiment. This is usually a home or the place of a big event, including their death. If they died long ago, other things could’ve been built there since. In space faring stories, an individual spirit could end up on a ship that takes it away from home but the desire to return home is a character issue, not an undead type.

Aside from the mortal world, is there somewhere they go when not haunting someplace? This is something few creators address. Are they in an afterlife? Do they have any sense of time passing? Are they just dormant like a hibernating bear? While this doesn’t need addressing, it could help us imagine something unique.

How Do Your Undead Move, Touch, and Speak?

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Mar 192018

The distinction between spirits and corporeal undead notwithstanding, when creating undead, the difference between one and another will largely come down to what they can and cannot do—or even what they tend to be doing regardless of capabilities.

Speech and Other Sounds

In theory, a corporeal undead would have difficulty talking due to a tongue and more drying out. If a skeleton has nothing to talk with, spirits are even worse off. We may opt to ignore all of this so that they communicate effectively, or give them telepathy. Try to be consistent; if the undead walks funny, it should have trouble speaking clearly. It doesn’t make sense for one part of the body to be impaired but another to be unaffected by decay. If we want an undead to speak fluently but have trouble walking, we can fix this by having a leg wound cause the latter.

Completely silent undead or those making tormented attempts at communicating can be more frightening. An undead might be able to say only a few words, and if so, those are probably the ones associated with a goal. This could be the name of their child they want to save (or failed to save), for example. Another option is for it to emit a sound meant to draw others to it or affect them, such as causing a trance-like state in victims. Such a sound would make this undead type identifiable.


Corporeal undead have no trouble touching the world they’re still physically a part of, but does their touch corrupt in any way? It can be poisonous, infecting a limb that must be removed. It can just cause unbearable cold that lasts. We can decide it causes the person touched to have visions of what the undead sees, like who its master is, or what it wants, or what horror it faces now. These results and others of our invention can be part of our undead type.

Since disembodied spirits don’t inhabit a body, by definition, it’s logical that their ability to interact with the physical world is compromised, and yet we’ve all seen movies where they can move objects or directly touch the living. Sometimes this touch is something they must learn or which takes a toll on them to perform; otherwise it’s too easy and they don’t have limits on their powers.

Decide how much our spirit can manipulate the physical world, how often, for how long, and to what end. Are they only able to pass through some kinds of objects and not others? Does the material something is made of affect their ability to touch it? Are they only hurt by something like silver? Can they touch people and if so, what affect does that have on the living or the spirit?

The ultimate version of touch is possession of a victim’s body. An appealing idea involves the victim gaining the inhabiting spirit’s skills—becoming an expert musician or gymnast, for example. A caveat here is that the body won’t have the training. The body simply wouldn’t be capable of it, but this again depends on how realistic we want to be.


The slow-moving undead of yesteryear seemingly paid more attention to realism but has given way to faster-than-humanly-possible corporeal undead. Assuming we want to justify anything, the latter can have either a supernatural, technological, or possibly genetic cause (in the form of mutation). Slow moving ones don’t seem frightening anymore unless sheer numbers have blocked escape routes. Today’s audiences expect better than victims who just stare in horror until undead surround them.

If we’re giving our undead superhuman abilities, a good rationale sells this better. Knowing their origins will help; if a spell designed to grant speed to someone killed them instead, then making them fast in death makes sense. An animated corpse is presumably powered by unholy forces that also allow it to experience little or no fatigue.

Spirits are often shown gliding around or just appearing as if teleporting; the latter suggests knowing they’re dead while the former suggests ignorance of this fact. Can spirits pass through objects? If so, this can be because they don’t recognize a change has taken place, such as a bookcase being placed in front of a door long after they’re dead; doing so might not indicate awareness of their death but being stuck in time, seeing the past instead of the present.

Undead: What Created Them?

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Mar 082018

Knowing the origins of undead is often a basic part of their identity and a good way to distinguish ours from what’s come before. A good story excites the imagination. In this case, we’re talking about an undead who wasn’t caused by the bite of another undead, for example, but an original undead of this type.

Accidental Undead

As with monsters, undead can be created by any number of accidents, whether natural, supernatural, or technological. This might be the most common cause because few people want undead to exist and have the ability to go around creating them. Undead created accidentally are likely to be few in number unless a large-scale event created many of them at once. How many accidents produce the same results? If we want many spirits that are the same, and in the same area, a large accident is one way to justify that; historically, our depictions of spirits have a tendency to show them as largely solitary. A type of spirit that works in groups could be a novel approach.

We might decide that there are certain types of phenomenon that are known to create specific types of undead. If those phenomena are rare but still somewhat widespread, the resulting undead can be as well. What if someone has harnessed that phenomenon and can unleash it on purpose? That could make this undead type more common; this works for monster creation as well.

Undead By Design

It’s safe to say that anyone who purposely creates undead is up to no good. Our perpetrator might be able to control the result. If so, we can decide who wants to do this and why, then figure out the resulting undead attributes, or do this in reverse. Once someone has created one, they don’t necessarily need to continue doing so for them to propagate. Instead, the undead may have the ability to create more of themselves, making them widespread despite having a single, original source.

If our perpetrator cannot control the resulting undead, he might be unhappy with the result. Did he try to destroy it? Chase it away? Did it retaliate and kill or wound him? Or best of all, turn him into one, too, possibly under its control?

Does the creator have control over his undead? Do they obey? Chafe at this? Or do they seemingly like it? Are they crafty enough to pretend to obey only to look for an opportunity to attack him? How does he control them? A device? A spell that’s still in effect and can be nullified by a zone where magic doesn’t work anymore? Or did the means used to create them make his control a given?

Undead: How Long Were They Dead?

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Mar 052018

This section talks about how long a corpse must be dead before it can become undead and why this matters. Also discussed are prerequisites for becoming undead and the impact of how many of this undead type have on, well, everything abut them.

Undead: How to Classify Them

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Mar 012018
Sentient Life

The first choice to make with undead is whether they have a body or not. If so, the term undead is often used, as it implies a body that it is animated once again. If there’s no body, it’s a spirit, which is a slightly more generic term than ghost. That’s not a rule, but I’m going with the following terms in this chapter:

  1. Spirits—it has no body
  2. Corporeal—it has a body, with or without a soul in it
  3. Undead—a generic word meaning both or either of the above
Spiritual Undead

The existence of a soul is debatable and outside the scope of this book, but without one, we don’t have spiritual undead. We may find it difficult to invent one that hasn’t been done before partly because, without a body, our options are more limited than with corporeal undead, who can touch and affect the world.

One way around this is to decide that our spirit can interact with the physical world anyway, possibly with limitations. Perhaps they can only do so for short periods or under the right conditions. Maybe they become vulnerable while doing so, or afterwards for a time. Maybe the spirits that can pass through objects (an advantage) can’t move them (a disadvantage), or the reverse, it can’t pass through objects but can move them. Inventing such details is one way to create something unique.

Where is the spirit’s body? This could be used for motivation or characterization. A popular idea is that destroying the body eliminates the spirit, which may know this and hide or protect its remains. The spirit might wish to reanimate the body. It might be unhappy with where the body lies, such as an improper burial, or if it’s being used as a trophy. These speak to motivation, covered later, but the corpse may be irrelevant.

For more details, see the section under “traits.”

Corporeal Undead

Corporeal undead come in two varieties—those with a soul and those without. There may not be much difference at first glance. In the above section about the mind, if we accept the premise that the mind goes with the soul, then a soulless corpse might be mentally deficient. Perhaps this explains depictions of zombies, though I don’t recall anyone explicitly stating they have no soul. The brain (not the same as the mind) is technically what allows for control of the body and it can be assumed to be impaired due to lack of blood supply, at the least, so this can be another explanation for traits. It’s all make believe, but our willing suspension of disbelief is aided by something plausible.

The existence of the body gives us more options than a spirit. Our undead could have super senses instead of worse ones, leading to an altered personality or character. For example, an undead with super hearing might be able to learn things they otherwise couldn’t by overhearing conversations not meant for their ears. The new knowledge might give them a feeling of power that might’ve been denied them in life. Consider how this might affect their minds, emotions, and motivations.

Being dead means a loss of body function, but this depends on our creation. In many recent works, vampires show heightened senses and don’t appear dead, so much so that one can question whether these are really vampires or super human people who can’t really be killed except by specific means like sunlight. We’ve even seen vampires having babies. The point is that we can decide on undead that are a vision of health, a rotting corpse, or just a skeleton. There are no limits, but each offers a very different experience for the undead and anyone encountering them.

In theory, a skeleton should be unable to move at all, having no muscles or anything else needed for locomotion, not to mention a brain to control limbs. This is largely true of a decaying corpse, as well, but at least the decay suggests movement is only hampered. Without the supernatural or technology to allow locomotion and more, corporeal undead are more nonsensical than spirits, so if we have a world without either, they may not make sense, not that anyone’s stopping us from doing it anyway.

We might think that a skeleton implies that death occurred longer ago than with a partially decomposed or preserved body, but this is not true. The rate of decomposition depends on many factors, including exposure to air, water, or earth, and the level of aridity and even water in soil. A skeleton could be a decade old while a body preserved under the right conditions could be a thousand years old, whether this preservation was intentional or inadvertent. For some interesting if gross reading (not for the faint of heart), read this article: http://www.memorialpages.co.uk/articles/decomposition.php

Non-Sentient Life

Undead plants? Sure, why not? We think of undead as having previously had a mind and soul (i.e., being sentient), neither of which apply here, but anything that’s alive can die. And come back to life while not quite being the same. The subject is underutilized in fiction, maybe for good reasons.

Without a soul, spiritual undead plants are not an option, leaving only corporeal undead plants. Plants aren’t mobile, typically, and are therefore even easier to avoid than the slow moving zombies of yesteryear. This makes plants not particularly frightening. We also assume they can’t grow, being dead, so they can’t even extend their range.

If we want undead plants that terrify, a predatory and mobile one has better options once dead and back to life. If there are walking and talking plants similar to the Ents of The Lord of The Rings, our options increase considerably. Wouldn’t it be interesting for plants to not lose attributes as undead, but gain them instead? What if one became sentient?


We see undead animals less often than humanoids, making this a ripe area for originality. If undead humanoids have reduced capabilities, animals might, too, but authors have often given undead animals augmented ones instead. What if it’s smarter now, even able to speak? The supernatural can grant this without explanation, as can technology. Great strength or speed are clichés but are done to make them more formidable, which could now be done with intelligence, too. An undead animal can continue with a behavior from life even if it’s no longer needed, such as eating or hunting. The obvious thing here is for an appetite that’s now sinister, such as preying on people. This can include swarms of insects who now do this and infect the living, who might in turn become undead.

Undead: Should We Create Them?

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Feb 262018

In a book called Creating Life, a chapter on creating undead might seem out of place, but if it’s still moving, we can consider it alive enough. A multitude of undead types already exist for our use, with most being public domain. These include vampires, zombies, ghosts, skeletons, and more. Most of them are excellent ideas that, just like elves, dwarves, and dragons, have stood the test of time. No one will roll their eyes if we use them.

Should We Create Undead?

The first question we must ask ourselves is whether we should create our own undead. And the answer to that is—probably not. Not unless we have a good reason or an idea that is substantially different. Most basic versions of undead already exist, leaving little room for new ones that aren’t rehashed old ideas with minor twists. If we create immortal bloodsuckers that burn to ash in direct sunlight and have superhuman strength and senses, and we call them something besides vampires, people will call us out.

Conversely, there’s a limit on how much we can change something and still use the original name. This is a judgment call. The first consideration is, how quickly does the way we describe and use it invoke memories of the undead we used for inspiration? The sooner it happens, the more we just call it what it is. We want to avoid the “Oh, it’s just a vampire with this and that added or removed” reaction.

The second factor is whether the changes we’ve made substantially alter the nature of the source. If our creation is a vampire but doesn’t drink blood, we’ve changed something too fundamental to call it a vampire. Some will disagree with this and say authors can do whatever we want, and while this is sort of true, there are expectations that can be defied and ones that shouldn’t be. If changing something fundamental, just change it even more and invent a name.

The Mind

This is an academic debate, but in death, does the mind go with the soul or remain with the body? Depending on our point of view, this can be used to determine the mental faculties of our undead. For example, we assume that if the soul goes to an afterlife, the mind goes with it and is fully intact. This would suggest that ghosts generally have their minds, whether those minds are impaired by their present state or not. Corporeal undead that have a soul would also have a mind, in theory.

But what about corporeal undead that have no soul in the body? Is that undead largely mindless? About as intelligent as an animal? It’s something to consider if creating undead, or at least use as a rationalization point. It can help us determine what our undead is capable of.

Either way, we can introduce mental impairment of any kind so that our undead is “not right in the head.” Such impairment includes denial of death. This might seem odd with a spirit. After all, a spirit doesn’t have a body, so how can they not realize they’re dead? Yet there are many ghost stories that include this idea. In such a case, the spirit is often behaving as if it’s alive, going about its usual business, such as housework or even rocking a baby’s crib. If confronted with the truth of their demise, these spirits can experience the usual wrath that even the living exhibit when an unpleasant truth is thrust upon them. The trouble with inventing this type of spirit is that we’re not really inventing it—it’s a standard ghost.

A generally accepted idea for undead is that they’re tormented. We speak of “rest in peace” and other phrases about the dead, the connotation being that anyone not lying still must necessarily be upset about that fact. Even Dracula, for all his seeming enjoyment of his state, is shown as tormented when no one is looking. If life is an ideal state and death is the worst we expect, then being undead is an unexpected half-life with even less of a training manual on what to do. Torment can be emotional or mental in origin but affects both. The degree to which our undead is upset about its state may help determine its goals and traits, discussed in this chapter.