When Your Antagonist Goes Viral
by DP Lyle
Imagine this: Your protagonist is faced with a deadly enemy that can’t be seen, felt, smelled, tasted. Undetectable until it’s way too late. Imagine victims dropping all around him, many with horrible and frightening symptoms and signs. Things like blotchy purple skin rashes, raspy, wheezy breathing, bloody vomiting and diarrhea, confusion or psychotic and aggressive behaviors. Yet the cause of all this mayhem is unseen, and unknown.
How do you identify such an enemy, or defend yourself from it?
Infectious diseases have terrorized the world for centuries. The Black Death was just one, the worst, of the plagues that swept through Medieval Europe. It killed one third, maybe one half, of Europe’s population. With many of the above symptoms. The meager state of medical care—-or understanding—in 1350 could do little. The church was equally impotent.
Imagine the terror that gripped the entirety of Europe. What caused these horrible things to happen? Was it bad air, some miasma? Was it spread by one group or another? Was it punishment for your sins?
Where could you go to avoid the plague? What could you do to protect yourself and your family? Who could you turn to? What would you do if an infected stranger appeared at your door? Would you trust your local officials or pray to a God that let this happen?
There were no heroes available at that time.
But there have been, and are, other plagues that are more modern and equally as deadly. The 1918 flu claimed millions of lives around the world. Now we have such pleasant afflictions as HIV, Ebola, and the Marburg virus. Besides, isn’t the coming Zombie Apocalypse due to an errant virus?
The Plague was caused by a bacterium that today is easily treated with antibiotics. Drugs that weren’t available in the 14th century. Okay, great, The Black Death can’t happen today. Not so fast. What about viruses? Things like Ebola and Marburg. We have little effective testament for these guys. So, a new Black Death is always possible. And as the world turns, new creatures are evolving. A series of simple mutations could easily produce the next pandemic and yet again kill off half the population. In fact, it probably will someday. History repeats itself.
And such an unseen enemy can make for a nearly perfect fictional antagonist. I mean, you can flash a mirror, or cross, at Dracula, or fire a silver bullet into the Wolfman, or simply run from Frankenstein—he wasn’t very fleet of foot. Godzilla stomping your city to rubble creates different, but not insurmountable, problems.
But where do you hide from a virus?
I’ve practiced medicine for over forty years and I can say without doubt that the greatest stress placed on any human is when they face death, disease, or injury. There are so many unknowns and the feeling of helplessness is universal. The same is true if the sufferer is a parent, child, or loved one. It produces anxiety on a very basic and visceral level.
This innate fear of death and disease is part of the human experience. And excellent fodder for thriller writing. Sure Frankenstein and Godzilla are scary, but what about an unseen, unavoidable, untreatable enemy? One that has no boundaries, permeating the air you breath, the water you drink, the loved one you hug. There is nowhere to hide since the miasma can creep beneath your door.
It doesn’t bite, or maul, or stomp, or any of those physical things, but rather attacks from within. By the time the victim realizes something is wrong, it’s often too late to fix. Or worse, there is no fix.
Infectious processes have been the subject of many thrillers, both written and cinematic. Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain (1971) was an early example. An organism comes from outer space and kills quickly. Earthlings have no defense. Just as Europeans had no defense when the Black Death appeared. Others include The Cassandra Crossing (1976), 28 Days Later (2002), and Outbreak (1995).
Thrillers need a resilient, believable, relentless, deadly, seemingly-unstoppable antagonist. An unseen infectious creature that attacks from within fits the bill.
Originally posted on the Horror Tree Blog: https://horrortree.com/when-your-antagonist-goes-viral/