“While the idea of being the last person on Earth may be fascinating for some, it could lead to some obvious challenges with regard to plot. The story would mostly be a fairly uneventful narrative.”
I'd like to reword that last sentence to read, 'The story might be a fairly uneventful narrative in terms of interaction with other characters (obviously).' However, that's not to imply that the narrative would actually be boring. It could be still be an intensely interesting story, incorporating interaction with wildlife, environmental obstacles, and even personal challenges such as coping with periods of total silence, loneliness, and attempting to keep one's sanity intact.
If you were the author, would you have your character become the very last person on Earth, and write about how they cope with that? Alternatively, would you have them find a mate, either early on in the story or towards the end, with the possibility of starting a new world all over again?
If your character really was the last person on Earth, would they know it or would they be 'left in the dark' about that so to speak? Not knowing would raise the tension somewhat, especially every time they entered a town or city. Would you have them enjoy positive experiences as well, such as driving a new car around the streets or a famous racetrack, befriending a pet, finding a treasure trove of canned food and bottled water, pumping their favorite music through some outdoor speakers, taking a boat for a spin or even flying a plane? Or would it be rather bleak, similar perhaps to The Road by Cormac McCarthy? What would you like to do if you were the last person on Earth?
But this enticing setting will only carry the story so far. There still needs to be a plot, and a human connection, to compel the reader to continue reading. Questions must be asked (or implied by the writer) that the reader would like to see answered, such as will the protagonist survive? If so, how? Will they meet someone else? What dangers are there? The amazing thing is that while there are many books about the last surviving humans in this world, there are extremely few novels about being the very last single person on Earth (in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries anyway). If you are aware of any (that aren't mentioned in the paragraph below), please let me know!
Most of the stories I've read (and/or movies I've seen) initially hint that the main character(s) may be the last sole survivor in the world, but then zombies appear, or another human character arrives on the scene and so on. However, some books come close to this extreme, such as On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Z for Zachariah by Robert C O'Brien, The Quiet Earth by Craig Harrison, Empty World by John Christopher (a young adult’s book) and A Scientific Romance: A novel by Ronald Wright. There is also a book by Isaac Asimov titled Last Man on Earth, but it is a collection of short stories (which touch on the topic), and isn’t actually a novel.
One of the challenges in writing this kind of story is explaining in a credible manner why the main character survived that which the rest of humanity did not. Something that I find shocking in the world at the moment is religious terrorism, especially with regard to what is happening in the Middle East right now. What if a religious cult or sect were to concoct a plan to simultaneously poison the world’s water supply? And what if the main character had a rare blood ‘disorder’ that made him/her immune to the particular poison involved? That would be credible enough to the reader, I imagine. Once the scene has been set, let the story roll on.
Food, clothing, shelter: the three essentials of life. If we go with the ‘death of mankind by poison’ scenario, then all the buildings are still intact, thus providing shelter. Clothing would also be in plentiful supply at any department store. Food on the other hand would either be canned or running around wild on four legs.
If I were the author, I would like to make my protagonist a country boy with a city mind. I imagine that he would know how to survive in the wild because he grew up in the country, was maybe even an Eagle (Boy) Scout as a youth, and learned how to hunt, to farm, and to fish. He would be a very smart young man, perhaps well educated in a city school and/or college after having graduated from his rural high school. He might have even entered the armed forces, the air force for example, and become a capable pilot. At least he would know his weapons. Hence he would easily survive in the wild, know basic first aid (probably a bit more than that), and could hunt for food as well as defend himself.
The real struggle, especially if he were the last person on Earth, would be trying to figure out the meaning of it all. Would he think about the existence of God, even if he were an atheist or agnostic beforehand? Would he wonder about what would become of the human race, the animals, nature, and the Earth? Would he consider the possibility of the existence of aliens? How long would he be able to keep up his language skills if he had nobody to speak to? Would language even matter anymore? What things would be useless now, that may have been considered important previously? Things such as money, employment, owning the latest technology, having knowledge of history and/or geography, might all pale in comparison to food and water, human contact and companionship. And if the person did find a mate in the end, and have children, what things would they consider vital in the education of their children within this new environment?
Something else to consider is the supply of fuel, electricity, hot water, and so on. Living next to a fresh water source (untainted by the poison in public water supplies), such as a mountain stream or river would be advisable. Water can be heated over a fire. Washing clothes wouldn’t really be necessary however, as there would be ample supplies of clean, fresh, clothing in city department stores to last one a lifetime. Mind you, within a decade or two, the buildings themselves might begin to crumble and become dangerous to enter.
Electricity would disappear very quickly, and the sun (and/or fire) would be the only source of light or heat. One could live without it if they could cope with absolute darkness at night, and the cold conditions in winter season. Without fuel, however, cars, trucks, boats and planes would soon become museum pieces. It would also be wise to live away from any nuclear reactors, as without maintenance, they may just go into meltdown.
Knowledge would still be available in the form of books in libraries throughout the world, but of course there would be no Wikipedia, Google, or even the Internet for that matter. Radio waves would still exist, but would there be anybody out there to communicate with, who happened to know how to work a basic radio? Seriously, today’s generation may be geniuses on computers, but how many have owned a radio or even know what one is? Telephones would be out as well after a while, as communication networks and satellites breakdown from lack of maintenance.
Hence, it’s fairly plain to see that while an ‘empty world’ might be an intriguing notion, the last known survivor(s) would face many serious challenges. And if that person were not a doctor or someone with medical knowledge, then even a simple injury could lead to a horrible infection and maybe death. An idyllic, fantasy-paradise could very quickly turn into a terrifying situation. But that of course is up to the author, upon whose mercy and imagination the characters live and die.
No matter what happens though, at least the reader gets to close the book at the end of the story and return to a ‘normal’ life, after having been entertained, enthralled, horrified, delighted, or saddened by the character’s ill fate or good fortune.
See you on the shelf!