Dystopian Worlds

How Writers Can Navigate Dystopian Worlds Successfully

Hey, Lovelies!

You’re angry. You’re fed up. And you want to see change now.

No more climate change. No more coronavirus. And you want a government that helps you – not one that locks you in your house.

The system just isn’t working for you anymore.

So we’re going to break free of those bonds today. We’re going to rail against the government’s dictates and seize control of our lives – like we should’ve done after the pandemic.

Let’s shake up this dystopian world, shall we?

Dystopian Worlds

Before we look at the dystopian state we find ourselves in, I want you to picture a utopia:

Utopia: (the idea of) a perfect society in which everyone works well with each other and is happy. The “perfect society” refers to ideal conditions achieved within the material world and the citizens presiding in such utopias are bearers of a perfect moral code, or at the least, every violator of the moral code is harshly punished. A utopian society is one where all social evils have been cured.

The birds are singing gaily outside your window, despite being in the middle of a metropolis. Toilet paper shortages are a thing of the distant past. Everyone and everything works in harmony to make our world a better place. There is no discrimination or racism, everyone can afford a home, climate change is no longer an issue, money is plentiful, and the government actually takes care of its citizens.

Everything is perfect, and how we wanted it to be.

However, something is missing. There’s an underlying wound that is festering, eating at our happiness. But we disregard it because everything is perfect – right?

Animal Farm

Even our utopian society can have undercurrents of something ugly. We’ve seen it before with the Soviet Union when their “utopian” communist regime was destroyed by political corruption and fear-inspiring dictators. Books, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, allegorize the events of the Russian Revolution.

These little fears and nagging doubts in our utopia can quickly bring it into a dystopian state. But what does that even mean?

Dystopia: is a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. It’s a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future and explores themes of rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters.

Our dystopian society looks at the dangerous effects of political and social structures on humanity’s future. We didn’t survive the apocalypse and post-apocalypse just to put these harmful structures from before back into place. We want something new and more egalitarian, but our efforts go askew.

Instead, we end up in a world similar to The Hunger Games or Divergent. We explore themes such as government control, environmental destruction, technological control, survival, and loss of individualism, among many others. It’s up to us writers to pit our protagonists against these forces and emerge either victoriously or utterly defeated.

The History of Dystopian Fiction

Utopia

The idea of a dystopia planted its roots in 1516 when one Sir Thomas More wrote a book called Utopia. More didn’t believe in utopias, and it is often thought that his book was a play on words – the word utopia could be a pun, derived from the Greek word u-topos (“no place”) and eu-topos (“good place”). Thomas More thought that such a good place was not anything we knew, and so it must not exist, which also gave rise to the thought: if a utopia is too good to exist, then a dystopia is a place that we don’t want to exist.

However, the word dystopia wasn’t introduced into our vocabulary until it was uttered by John Stuart Mill in 1868. It wasn’t until about 50 years afterward that the idea of dystopia was adopted by authors and began to actually take root in the public consciousness.

Depending on where you get your information from, most people say that the rise of dystopian literature didn’t begin until the 1920s. However, some claim that is was a bit earlier than that. According to The New Yorker, the dystopian novel emerged in response to the first utopian novels, like Edward Bellamy’s best-selling 1888 fantasy, Looking Backward. The book was so successful that dozens of anti-socialist, anti-utopian replies were published, including Looking Further Backward and Looking Further Forward.

These anti-utopian feelings were upheld by more authors, including Anna Bowman Dodd with her book The Republic of the Future, which was published in 1887 and H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine in 1895. Why did the dystopian novel make a debut during this time? Historically, it was one of change. Russia was about to undergo a revolution, and the powers to be in Europe were getting restless.

We’re also shifting away from rapid progress, which marked the Industrial Revolution. Utopians believe in progress, and dystopians don’t. The two groups battled it out with competing visions of the future: utopians offered promises, while dystopians issued warnings.

we.jpg

All in all, it was a time of political unrest and global anxiety.

Yet we don’t see dystopian fiction becoming a more defined genre until the publication of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We in 1921. We took the utopian view and made it grim. The book also established many of the tropes that we see in dystopian fiction today. These included troubled, unresolved endings, and a totalitarian government that’s gone mad. We are also the inspiration for two of the most important books in the genre: George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s 1939 Brave New World.

Both were written in the shadow of a world war and predicted an even darker future. The worlds within these two novels differ vastly, and the influences that Orwell and Huxley feared were not the same.

But with the world wars over, many thought that things would get sunnier, but according to a Goodreads chart, things aren’t getting better:

Dystopian Novel Chart 2

In the 1950s and 1960s, most people were afraid of World War III or an apocalypse. They also started to worry about technology as numerous advances were being made, such as the first personal computer, the inception of the Turing test (a test for intelligence in computers), and the creation of Sputnik. Because of this, dystopian novels began to cross paths more regularly with science fiction worldbuilding, such as in Philip K. Dick’s 1968 book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

People were also worried about totalitarian governments and how they can regulate the arts. One of the most famous examples continues to be Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which explores the possibility of a future in which books are burned.

The 1970s saw a drop in the number of dystopian novels produced, but it did see an overall spike in themes that were explored. Like with apocalyptic fiction, there was a spike in environmental-based stories. However, we do see a rise in novels that explored things like advertising, misgivings over the body, and economic stagnation.

These topics were taken to new places. For example, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) shook the world by talking about how women’s bodies were nothing more than reproductive machines. Cyberpunk was born out of William Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer. And private corporations became a wellspring of repression and public enemy #1 alongside totalitarian governments in many dystopian novels, such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

The Giver

Black satire also became a popular genre during this time. José Saramago led the way with Blindness and its sequel Seeing, which both use an omniscient narrator to great effect. And Lois Lowery’s The Giver became the first YA dystopian novel in 1994. It built upon past traditions of adult dystopian fiction while managing to popularize the genre among young adult readers.

Lois Lowery’s book set in motion what we see today: dystopian literature taking over the world of YA fiction. While The Giver started the trend, it was Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games that brought the genre into its glory – and into Hollywood.

According to our friends at Electric Lit:

In dystopian fiction, young adult readers can find a tangle of themes to identify with: themes of self-discovery, of one young person pitted against the whole terrible world. Overall, the rise in dystopian novels since 2000 is said to be a symptom of the pooling anxieties that followed 9/11 and other troubling geopolitical events.

But The Hunger Games still managed to change many aspects of the game. In an essay, the AV Club noted:

The Giver comes from what seems to be a lost tradition in dystopian storytelling. It used to be okay for genetics to eventually yield an individual who wants to break free from societal homogeny, and choose to escape that oppression to a safer community. Now, merely escaping isn’t enough — dystopian-thriller protagonists must learn brutally militaristic tactics and enact violence that brings tyranny crumbling down in increasingly bloody action sequences.

In today’s dystopian fiction, the stakes are higher, and there’s more to lose. That doesn’t mean that all hope is lost – in fact, the opposite is true. There still remains a glimmer of hope in all of these dark tales. We can eventually overcome our oppressor and regain our identities in time for us to bring about new world order.

How to Write a Dystopian Novel

Before we can break our dystopian world, we need to know how it was created. The past has given us some answers about the themes we presently see in our restrictive society. Now we have to delve deeper into how we got into this mess in the first place:

  • Do your research! Look into the tropes and themes of the stories that have come before yours. It’ll help you set up your world. It is also prudent to look into how new government systems come into being. Friedrich Nietzsche has some interesting thoughts on how societies rise and fall.
  • Keep up with current affairs. You know how your social studies teacher was always on you for reading the newspaper or watching the news? Well, that teacher was trying to prepare you to be a “socially responsible citizen,” but to also give you ideas for your dystopian tale. Like apocalyptic fiction, dystopian novels deal with fear and reflect current events.
  • Write about something that makes you mad. Because you’ve been keeping up with current affairs, you’re bound to find something that drives you nuts – like climate change, coronavirus, the lack of unbiased media, Trump, etc. Writing about what irks you can drive your plot forward.
  • Pick a strong theme. Pick a strong central theme from that rage-inducing current event. You want an idea that can be taken to the extreme and relate to the core message that you want to get across. In The Hunger Games, reality TV is pushed to a violent extreme (the theme), which draws the focus away from the true nature of the world within the thirteen districts (the message).
  • Worldbuilding is essential! As with post-apocalyptic fiction, you are taking an issue from our world and projecting it into the future. So you’re going to need to do some worldbuilding here. It is not enough to say that you’re in a post-apocalyptic world, you need to show us what this world is like and hint at how it came to be.
  • Take the worst-case scenario and double it. Dystopias aren’t supposed to be happy and fun. They’re meant to weigh heavily on the soul. They’re dark, dangerous, and oppressive, and you’re going to need imagery and details to support those images. Grab the worst thing that you can think of and then make it even worse.
  • Keep character motivations realistic throughout your tale. There has to be a reason behind a government’s or an individual’s actions. It doesn’t matter if that character or group is upholding the mandates of your world or seeking to destroy them. There has to be a reason.

We’ve got the how and now it’s time to end this reign of tyranny. It’s time for us to uproot the capitalist system and weed the corrupted from positions of power. Whether we’re successful or not is up to you, dear writer. We have our hope of a better future come true or have it crushed as fall turns into winter.

We’re all in this together. Why not pool together to collect intel on how to disintegrate the elite? Are there any tips that I missed that you’d like to share? Is anyone currently writing out their own battle plan? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.


Disclaimer: I was 100 percent joking about us taking over the world. Please do not actually do that. Keep this to fiction only.

That’s it for today’s underground resistance post. Tune in next week for how to write a trilogy and how to spread our message by using SEO.

Please stay indoors and plot our next move. Remember that this particular disease can spread quickly and that it’s best to continue our communications over the secure channels of the web. We can’t afford to lose more people – our resistance may collapse if we do.

Stay safe, my friends!  

Until next time!

Cheers,

Danielle

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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.

Comments

9 Responses

  1. On the one hand, the shutdown is keeping the covid-19 from spreading. On the other hand, it’s keeping small businesses from doing *any* business, and leading to the end of those small businesses and employment and income.
    It’s hard to balance those scales!
    But nothing’s hard for the virus. It doesn’t need to take over the world, and it doesn’t care who’s in charge of the world. It just needs to replicate, one host at a time.
    The eggs are restocked. The bread is restocked. Toilet paper and paper towels are spotted occasionally. Life is going on.

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