I've been fascinated by Dystopian literature ever since I secretly read 1984 in 6th grade. (Very dystopian of me, I know) I devoured The Hunger Games, fell in love with the Giver, and often imagine creating my own dystopian world, in a book of course.
Not everything that claims to be dystopian is dystopian. If you choose to write, or read dystopian fiction, you should know what makes something truly dystopian. On another note, when politicians claim that government is becoming dystopian, knowing what really is dystopian can help you decide if the fear mongering is legit.
I'm going to use a lot of literary examples to flesh out dystopian world building. So be prepared for illusions to: The Giver, 1984, Brave New World, The Hunger Games, and Divergent.
Dystopian governments know people need choice. Especially Westerners. We don't want to think we don't have any say over our lives. To compensate for this, dystopian governments always provide choice.
Katniss can choose whether or not to volunteer for The Hunger Games. Tris can choose which faction to join. Winston must decide whether or not to join a rebellion.
But, this choice is entirely dictated by the government. The government creates the options, so even your choice is an illusion.
Some call this shadow government. A puppet act. Either way, characters feel empowered by their choices, only to become a tool of the government.
At some point in a dystopian world, one character realizes this choice isn't all it's cracked up to be. As Peeta remarks to Katniss, "I just don't want to become a piece in their games."
In a dystopian world, you're just a piece in the game. Each step the characters take falls right into the government’s hands. They expect you to take that choice and even manipulate you into thinking you choose that choice.
Winston falls into this trap in 1984. Contacted by a government agent to join a rebellion, Winston jumps aboard. He feels empowered making this decision; he's finally taking a step against the regime that has held him hostage.
But this choice plays right into the governments hands. In the end, Winston's decisions only doom his fate. Winston was always a puppet of the dystopian government.
Each dystopia starts as a utopia. No one wants to live in a government controlled hell. But everyone wants a slice of heaven on earth.
To begin writing a dystopia, you must ask, "What creates a perfect society?"
But perfect for you, is not perfect for me. To create a sublime society, you cannot make everyone happy. Something must be sacrificed in order to create perfection. In The Hunger Games, the districts are sacrificed to give the Capitol a Utopian world of privilege. In Divergent, individuality is sacrificed for the Utopian ideal of group conformity.
Lois Lowry in The Giver paints this picture exceptionally well. The Society is perfect: no pain, no suffering, no disease.
But to create this perfect society, something was sacrificed. Feeling.
The characters in The Giver are content with their society as long as they don't know what's been sacrificed. But once the weight of loss is impressed on Jonas, he cannot bear to live in this seemingly perfect world.
A well-rounded dystopian novel has glimpses of good. In the Giver, we admire the precision of language, the family units, the controlled, perfect weather.
But at the same time, our stomach turns at the casual disposal of children. The loss of love. And the Societal control of every aspect of their lives.
The Giver nearly perfectly balances Utopia and Dystopia. Don't create a dystopian world that has no element of Utopia. Otherwise, the government will feel contrived.
1984 fails with creating a needed government. The entire society is afraid of Big Brother. Communist thugs rule the word. This Dystopian government feels contrived, forced into existence by the death of Capitalism. (Just guessing with that, I'm not really sure why Big Brother exists)
As a reader, I'm angry with the government in 1984. I'm angry with a complacent population that lets the government rule like that. I'm angry the government seems to win and how useless the protagonist is against Big Brother.
But in The Giver, I am more than angry. I'm moved to pity. These people are blind, because everything seems perfect.
Unless you're trying to get readers to burn your books, create a dystopian society to be pitied. People that need help. People just like you and me, who wouldn't be complacent if they knew they lived in a dystopia.
Both The Giver and 1984 end on similar notes. Does Jonas survive? Will Winston really die?
But I've vowed to never reread 1984, simply because I grew so angry with the people and government.
On the other hand, I love The Giver. I weep for their Society - the love the government has stolen, the lives needlessly lost, and the lies earnestly believed.
Which reaction do you want to create?
Don't Dead End Your Dystopia
The Hunger Games, The Giver, 1984 - all three Dystopian worlds have something in common. The Dystopia is the only option. The history creating the world is fleshed out, the politics workable, and the problems real.
Divergent falls off the Dystopian train when the story becomes an experiment. The Society is an experiment, not a reality.
This is frustrating for readers and for the characters. The life they've always lived is actually just science fiction. In fact, they aren't even needed to stop injustice. The Scientists can decide to stop the experiment at any moment.
I can't imagine finding out my life was truly just part of some grand social experiment, I know that would be soul crushing. So, please don't do this to your characters. It can ruin anyone's day.
Science Fiction and Dystopia are two different fields. I don't recommend you mix the two together. Making your dystopia science fiction, an experiment, limits the humanity of your story.
A dystopian world allows you to explore the depths of depravity and humanity of your characters. You can create a world of moral greys, of unspeakable evil, and of life-altering hope.
But when that world is simply an experiment, the character's journey feels fake, nearly forced.
Don't throw your readers and characters into a tailspin. Don't put their world into a box of experiments.
Now, I'm not bashing science fiction. But I am bashing using experiments as world creators. Dystopias have existed in real life - Nazi Germany, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Stalinist Russia.
But no experimental society has ever existed. I think this method of world building is lazy, a cop-out from the harsh realities of government creation our history has given us.
Which leads me to my last idea -
Dystopia is based in reality
No matter what dystopian world you create, there are real life examples of dystopia. Humanity is rife with examples of evil governments and terrible societies, you don't need an exhaustive search in order to borrow ideas from other oppressive regimes.
Suzanne Collins borrowed from ancient Rome for the Capitol in The Hunger Games. George Orwell used his experience in 1930's Russia to craft the world of 1984.
When you sit down to craft a dystopian world, remember, the best dystopias parallel real life.
Did you get ideas for writing a good dystopian world? I know I did. If you want more great thoughts brought to you by Elizabeth Hunter, follow her blog here and her Facebook page here. Now go tell her how awesome she is in the comment section below. And don't forget to leave the title of a book that you thought handled it's dystopian setting well!
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