Dystopias- a subgenre of science fiction- remains one of my favourite genres to read. It’s also polarizing and causes the reader to analyze the world they live in. No topic is off bounds- politics, religion, sex, violence, drugs and entertainment- are shown in their gory glory. But what makes a dystopia effective? Because like all genres- there are good books and bad books. In this piece, I will figure out what makes this genre bone-chilling, and hopefully assist writers in crafting compelling dystopias.
Tip 1: Don’t neglect the characters- they are crucial.
This is basic advice- but alot of dystopian writers can get caught up in their concepts and characters take a back seat. Claire Messud, a senior lecturer at Harvard University, said on a piece written by The Guardian:
Each of us is, in any given moment, the sum total of our temperament and experiences up to that point. Our baggage and idiosyncrasies may be suggested in our appearance; but much is invisible to the world. We all know that if there are three people in a room, each will tell a different story about what happened there – so character determines the story itself. But it also determines what will unfold – the plot.The Guardian
This applies to the dystopia genre, just like it applies to any other genre. If your story does not have compelling characters who have depth and unique motives, the reader will not be invested. Characters are also a way for the author to show how a dystopian world affects everyday people.
An effective example of a character-driven dystopia is “Never Let Me Go” by
Kazuo Ishiguro. By focusing on the psychological and sociological factors that motivate the tragic Kathy, Tommy and Ruth- we enter a universe where nothing is certain, no future is clearly written and characters are haunted by their past and future. The novel is a success: Ishiguro’s ability to emphasis the human condition manifests in an unforgettable tragedy.
Characterisation is core to any dystopia, and acts as a bridge between the readers and the plot. Characters give a reason to invest in the story. Don’t be afraid to break the hearts of your characters and readers- the ability to provoke emotion within your readers is a sign of powerful literature.
Tip 2: Be brave.
There’s this trend of harmless dystopia- particularly in YA- where the themes are familiar and it’s a story that we’ve seen before. There tends to be no overruling message or political energy to the novel. It’s a shame, because the dystopia genre is all about confronting the worst aspects of society today. Sometimes I believe that authors are afraid that if they voice what they believe or think- they’ll be met with backlash. One of my favourite quotes about literature comes from this article:
Literature should make us uncomfortable. It should make us challenge authority and each other. It should make us think and ask questions. But it should never be sanitized the way they demand while masking their self-aggrandizing pedantry as advocacy. As a writer, I unequivocally reject censorship. I might think what you wrote was sh**y, but I’ll defend your right to write it.Anonymous Author
If your literature confronts people or causes them to think- chances are, you are on the right track. In the past year, I’ve been engrossed in discussions regarding The Handmaid’s Tale, the classic feminist dystopia by Margaret Atwood. She does not hold back: there is sexual violence, hate crimes and high levels of brutality. Whilst unpleasant to think about or imagine, they are necessary in the context of this novel. Without them, the reader would not be forced to analyze not only the Gilead society, but also the world they currently live in today.
Atwood’s ability to highlight issues- the biopolitical debates about fertility, a woman’s place in society, marriage, and how hate speech can cause further unrest and oppression- makes The Handmaid’s Tale a novel that is fascinating to study and discuss. If you want to write a novel about an issue that is worrying and terrifying- I’d encourage you.
Dystopia ought to ask bold questions that make us uncomfortable. Literature- particularly political literature, should never be sanitized or weakened because of the fear of offending the sensibilities of readers. Be brave and strong- history looks kindly on those who possessed courage and had the willingness to stand up for their values.
Tip 3: Make It Realistic (And Scary!)
The most terrifying dystopias are those that could actually happen. There’s nothing like reading 1984 by George Orwell and seeing many of its concepts in today’s society. It’s bone-chilling and nightmarish. You don’t need to predict the future- but having some foresight helps. Think about how the world is progessing and what it is turning into. Also consider human history and psychology- because understanding humanity and what drives individuals to act the way they do will help shape your story into something powerful and impactful. You need to convince the reader that your concept could actually happen.
Before you decide to pursue a concept- check out how plausible it is. If you are lacking in inspiration, all you need to do is open a newspaper to the World section. Not only will you learn more about the political and geographical factors that shape our world, but you’ll get a stronger idea of what direction society is going into. Having a keen eye and being curious pays off for any aspiring writer.
Orwell is a fascinating case of an author who did that. Coming from a journalist background, he was socially aware of the threat that communism and the Soviet Union possessed. The end result in 1984 was a sharply written and perceptive novel that is quite possibly the greatest novel of the 20th century. You, as a dystopia writer- needs to be well-versed in the art of realism, horror, humanity and politics. Writers that do this often produce stories that are timeless and often relevant. 1984 may have passed- but the core themes and analogies discussed in 1984 are forever relevant.
These are three starting points to writing effective dystopia. It’s a genre that is built on effective characterisation, social relevance and bravery from the author. It’s also vital in today’s society and world. So next time you are writing the next Brave New World– remember, be fearless and smart.
This article contains affiliate links.