What is Dystopian Fiction?
Dystopian fiction is a form of speculative fiction that imagines a frightening vision of the future in cataclysmic decline. It presents an end-of-the-world, gloom-and-doom scenario. Dystopia is the opposite of utopia, a place of ideal perfection. If utopia is paradise, dystopia is paradise lost.
So how does one go about writing dystopian fiction? In this post, we’re going to share some tips and some common themes found in the genre so that you will be ready to try your own hand at writing a dystopian story in no time.
How do you write a dystopian novel?
One of the more well-known authors of dystopian fiction is Margaret Atwood. She suggests examining society as it currently exists and looking at it from the perspective of how it might play out further down the road. If you can take a dire situation from today’s news and imagine how a worst-case scenario would play out over the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years, you have a good starting point for your own piece of dystopian fiction.
Hit the right tone
Dystopian fiction envisions a devastating future with little hope for a good outcome. It’s dark, frightening, and bleak. A zombie virus might threaten the survival of the human race. A controlling government might have stripped its citizens of their most basic rights. The threat of environmental disasters such as fires, floods, earthquakes, or asteroids impacting the earth may threaten human life as we know it.
That said, it’s also possible to write a comedy within a dystopian world. The events of movies like Don’t Look Up or Zombieland are devastating for the characters, but by striking the right tone, the writers deliver an experience for the audience that’s hilarious and fun rather than hopeless.
Ernest Cline's science-fiction novel Ready Player One is another example of a story set in a dystopian world that is balanced with humor. In the opening pages, Wade Watts sums up the state of Earth in 2045:
At first, I couldn’t understand why the media was making such a big deal of the billionaire’s death. After all, the people of Planet Earth had other concerns. The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change. Widespread famine, poverty, and disease. Half a dozen wars. You know: “dogs and cats living together … mass hysteria!” Normally, the newsfeeds didn’t interrupt everyone’s interactive sitcoms and soap operas unless something really major had happened. Like the outbreak of some new killer virus, or another major city vanishing in a mushroom cloud. Big stuff like that.
Wade's casual summary of the world's catastrophes provides necessary contrast for the virtual world in which much of the story takes place, and his tone suggests that this dystopia is merely the backdrop for what will be an exciting adventure.
Let’s look at some common themes and characteristics of dystopian fiction. Although this list isn’t all-inclusive, the themes listed in this article are some of the most commonly found in dystopian fiction today.
One common theme in dystopian fiction revolves around the idea of a government taking complete control of society, stripping citizens of their basic rights or personal freedoms.
This might play out in fiction as a type of totalitarianism, in which the government uses techniques such as policing citizens’ thoughts or actions by using some manner of surveillance. Arguably, the most famous novel that fits this theme of complete government control is George Orwell’s 1984. In this novel, the government has total control of society, which is under the thumb of a dictator known as “Big Brother,” who uses constant surveillance as a way of controlling the people remaining after a world war.
On one hand, an oppressive, totalitarian government might control the everyday lives and freedoms of the people of the society. On the opposite end of that spectrum is a society in which there is no government, and a lawless society prevails, leading to mass chaos, violence, and poverty. Both can make for an excellent premise for your dystopian novel.
Another popular theme in dystopian fiction is one in which an environmental event such as floods, fire, or global warming has led to chaos on Earth. In these scenarios, the physical Earth has become, or is becoming, uninhabitable.
In Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life as We Knew It, as well as the following books in the Last Survivors series, a meteor has struck the moon. While the inhabitants of Earth initially viewed this event with wonder and awe, chaos soon followed as the meteor strike causes the moon to shift, which results in tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanoes changing life as they know it and Miranda, the protagonist, is fighting for her own survival and that of her family’s. Life on Earth will never again be the same in this dystopian tale with a theme of environmental destruction.
Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarod Shusterman is another great example, which explores the impact of a severe drought in a suburb in Southern California. It’s not planet-wide environmental destruction, but it still fits within the dystopian genre.
Survival in a post-apocalyptic world
The phrase “post-apocalyptic” refers to a time after a catastrophic event has devastated society as we know it. In a post-apocalyptic setting, individuals are left to fend for themselves. This might include the destruction of the physical world or of society.
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, an unnamed event has led to the death of almost all living things on earth as a father and son fight to stay alive on their way to the coast. The world around them has burned to the ground, and they only have a pistol, a small amount of scavenged food, and each other in their hope for survival.
Loss of individualism
Another popular theme in dystopian fiction is the loss of individualism. In this imagined future world, the rights of individual members of society are lost to the greater cause of society as a whole. In this landscape, individuals are forced to conform to expectations out of their control.
Scott Westerfield’s Uglies is a great example. It takes place in a future society where everyone undergoes an operation at age 16 to become “pretty” and conform to society’s standards of beauty. Tally, the protagonist, is eager to become pretty and reap all the benefits that come with that status. But when her friend rebels, Tally is forced to make a choice between becoming pretty or helping her friend; a choice that makes Tally question everything she knows about being "pretty."
Whether the protagonist in your story is fighting a corrupt, oppressive government or a patriarchal society controlling women’s rights, resistance is always a key factor. Without a hero willing to fight the system, you won’t have a story worth telling. Resistance often leads to anarchy, rebellion, and violence, all components of dystopian fiction that keep a reader turning the pages.
Often, resistance is something the hero must grow into. In Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, Katniss isn't thinking about overthrowing the tyrannical Capitol when she steps in to replace her younger sister as a tribute in the annual Games. However, as the story progresses, Katniss fights not only for survival but also to defeat the Capitol itself.
Guy Montag, the protagonist of Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, also does not start out as a resistor— the book opens with him working as one of the "firemen" whose job it is to burn books and censor knowledge. Over the course of the story, Guy becomes disillusioned with his job, ultimately turning against his fellow firemen.
Tips for getting started
Remember, to get started, take events from current news and imagine how that story might play out in a worst-case scenario in the future. Try to incorporate one of the common themes in dystopian fiction, such as government control, environmental destruction, or a post-apocalyptic world. With these tips in mind, you’ll be ready to create a world that will fascinate your readers!