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Abandon Hope: Tips for Writing a Dystopian Novel

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If there’s anything type of story that has stood the test of time in the modern era, it’s the dystopian novel. Even before Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games or any story about the zombie apocalypse, the idea of a world far gone has been a favorite subject. Perhaps no author has crafted the genre so well as George Orwell, whose books such as Animal Farm and 1984 remain the most prominent examples.

Dystopian stories are some of my favorites by far. When done well, they’re an immersive experience for the reader with the distinct advantage of their troubling connections between the dystopian world and our own being their appeal.  If you look up the definition of “dystopia” on Merriam-Webster’s site, the very first definition that you get is “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.” While the definition changes depending on who’s defining it, this is my favorite definition by far. It gives you two points that are absolutely essential for dystopian: that your new population is dehumanized, and, for the most part, that people are fearful.

So how do you create this type of world? Let’s go through some questions to ask yourself when writing a dystopian novel.

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How Did This World Come to Be?

This question generally gets split into two parts: how did our current society end and how did the new world begin? A great example of this is The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. In the beginning, we hear Katniss describe how America disappeared through major coastal flooding and environmental damage, political turmoil and advanced warfare. As the power shifted and the districts were formed and neglected for anything other than their labor and resources, the people rebelled. The rebellion was soundly squelched, and in the present day of the plot, each district is required to submit one “tribute” for the Hunger Games as punishment for rebelling. Notice that we don’t go from the world we know, ourselves, straight into Katniss’s world. There were significant steps between them that led to a progression.

The reason this is important is that of a prevalent theme in dystopia: politics. Dystopian stories are often very political in nature (I really can’t think of one that hasn’t been, and I’ve read, watched and played a lot of books, movies and video games in the genre). They usually center around the remains of our world that is now being governed by an authoritarian power that acts “in the best interest” of its citizens to “save them from themselves.” As an international relations and anthropology major, I can tell you that the steps from freedom to authoritarian control require two major things spread out over an extended period of time: extreme need or threat of survival and normalization of violence and oppression in the name of securing that survival for a society.

In a dystopian novel, that “new normal” is often the result of a slow, drawn-out progression that the society barely noticed, or else thought was necessary for survival. The dystopian world is drastically different from our own world, but not so lofty and fantastical that we can’t see how it would end up there. Having a timeline of changes for your story is important, as it adds to the discomfort and uneasiness the reader feels when keeping in mind that this cruel world isn’t a far cry from what theirs could be.

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Who Controls Your World

In dystopia, you need an overarching power that controls the lives of the people. This can be a person, like President Snow, it can be a system, like the one in place in Louis Lowry’s The Giver, or it can be an organization, like The Party in 1984 or The Umbrella Corporation in the “Resident Evil” video games. It’s important to know that this power isn’t usually the reason that your world has changed. Instead, they’re often one that has taken advantage of the chaos and panic to make themselves the omnipotent saviors and leaders of your society.

In the book Station 11, Canada and America (as far as the reader knows) are reduced to nomadic tribes and small cities devoid of modern comforts after a devastating plague wiped out most of the population twenty years earlier. The author, Emily St. John Mandel, does a fantastic job weaving in the past and present through many different storylines culminating up to the moment when the prominent wandering troupe of actors and musicians enter a town called St. Deborah by the Water. There, they meet “The Prophet,” a mysterious, engaging man that has come to take control of the town. The presence of this man isn’t particularly threatening or violent, but the power which he shows over the town has the visiting troupe on edge and questioning his willingness to let others choose their own course. It’s a different picture of that controlling power, adding an underlying fear of a person that you can’t adequately place. In the book, The Prophet certainly didn’t cause the plague, and in fact, lost much to it, himself, but he did take advantage of the fragility of civilization for his own benefit. The manipulation of a major, cataclysmic event is one that is important in your dystopian novel.

To build this oppressor, you’ll need to have a solid, intricate, detailed vision of the cataclysmic event in your story, even if you don’t tell the readers those details.

The progression of your oppressor taking control can be based on a basic series of events:

Catalyst = Society-Wide Emergency = Extreme Response and Disarray = Response to Control Disarray and Emergency = Oppressor Taking Power

Your oppressor needs to offer a benefit to others if they take power and should be the central force in controlling the disarray that has come up. This is critical for the next question.

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What Limitations Do People Experience?

You have your apocalyptic backstory, your authoritarian tyrant, now you need your fearful population. Knowing your backstory will help figure out which limitations to place on people. If there was a wide-spread illness, the oppressor might run “wellness centers” that lock up potentially sick people and subject them to horrific experiments in the name of finding a cure should the plague ever appear again. In The Hunger Games, there are “peacekeepers” from the Capitol who are highly armed, militarized police forces that act as an extension of the oppression of President Snow. Often, these extensions of authority will have names that seem almost comical and misleading. This is a control of language that further beats down your population.

The limitations of your population should serve two functions. The first is that they should keep people scared as a deterrent from rebelling. They often give complete control of force to your tyrants and challenging that force is next to impossible. The second function is the illusion of necessity to the society. Your tyrant should convince the majority of your community that fighting back is not only useless, but it’s also counterproductive. They should build upon fear of an unknown threat always hovering just outside of the safety and security of the society they have created.

In 1984, George Orwell created three Superstates: Oceania, where the character is from, and Eastasia and Eurasia, two places that have either always been allies or always been enemies with Oceania, depending on what the propaganda calls for. These two places are usually depicted with no real distinguishable features, just a threat to the people of Oceania. Newspapers and media outlets use “newspeak,” to control the messages that citizens hear. Thoughtcrimes are enough to have you brought to the Ministry of Love for re-education and are usually proven through elaborate sting operations and entrapment. The society is one of complete and total control of its population’s speech, movement and thoughts.

The limitations should make the task of organizing appear insurmountable. The power of the tyrants in the dystopian novel cannot stretch far enough.

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How Does Your Hero Fight Back?

Now that you have created a society that relies on fear of a controlling dictator, it’s time to place your hero in the struggle. How do you do that?

This is where you muster up every ounce of creativity you have. Your protagonist will have to outsmart the system. A couple of ways this can be done are:

  • They can gather support for a revolution by defying odds and fighting back. (Katniss, The Hunger Games)
  • They can move undetected within the system while they learn the weaknesses. (Tris, Divergent)
  • They can escape their society (Jonas, The Giver)
  • They can find a way to remove themselves from surveillance to plan their actions. (Winston Smith, 1984)

These are most certainly not the only options, but how your character fights back is dependent upon the world you created. The important part is to remember that the dystopian novel centers around a very unfair power dynamic; your character is not going to have access right away to weapons that will make rebelling feasible. They will have to face a choice that usually amounts to resisting the power that controls them or else losing something meaningful that makes them break from their routine day-to-day to confront the controlling tyrant. In other words, you need a breaking point for your character.

Apart from their motivation, you will also want to work out the slow momentum they build. How do they communicate effectively? How do they know who they can trust? How do they plan to fight back?

Giving your characters small victories is important. Maybe they manage to stand up to local authority figures (though not your overarching tyrant, yet) and rally support. Maybe they come up with a means to speak to each other without anybody finding out. Maybe they procure supplies without having to rely on the tyrant and gain some independence. Small victories establish your character as a viable challenge to the tyrant as well as keep your reader engaged. Remember, your entire world is built upon fear and limitations. Having wins for your character is a rewarding experience for people immersed in this kind of novel.

The dystopian novel is the ultimate underdog story. Done correctly, it can be an inspiring, heartbreaking, nerve-wracking, thrilling experience all rolled into one book. It definitely takes a lot of time and creativity, and your attention to details about your world will have to be strong, but if you give it the time and attention needed, you can create a story that will inspire people for years to come.

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