Writing Dystopian Novels In Dystopian Times

dystopian novel

Given the current environmental and social climate — and the worldwide pandemic — you’d think people would avoid dystopian fiction. Not so…

Imagined futures can sometimes become all too real. Like now. We’re dwelling on a planet with a virus — that was unknown a year ago — that is tirelessly trying replicate itself in as many bodies as it can, killing many of them along the way. At the same time, the accumulating effects of climate disruption are resulting in floods, fires, melting glaciers, and widespread crop failures. You would think the last thing people would want to read in these tumultuous times is dystopian fiction.

But, you would be wrong.

As reported in The Guardian, publishers saw sales of books about epidemics soar in the beginning stages of COVID-19, including The Plague by Albert Camus, The Eyes of Darkness by Dean Koontz, and The Stand by Stephen King.

The Stand depicts a catastrophic, viral pandemic that wipes out much of the population of the world. In an interview with NPR, King acknowledges a typical reader reaction to the pandemic: “I keep having people say, ‘Gee, it’s like we’re living in a Stephen King story.’ And my only response to that is, ‘I’m sorry.’”

The nature of dystopian fiction

Dystopian fiction often creates a world populated with characters tackling the same kinds of challenges we face today, but with the problems amplified tremendously, offering a speculative perspective on what our future may look like if we don’t successfully address the challenges. Margaret Atwood, whose dystopian masterworks include Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale, offers this suggestion for writing in this genre: “If you’re interested in writing speculative fiction, one way to generate a plot is to take an idea from current society and move it a little further down the road. Even if humans are short-term thinkers, fiction can anticipate and extrapolate into multiple versions of the future.”

This literary form began to take shape as early as 1826 in The Last Man, a novel by Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. The Last Man is another take on the societal effects of an apocalyptic plague in the future, which leads to war, anarchy, and pestilence.

Some of the planetary and societal challenges highlighted in dystopian novels include:

  • Overpopulation. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (1968). This prescient novel offers a view of life on an overpopulated planet largely controlled by multi-national corporations and wracked by inner city poverty and crime, widespread drug use, and inescapable media saturation.
  • The perils of unfettered bioengineering. Borne by Jeff VanderMeer (2017). A living green lump discovered on a scavenging expedition in a ruined world grows into a curious, charismatic, and ultimately terrifying creature.
  • The collapse of civilization. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006). Following the destruction of civilized society by an unspecified disaster, a father and son seek meaning and survival in a savage world.
  • Caste system injustice. Red Rising by Pierce Brown. In a Martian society in which everyone is born into a rigid caste system, the protagonist breaks free from his underground labor and confronts the nightmarish rules that prevail across the solar system.
  • Censorship and disinformation. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953). A society in which ignorance and control are favored over knowledge and understanding empowers firemen to burn books and the homes in which they are found.
  • Environmental crisis. Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (1993). A series of environmental collapses leads to widespread economic chaos. A family driven from their gated community by attacking mobs and fires faces tough survival in a rapidly disintegrating society.
  • Virtual reality. Fall; or, Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson (2019). Starting with the question, “What form might life after death take?” this tale follows what happens after the protagonist’s mind is uploaded to the Cloud to invent a complex world of pure thought.

Writing for Literary Hub, Christopher Brown says, “Dystopia is realism, at least when it is done well. It depicts the world as it really is, through the refractive prism of extreme metaphor. It’s a realism that uses mirrors, sometimes fun-house mirrors. It’s where literary modernism and science fiction naturally converge when naturalism is married with the literature of ideas.”

Thoughts about writing effective dystopian fiction

At its best, dystopian fiction can inspire readers to become motivated and inspired to seek positive change in an imperfect world. Much dystopian fiction fits within certain categories, including:

  • Human survival under harsh circumstances imposed by society
  • The ways in which the overuse of technology damages people and the planet
  • Personal freedom and individualism versus government control
  • The human impact of habitat destruction, climate disruption, and the accelerating degradation of the environment

If you’re thinking about writing a dystopian story, start by considering those issues that you are most passionate about, visualize the changes you’d like to see in the world, and frame your story as an invitation to the reader to share your passion.

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Make your story believable. Even though you may be writing about a future or an alternative present that is frighteningly misshapen, distorted, or unmapped, the setting that your characters inhabit needs to be believable. You can create a foundation for believability by layering textures, details, descriptions of the workings of the society that is in place, the conflicts that people face and how they cope with them, the institutions that exist in the new world and what they have replaced, the nature of those who hold the power and how they use or abuse it, the impressions of the characters in your story to their surroundings. What is the history of the society and how does the past compare to the present? What do people yearn for? In an article, “How to Build a Dystopian World,” NY Book Editors advises, “Establish what the rules are in this dystopian world and do it early, but not too early. What I mean by that is to let it unfold naturally within the course of your story.” The same article offers a link to a set of questions you can use to flesh out the details of your imagined world.

Build the story around the conflicts and pressures faced by the characters. The struggles faced by the characters you create within the dystopia and the actions they take to deal with them represent the heart of your story. How do the characters respond to the challenges? Do they resist, circumvent the conflict, try to escape from the threats, or confront their oppressors directly? The nature of the conflict posed by the dystopian conditions and the response of the characters to dire conditions propel the narrative.

Create a strong sense of motivation. Develop the essential motivations of the protagonists and antagonists in the narrative through backstories, personality traits, ideologies held through different affiliations, the draw of gaining personal fortunes or reactions to personal defeats, the need for power or esteem. Create complex characters that have both negative and positive qualities: villains that have charm, grace, or sometimes show unexpected kindness; heroes that have deep flaws and weaknesses they struggle to overcome.

Decide whether to have an upbeat or downbeat ending. The resolution of a dystopian story doesn’t necessarily have to be unwaveringly positive or absolutely hopeless, but there should be some element that illuminates the strength of the human spirit. For example, the protagonist in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road doesn’t triumph by changing the impossible conditions that exist in the world, but by making a meaningful sacrifice for his son. In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, the survivors can’t reverse the environmental destruction that has ravaged the world, but they plant the seeds for a new society and embrace ideas that offer positive hope for the future.

The value of escapism

From a writer’s perspective, dwelling in a dystopian world while writing a novel over many months might seem like a bleak and deeply depressing endeavor. But there is an element of escapism that can be very therapeutic to the wounded spirit. Stephen King notes, “Twenty hours a day, I live in the same reality that everybody else lives in. But for four hours a day, things change. And if you ever asked me how that happens or why it happens, I’d have to tell you it’s as much a mystery to me as it is to anybody else… And in all the years that I’ve been doing this — since I discovered the talent when I was 7 or 8 years old — I still feel much the same as I did in the early days, which is, ‘I’m going to leave the ordinary world for my own world.’ And it’s a wonderful, exhilarating experience. I’m grateful to be able to have it.”

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The diversity of dystopian novels written over the past hundred years is both dizzying and sobering. What dystopian novels or stories have affected you? Share your favorites with other readers in the comments section and let us know how these stories have influenced your writing.

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  1. My cli-fi novel ‘Iceapelago’ (May 2020) fits into the dystopian genre. Given the high profile of climate change, I am surprised at how few authors have published cli-fi novels in the past years.

  2. I love reading dystopias. One of my favorite genres. But unfortunately, I have to admit that many authors fail to provide a detailed world description or logical reasoning for the events. In many modern (I mean written in 2010-2020) dystopias events happen simply because the author wants them to. At least that is my impression. I probably couldn’t have written a novel in such a difficult genre myself.


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