6 Tips for Writing Dystopian Fiction

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6 Tips for Writing Dystopian Fiction

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Chapter 2 “Genres” – Section 8 “Dystopia”


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"Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we're being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I'm liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That's what's insane about it."
-John Lennon

From strange organizations that run the world to giant death games of various sorts, the dystopian genre has been very popular as of late. This is the genre which is characterized by disenfranchised hero fighting against a totalitarian government or society. It's an exhilarating genre which really hits home for people who feel just as powerless in their own society. Though it has been around for a while, it's just recently surged in popularity because of “The Hunger Games.” Already, there are clichés, mistakes, and trends that seem to be overtaking the genre. These are what we will be looking at, today.


Tip 1: Make sure that your story more than an excuse to build a world.

Dystopian stories have a tradition of bizarre creativity, but this has created a divide where two types of story are told. The first are ones like Attack on Titan, which are filled with meaning, symbolism, and thought which make the show deep. The second are those which are little more than an excuse for the writer to build that is the book equivalent of a videogame or enormous Jigsaw trap. You'll notice these when the book spends most of the story showing how cool their world is before the protagonist does anything. And when the protagonist finally does finally take part in the story, they are little more than a tool to show more about the world.

Don’t get me wrong, amazing world-building is a good thing. But when you sacrifice character and plot to emphasize your world, you make it tedious. All the care and effort you put into your world is lost if we are bored. It’s like seeing the blueprint for an amazing work of architecture vs actually going there, journeying through it, and being told the story behind it by a charming guide. So, put effort into all that you do, not just the storytelling elements that are popular in the genre.

Also, don’t create your story as apologetics for your world. Dystopian novels often give audiences the impression that the author came up with a fun idea for a world, and then just put all the story's effort into trying to justify that world. It’s like they know that their story is silly, and are so insecure that they have to spend the entire story convincing us that the story really is cool, despite whatever we think. Let the audience think what they want to think. Of course, make sure there is a reason for everything and that you put thought into every element of your world. But then let it go and be okay if we think your world is a little silly. It probably is, but that is something that will charm us if we discover all the subtle depth and thought that went into its creation. Just focus on telling us a good story and all will be good in the end.


Tip 2: Make sure that your story is more than societal criticism.

This tip goes in every direction—from fascism, communism, Marxism, capitalism, socialism, to anything else you could imagine. Some of these political ideologies I agree with to some degree, some I do not. That’s not the point. Regardless of the ideological viewpoint you hold, you will best show your societal criticism if you leave it as an undertone, not a loud and obnoxious propaganda piece. Focus your story on the actions, choices, emotions, and thoughts of the protagonist, and trust that the audience will make up their own minds by how the characters are affected by the world around them.


Tip 3: Create a complicated and multi-sided world.

No group of people, organization, hero, or villain is all evil or good to so simplistic a degree. A group that stands for racial cleansing through murder, for example, is motivated also by ignorance, desperation, poverty, and manipulation from higher powers with personal interests. So, create a complex world with realistically complex people and groups if you want your reader to believe it. Making a world with simple and clearly-defined heroes and villains may be easier, but it is a lie. To combat it, try to make a list of reasons why the villains and fascist groups may feel justified in their actions. Then, list the negative attributes of your heroes and heroic groups.


Tip 4: Make your supporting characters more than gun-fodder.

Recently, I've noticed a trend in creating dystopian fiction involving children and young-adults with little to no personality. These “characters” are then just sent through a figurative meat-grinder for the amusement of the audience. The consequence is that the audience remains unaffected by their deaths—likely, even amused. You lose all the power of making your world seem grim, of your villains seeming powerful, and of your heroes seeming like more that archetypes doing what they were scripted to do. Make us feel each death as a tragedy by making your characters into realistic beings that we genuinely care for—even in the cases of less likable ones. By doing so, every death will have an actual impact on your story.

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I recently changed this tutorial. I edited the original instead of writing a new one because I really didn't have anything to add, so it did not warrant a new entry. All the same information is there, but I made it a bit more clear and concise. 

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CassiusTheFluffbutt's avatar
I know this post is old, and that I'm late to the party. But if you could get the chance, could you review a series that I plan to create? I know I'm asking something tedious, of which probably isn't worth your time. But I'm trying to write a dystopian multi-series consisting of short stories.
I just didn't know if you could make sure that I a, writing according to these tips that you've given. If I check it myself, I know that I won't find anything wrong with it because it had been written in my point of view, so I didn't know if you could help by giving me some criticism.
Thanks for reading this, and for taking the time to read this.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Hi Cassius, sorry for the late reply. My time is pretty consumed nowadays. 

Your idea sounds like a lot of fun and I encourage you to write it. Due to experiences in the past where feedback has only hurt people's drive to begin writing, I only offer feedback when someone has completely finished a work. Writing well is not a concern when you work on your first draft, only completion. But once you completely finished, please feel free to send me an outline and a sample chapter, so I can read them and see what feedback might serve you best in future drafts. 

Wishing you the best!
Tackycat's avatar
I have another question: there is a quote from a Robert Heinlein character from Stranger in a Strange Land:
"THe way to cure hemophilia is to allow hemophiliacs to bleed to death--so they won't produce more hemophiliacs."

Now were I a hemophiliac, I would be very offended by that.

But regardless, try to imagine a future dystopian society grown wholesale from that concept. What would it be like? How would it function? Who would be the heroes and villains of a story set therein?
Tackycat's avatar
Please don't ignore this folks. It's a good idea, in my opinion, but the world needs fleshing out. I just can't seem to think of ideas. TMY other story, the Prince Must Die, I doubt much can save it, but this one has a chance.
ronaldknoxtodie's avatar
I write dystopian fiction a lot and faced all of the problems mentioned in the points above. Thanks for keeping me on course :)
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
No problem :) I'm glad it could help
Tackycat's avatar
I'm writning a dystopian novel, and I have the problem with the bad guys seeming to be all bad. What do I do to make them more realistic?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Give them a backstory. Create a childhood, give them parents, create them as children who just want love and guidance in a merciless world, and allow it to warp them. By creating a more full and complete life for them--outlining every terrible thing that has happened to them and everything they ever loved and lost--you will make them more real and deep. Then their own nature will take over and you will find that they do, say, and feel things that surprise you as you write more drafts. 

I hope that helps :)
Tackycat's avatar
Tackycat's avatar
To be more specific, they want to thin the population by killing "defective" humans.  How can they be good? What good traits can they have?
Symbiote-God's avatar
I recommend you read Parable of the Sower, a great example of dystopian fiction.
Detroness's avatar
"Tip 3: Remove absurd reasoning as the means of building the World you want.

In the same light, dystopian worlds often give audiences the feel that the author came up with a fun idea for a world, and then just put all the story's effort into trying to justify that world. The problem is that most of these ideas are absurd, and you cannot justify the level absurdity apart from an insane mind with entirely too much power (like a writer, for example). So either make sure that your World falls into logic or into believable absurdity, and then spend the story on the plot and the characters—not on apologetics for your world." 

Can you give me some examples of where an author has not removed the absurd reasoning of a world, and then spent a lot of the story's time trying to justify this reasoning? It'd help me understand this tip a whole lot better, thanks. 

DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Well, I can't speak for the books not having read them, but the Hunger Games movies are an example of it. At no point in the movie did I believe a timeline where the game and the peoples' attitudes towards it was even remotely possible. Not the gladiatorial theme, of course that has been done it reality, but the many many many holes and unbelievable elements to it. The magical domes (not one but several), the magical genetic engineering, the over-dramatized callousness of the audience, the stupid structure of the society (that profited nobody), etc. It was just too goofy and perfect a society for murdering children in the most extravagant ways possible, without any clear force or reason behind the sadistic perfection of it all. And all the stuff about a "rebellion" or "uprising" in the past being the reason for the games, did not seem like a logical progression to putting all your time, money and energy into child death games. 
Detroness's avatar
I never thought about The Hunger Games in that sense, but it does raise a few questions about the entire purpose of the world that it takes place in. 

Thanks. :)
The biggest pitfall with writing dystopian fiction is what TvTropes calls "Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy", also known as The Eight Deadly Words: I don't care what happens to these people.

Not every story has to have a happy ending, and if one intends to write a story with a less-than-happy ending, one must take care to not get so dark and depressing the reader just gives up, just like the characters in the story.  No one wants to read about pain and sorrow that never, ever ends.  Even autobiographical writers who talk about their clinical depression often make some sort of reference to things possibly looking up some day.
Muscabua's avatar

Seriously, this is why I mostly avoid dystopian fiction like it's the plague. I really despise it when people think that making your story all "derc n' daprussing" with nothing else makes them "realistic"... well, realistic my ASS. This is NOT how life works... at all!

There's ups and downs, and just because utopian fiction is "way too unrealistic" doesn't make dystopian fiction any more so. Seriously, I'm so sick of this shit. And I despise it even more so when in a depressing story there's alway this glimmer of positivity that just gets crushed because... EDGI!!!

To me, the Blazblue universe, 1984, Attack of the Titans, Death Note, etc. are my most hated of this kind, and I don't want to step closer to ANY of those.
Some of Jodi Picoult's stories, especially Handle With Care are among my most hated stories.  That one was a particularly painful kick to the nuts because the entire story and all the drama was rendered moot by the girl dying anyway.  Like, holy crap, that was a couple days I'll never get back.
Muscabua's avatar
That's what I hate about these things: They completely ruin any sense of satisfaction and essentially waste our goddamn time under the guise of being "realistic"... well, what the fuck kind of reality perception do these motherfuckers even have?

Hell, if I really look at them, they're outright UNREALISTIC when doing shit like this. Tension and the hopes of something wonderful, and then this...
Y'see this is why Avatar: The Last Airbender (the cartoon obviously) is one of my favorite pieces of fiction ever. It's handled wonderfully and all the events happening are believeable, the tension is always rising, and the payoff was excellent. It was a complete story, a wonderful one.

Things like 1984 are the opposite. This one is all about a party being able to watch on anyone because... they can... somehow, and somehow... they can't be stopped, ever. Why would you want to build tension in this? Oh wait, they actually do that by getting the audience's hopes up for something good to happen, only for it to be crushed immensely. But that's ok, because it's TEH WHOLE POINT OF TEH STORI: That resistance is useless... UMG EDGI!!!
Really, I don't care if shit like this is intentional, or how popular it is, I shit on that.

I think the most frustrating thing about these, what I like to call, mono-dystopias is the fact that it's polar opposite genre, the utopian stories, actually have some conflict in them, in whatever shape or form. Like, even the most diabeetus marshmallow thing has SOMETHING happening in between them because their creators know that things should happen... and I have to say, they're doing a decent job at least. With mono-dystopias however, the creators can just keep on making shit worlds and shit everything, make any sense of positivity shortly appear and shortly get fucked afterwards and SOMEHOW still keep it believeable...

Tell me, how did this genre become so popular again...?
Oh yeah, because RELISTIC EDGINES!!! Seriously, the ONLY time I would ever like a hopeless world like this is if it's so over-the-top and exaggerated and not to be taken seriously, that you'd get genuine enjoyment out of it. But for actual seriousness... AW HELL NAW.
It's not just teenage edginess, either.  It's also the idea that stories are art (very true) and "true" art is filled with angst and inner turmoil(not always true).  

"Life is suffering, life is pain, and through my art, my stories, I illustrate that."  

Yeah, that's real deep, Mr. Artist Guy, but not every piece of art has to have a deep, tortured inner meaning to ponder over a cup of your favorite coffee: black and bitter.

Something coming out of nowhere to completely screw over the characters for little reason is (usually) not good writing, not even if it is "realistic" in the sense that life sometimes screws you over like that.
ChasterVi's avatar
And this is exactly why I quit the series Supernatural. Or why I didn't enjoy the Hunger Games, as it merely gave me like, two characters defined enough to care about, but were so busy with each other that they kind of forgot the world around them (and all the dead NPCs).
Oh God yes, the Hunger Games.  Crapsack world, the person behind it all actually isn't, and the one person you thought you could trust actually caused this whole mess in the first place, or something, I don't know, it was hard for me to care after a major character died for the sole purpose of aiming one more kick to the reader's stomach before the series ended (that is, pointlessly).
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