Key Elements of Writing Dystopian

Five years ago, dystopian novels were the big thing in young adult literature. It started with The Hunger Games, followed closely by Divergent, The Maze Runner, and a huge host of others. But these days, the genre seems to really be on a downhill path toward doom. People (myself included) are starting to avoid dystopians like they are the new literary plague. Why is that?

The truth is that good dystopians, really good dystopians, are hard to come by and equally hard to create. By definition, a dystopian novel is one that describes a future society that is dehumanizing, unpleasant, and in many cases, frightening (At least according to Wikipedia).

With that in mind, a dystopian story should exist to convey some sort of message about society or about humanity and tell an engaging story, and most of the dystopians written these days lack at least one if not both of these factors. Here are 6 things that a good dystopian needs:

1. An  Engaging Protagonist

Notice how I said engaging protagonist, not sassy, quippy, teenage girl with an ax to grind at life. Some of the reasons why dystopians have likely gone downhill in the last five years is an overabundance of the same exact main character. June from Legend, Katniss from The Hunger Games, and Tris from Divergent, while all at least somewhat interesting and engaging characters, lose some of their power and likability due to the sheer number of characters written these days that are like them.  

2. Characters that are easy to root for

I didn’t like the dystopian novel The Testing for one simple reason: when you start rooting for the cruel, faceless, authoritarian government that is brutally murdering all of your main characters for no reason, something might be wrong with your main characters. A story is only good if there are stakes, if there is something good in the world that we want to save or preserve, if there is hope. When all your characters are jerks who are continually stabbing each other in the back for selfish reasons, or when they are all one dimensional, it is difficult to root for them and hard to stay engaged in the story.

3. Thought-provoking premise

You can only have so many stories that revolve around “Let’s revolt because we’re poor!” That usually doesn’t happen in life, so it lowers the believability of the story. Plus, there are many stories that have premises that force you to think about humanity while still telling a good story. Why would humanity make a law banning all books as demonstrated in Fahrenheit 451? What would happen if the government took a more serious stance in preventing overpopulation like in Among the HiddenWhat would be like to live in a world without choice or emotion as it is in the world of The Giver? These books challenge ideas and challenge us to think about where society might be headed one day. A dystopian shouldn’t depress you for the sake of depressing you or just whip you up into a revolutionary frenzy. It should make you think.

4. Strong plot

A dystopian can’t just have a good concept to be a good book, it also needs to tell a good story.  Ashfall by Mike Mullin has a great concept, asking the question “What would happen if the Yellowstone volcano suddenly erupted?” However, it’s not super well-known, and that is probably because the plot is not all that strong. No one would care nearly as much about Hogwarts if Harry never had to fight Voldemort. You need a good concept, a good idea of a dystopian world, but that’s not enough. A good dystopian has to tell a great story that would still be great if you modified it and set it in modern times. A solid concept does not replace good storytelling.

5. An immersive and believable world

For the most part, I like The Hunger Games, but I always had a hard time buying that society would realistically manifest in the way that Panem is laid out. The same applies to Divergent. Sure, the government is being manipulative and going for a power-play, but why? I have difficulty believing that one man could accomplish all that President Snow seems to have, and we are never given a convincing history for why the Hunger Games themselves started. Also, the fact that the Hunger Games have been in place for 75 years is unrealistic. Stalin ruled for 24 years, Hitler for 11, Mao Zedong for only 10. To write a good dystopian, the reader has to be able to believe that it is possible that our world could become the one laid out in the story. The concept must be consistent and believable. Among the Hidden, The Giver, and 1984 all work because it is easy to see society heading that way in the future.  

6. Some sort of message

A good dystopian should have a point to it, something that the author wants to portray, and the world should clearly demonstrate. 1984 demonstrates a government who rules by fear, Lord of the Flies shows what people can do in their worst moments, and even Unwind shows what lengths people are willing to go to not be held responsible for their actions. The themes of the book should stay with the reader even after the book is back on a shelf. It shouldn’t be forgotten. It shouldn’t collect dust. It should be a book people talk about, talk about the philosophies and the truths presented in it. You should walk away from a dystopian feeling something and wanting to strive for something. A dystopian should make you think; that’s what they’re written for.

So many modern dystopians are missing one or more of these things, which is why the genre seems to be dying. At least, that’s my guess. But I don’t want the genre to die. I love dystopians, and I love books that make you think. The genre’s been twisted to mean a book in the future about a rebellion, and not all stories are going to end like that.  

So, writers, I challenge you.  

Think about society.  

Think about truth.

Think about life

And write dystopian.  

“‘Good story’ means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task…But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.”

– Robert McKee

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