So, you want to write a dystopian novel? I don’t blame you. It seems as though printing a book in this genre is like printing money at the moment (with the exception that it’s not illegal and people will love you for it).
As you’re planning and writing, here are some tips to consider:
- Think about current trends in society and then twist them and push them to their extreme.
Many classic dystopian texts riff on this premise. They take fears about population decline/growth, pollution, global warming, political/corporate control, or the subjugation of minority groups and exaggerate them to comment on ideologies the author thinks are ridiculous. As such, most dystopian texts are satirical.
Satire is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices”.
- Consider the sex of your protagonist.
There appears to be an easy formula to follow when choosing whether your book should have a male or female protagonist. If you’re writing for adults you are most likely writing a single book with a male protagonist. If YA fiction is your genre of choice, you will probably be looking at a trilogy starring a female lead character.
As with everything, there are exceptions to this – the most obvious is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
- Names are everything.
More than any other genre, dystopian texts seem to put a lot of emphasis on character names with ‘hidden’ meanings. Think about it… all of the handmaids had names that were a combination of the prefix ‘of’ and their commander’s given name (eg. Offred and Ofglen), many of the characters in Brave New World had names that referenced communist leaders (Bernard Marx, Lenina, Polly Trotsky) and the protagonist of the film Gattaca had the surname Freeman.
- Societal control keeps the peace.
Most dystopias have totalitarian governments that force their people to live by strict rules in order to maintain the structure and stability of their society. This generally happens through one (or more) of four methods (thanks Read, Write, Think).
- Corporate control: One or more large corporations control society through products, advertising, and/or the media.
- Bureaucratic control: Society is controlled by a mindless bureaucracy through a tangle of red tape, relentless regulations, and incompetent government officials.
- Technological control: Society is controlled by technology—through computers, robots, and/or scientific means.
- Philosophical/religious control: Society is controlled by philosophical or religious ideology often enforced through a dictatorship or theocratic government.
- How did it get this bad?
No citizen ever says, “I’d really like a strict dictatorship to control every facet of my life”. In order for the people in power to get in that position in the first place many dystopian texts have a catastrophe – either natural or manmade – that has altered the world and its citizens and/or a gradual rise in science and technology that results in ‘perfect’ humans.
- Never mind, the protagonist sees through the society’s illusion of happiness.
In a number of cases, the citizens of dystopian societies are oblivious to their oppression. Ignorance is bliss and they’re in a state of soma-induced happiness. For others, the control is obvious to all but the people are too scared to act out.
Generally, it is the protagonist who identifies society’s flaws to the reader. They reveal the corruption of the leaders, the methods used to control people and often have links to the ‘old world’ (which reflects our own society) and this juxtaposition highlights what has been sacrificed to create this new society.
- But it’s all for naught.
Dystopian protagonists are the ultimate tragic heroes. The great majority of them are martyrs, dying for their cause. Those who don’t die often fail to have any impact. In most cases, the YA dystopian protagonist doesn’t change their society until the final book of the trilogy and even then it is at a great cost (just ask Katniss).