Dystopian fiction is the artistic expression of our fascination with ruin, of our societal/political/economic fears, and in a way an exciting coping mechanism that allows us to peer back at our world and question it. From Animal Farm to Hunger Games, dystopian fiction is almost inescapable. These days it may be the realm of YA fiction, but dystopian worlds have always been in our minds. To some it comes on judgement day, and to others it looms nearer the more we deny climate change. One thing all dystopias have in common is this…the world is fucked. For characters and stories to make sense and thrive writers have to know how to build that world. That is hard.
For the last few months I’ve been going through my old files, and found an a story I wrote a few years ago set in a world where the U.S government had broken down, the U.S had been attacked, and in the chaos civil wars and gang fights became normalized. The story is honestly loosely based on a “what-if” involving a lot of personal struggles and fears. Maya the main character and her husband Tucker are an interracial couple who moved from the east coast further inward to avoid conflict. They’re free of literally all their burdens after being separated from family, and as Maya jokes “hey no student loans”. But the question becomes what do they do now. As time goes on Maya wants a baby, and unfortunately they realize that where once common medical practice may have helped they are at the will of nature even more than man. The mundane truly becomes the desired, as they struggle to stay alive in a world where it wouldn’t be abnormal for someone to call Tucker a race traitor or for someone to barter for band-aids. As I was rereading my work I noticed a few problems but two hit me in the face with a baseball bat.
- The vagueness of the world hurt the themes.
- The mundane aspects of the world were what set it apart.
These realizations prompted me to revise the story and include it in my short story anthology Reality Echoes, which I will be self-publishing by the end of the year. With that said I am basically rewriting 90% of the story because it was weak, slow, and at points became dull. Some writers have a nasty habit of becoming so invested in the inner lives of their characters, and then flopping with anything that makes those lives interesting in the context of the world. As a teenager I wrote so many stories without story because of that fact. How many did I write? Well there’s a large cardboard box in the middle of my room at my mother’s house filled to the top with only my notebooks from ages 12 to 18. None of those stories ever got done. Why? Because they sucked. Well, they didn’t suck(I think. I hope.), but they weren’t exactly fleshed out stories. Even the best writer has to be able to give a sense of story even if that story is utter nonsense, and if you’re writing genre then you better make it clear where that story sits in the world you make.Over the years I’ve begun a studious practice of expanding my work, focusing on plot and world building.
But somehow I dropped the ball with this dystopia.
It wasn’t the vagueness of how it came to be that hurt the story though it didn’t help. The reader would be left wondering, as the workshop I wrote it for was, what makes life so difficult…and what makes everyone play into the system, try to maintain the old way of life, not be able to maintain the old way of life, etc. in order to contextualize what Maya and Tucker were going through. And that workshop group didn’t want paragraphs. They knew they didn’t need them, but they needed more world building for me to be able to successfully tell a character story.
Let’s talk about how to build some dystopian visions…
When building a dystopia you have to be able to explain to yourself how that world came to be, and why people allowed it. If conditions become so intolerable that people feel they have nothing to lose then they will revolt. We see this in every nation and every culture. So if you’re writing a world similar to the Hunger Games you have to make it very clear. Why do the citizens do nothing? Why do they let their children be taken? Because until the first movie they feared those who had left their districts in shambles from a past war. When you, in your story, detail that you don’t have to give a detailed explanation, but you have to make that clear. They feared the awesome firepower of the wealthy and their forces. When *SPOILER* a particular character dies after trying to just stay alive, after the world sees a child die in the hands of another child when they were once strangers…the people begin to see their conditions as intolerable. There’s nothing to lose because what little they have can be taken in a heartbeat. The personal life of Katniss and Rue’s untimely death are personal character arches the propel the world forward. While Rue’s death certainly had troubling racial implications her death served as a catalyst (it also gave a rare example of a black character being pure and innocent without being infantile). The world was given full and undiluted context of the level of sadness and violence that existed within it in one powerful moment.
In Brave New World, the personal beliefs of that world are the reason for not revolting. People are built, and they are told they are valued without actually being truly valued as individuals. Everyone is given the same lie that life needs order only provided by a tyrannical system. In real world North Korea harsh generational punishments and constant propaganda about North Korea, about the U.S wanting to destroy the people, and misinformation keep the population in check. The revolting elements are seen as fruitless, but more so the alternative to dictatorship is an unknown with an enemy waiting for weakness outside the nation. Is that true? Not exactly, but it feels real. Dystopia isn’t the natural result of a society falling apart. Anarchy isn’t natural to humans. We build communities, families, hierarchies, and societies because that’s the best way for us to survive and find contentment. We come together to fight against that which threatens survival and that contentment both in our daily lives and as large groups.
So when you say your world is dystopian you need to understand and convey to your reader why it stays that way.
For worlds like in my story where society crumbles things can be more vague far more easily, but that doesn’t take the burden off. Truthfully, it is worse because you have to really dig into the darker impulses of humanity as a response to survival. That’s not saying every world should be gritty and dark. Ugh anything but. There can be marvelous diversity in environment. Yet you have to convey what people have done and will do to survive. What in this world makes your characters able to survive, or even thrive in a disorder wasteland?
In my world the country is messed up. In some places the government is still in some control, in other places militias have taken over, racial and ethnic hate groups aren’t in hiding, supplies aren’t able to cross country. This world is a result of spiraling events from a series of terrorist attacks, a surge in hate groups, a government whose heads of state and seat of government is left tattered, and coasts under threat from missile strikes. That is what takes a suburban black woman and her white husband to the heart of America to live on a farm, to sleep with guns under their heads, and an RV constantly at the ready if they need to leave. The sudden entourage of events gave them opportunities, and they both saw that they needed to least the east coast even though in some ways they were safer from militias. People were in a panic and did obvious things in their panic, while (and here comes the character development) Maya and Tucker did not obvious things. They stole an RV, they searched garages where they knew people had mowers and gasoline. They raided plant nurseries, libraries, and even school cafeterias before risking their lives in a mass loot of the nearest Wal-Mart. Why were they able to do this? The world descended so quickly and people didn’t know what to do…so they did what they’d seen on television and movies.
Because of how I’m clarifying the world through this revision I am better able to convey my characters’ skills, interests, and needs. The actions that characters take demand to be reflected in how they view the wastelands around them. What can they expect? What would be the worst possible scenario for your characters in this horrible environment? Is this their normal? Is it so close to before everything fell apart that saying “Well this is normal now” makes them want to cry? If yes, do you demonstrate why to your readers? If not then you may want to consider that in your revisions.
Now, some stories rely on ambiguity for how the world came to be, and that can be some powerful story telling. For stories like that…you still need to answer those questions. How did this world come to be? Why/how do people cope with it? Etc. Etc. Answering those questions will better enable you to convey setting, which is what these stories tend to do in place of explanation. Desolate landscapes covered in ice like Snowpiercer give us story and context to the everything that happens. We don’t see the U.N fighting over climate change resolutions. We don’t see the train being drafted and made, or the people who called the idea insane. Not because those things are uninteresting, but because for the story they aren’t necessary and the environment of frozen buildings and toppled lights only held up by packed snow tells you so much more. Thematically, the contrast between the cold outside world and the various interiors of the train cars evoke various levels of disconnect. It’s not an accident the back car residents seem to wear both thick and thin clothing. The heat of abusive industrialism and being packed like sardines is paired with the cold of the outside. Visually you question if there is really any difference between the back cars and the frozen Earth. Its subtle but there.
It may sound like a lot of work when you just want to tell a story, but even if you don’t share everything with your readers you have to answer world building questions. I didn’t do enough that, so now its rewriting a story I rather like. The exciting thing is I am discovering new ways to tell the story and make it so much more than it once was. So maybe take the time to outline major events in that world and the impacts on different groups of people. Maybe write out a small world history starting as the dystopia begins to rise to its inevitable existence. If you take the time to put together your dystopian vision beyond the surface and explore the world deeply you can push your story farther into greatness.
P.S got opinions, feedback, or want to talk shop? Leave a comment. I only bite if you ask me to 😉