Dystopian fiction has captivated readers for decades. If you’re planning to write dystopian fiction, here’s what you should know about the genre.
The Beginnings of Dystopian Fiction
The word dystopia comes from the Greek words dys, meaning bad, and topos, meaning place. While the word “dystopia” usually conjures up images of science fiction and futuristic totalitarian regimes, a dystopia can be any setting where injustice is common and life is generally bad for most people. The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, and A Song of Ice and Fire could all be considered dystopian fiction.
Dystopian fiction as a genre really didn’t become popular until the mid-20th century. Between the legacy of Nazi Germany and the political climate of the Cold War, many writers were concerned about the threat of authoritarianism. As a result, novels like 1984 and We captivated audiences, who saw a very possible threat in the dystopian settings of those books.
Another reason why dystopian science fiction became so popular was the rapid changes in technology throughout the last half of the 20th century. For almost a century beforehand, science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov had been looking forward to a future of time machines and robot servants.
However, as that world came closer and closer, people grew more pessimistic. Science fiction was full of everything that could possibly go wrong. How far would the rise of technology go? What would the people of the future be like, in a world where technology controlled everything? And, most importantly, how could these new devices be abused?
If you write dystopian fiction, whether it takes place a thousand years in the future or the day after tomorrow, you’re following a tradition that goes back almost a century.
Dystopian Fiction Needs a Basis in Reality
Any genre of fiction has its tropes and its stories that it recycles over and over. A genre like, say, high fantasy, can get away with this because high fantasy is a retelling of very old stories. The dystopian fiction genre is a little different in this instance.
Tropes don’t show up very often, except in those bad YA novels which tend to be glorified framing devices for love triangles. This is because dystopian fiction doesn’t come from the dystopian fiction genre – it comes from writers seeing real life and getting pissed off at it.
Whatever decade you’re writing in, your dystopian story will likely be a product of something you’ve seen – whether it’s a foreign atrocity you read an article about or the protest you attended last month.
Most dystopian fiction is, at the bottom, a reaction to the world around us. Fiction can be a way for us to work out our fear and anger by transference. Other times, it can be used to spread a message – however bad things are now, they can, and very well might be, worse in the future.
We have – as you’re probably sick of hearing at this point – been living in unprecedented times for quite a while now. Fiction can’t fix this, any more than it can fix anything else – but it’s excellent for catharsis, and sometimes good for educating others.
Dystopian Fiction Needs Hope
When I say “hope,” I don’t mean that your dystopian story needs to have a happy ending. It absolutely doesn’t need one; most dystopian fiction happens in settings where happy endings are few and far between. But even if hope doesn’t exist in your dystopian world, you can’t let your readers know that until the end of the story.
They say that conflict is the soul of drama in fiction, and some writers will interpret that to mean “bad things have to happen in my story.” They do. But having bad things happen in your story isn’t enough to create conflict. If everyone in your dystopian story simply takes it lying down, then there won’t be any reason for us to care how it ends.
There has to be some opposition to the dystopian order. To do otherwise would be unrealistic. Whatever horrible instinct humans have for mindless obedience, we have an equally strong instinct to rebel. If that wasn’t true, your dystopian dictator wouldn’t need propaganda machines or prison camps.
Make your dystopian story as horrible as you need it to be, but give your readers someone to root for. Give that person a fighting chance, or at least the illusion of a fighting chance. That sense of hope is what will keep your readers reading.
Dystopian fiction has a long history, but every dystopian work is the product of the time period when it’s written. By providing catharsis and a safe space to be angry, dystopian fiction has always been a way for writers – and readers – to reject unjust or impossible situations.