At the recent Storymakers conference, I taught a class on Writing Dystopia. This week I’ll be turning that class into a series of blogs:
We’re now diving into some of the more specific elements of the dystopia genre. Obviously, not all of these elements are present in every dystopian, but, generally, these are so common/important in dystopian fiction that they almost define the genre.
Warning! There will be a couple of minor spoilers as I give examples, but they’re almost all from classics of the dystopian genres that you’ve all likely read or heard about.
- The society/social structure plays an enormous role in the story. I would say that, of all the elements listed here, this one is the most essential to a true dystopia. A society in a dystopia is never merely a backdrop; it is a driving force to both character and plot. I’d go so far as to say that if you’ve created a society that isn’t a central element to your story, then your book probably isn’t dystopian: it’s likely sci-fi, or post-apocalyptic, or cyber-punk or something else.
- Strong elements of control, and lack of certain freedoms. As we talked about on Monday, a true dystopia is a utopia with a fatal flaw. Generally, it is that flaw that allows for the utopia: constant surveillance (lack of privacy) ensures complete safety; lack of individual choices allows for the society to make decisions that benefit the group as a whole. In The Hunger Games, the lack of freedom came in the form of mandated entry into the games, and the games were used as a propaganda machine to control and dominate the outer districts.
- Restricted information. This is more obvious in some dystopians, like 1984, where the protagonist’s job is to edit and alter history, or in Fahrenheit 451, where the firemen burn books for the “good of humanity”. But while other dystopias may not be as overtly concerned with censorship or historical revisionism, almost all of them control information, often hiding it from the public. The title character in The Giver is one of the only people to know the history of their society. In Uglies, characters don’t know the negative consequences of what happens when they are made into Pretties (and those negative consequences only increase the society’s ability to hide information).
- Citizens/characters are dehumanized to some extent. In many dystopias, not only are freedoms taken away, but many of the elements of humanity are taken away as well. In The Giver, the citizens have lost the ability to experience pleasure or pain. In Brave New World, citizens are encouraged to take drugs to pacify and distract them. In The Hunger Games, teens are forced to kill. In We, citizens wear identical clothes and have numbers instead of names, losing much of their personal identity.
- Conformity. Individuality and dissension are bad/immoral/illegal. In all of these societies, the state/government acts with totalitarian control. While some citizens may ostensibly have more freedom than others, none can freely oppose the philosophies of the regime. The government will act swiftly to ensure that one bad apple doesn’t rule the entire barrel, either through “re-education” (as in 1984), imprisonment, execution, or something similar (characters in We get lobotomized for speaking out).
- There is the illusion of a perfect world. The ultimate goal of the society, through all of the above elements, is to create a world that is peaceful/stable/equal/etc. And in most dystopias, there is a large portion of the population who believes that the society has succeeded, that this is a utopia. One of my very favorite elements in Matched is that, unlike many dystopians, even until we get to the last few chapters (of the first book) the main character really doesn’t see the society as evil and wrong. It’s the only world she’s known, and though she may be discovering disturbing truths, it takes a long time for her to even conceive of the idea that the society as a whole might be bad (rather than have a few isolated problems). Even in The Hunger Games, which starts from an outsider’s (Katniss’s) perspective, we can see that the people in The Capitol view their society as idyllic–they don’t even recognize how horrible the games are.
Again, not all of these need to be present to have a dystopia, but these are all very common and important to the genre. (Going back to definitions, I think using these elements as a guidepost, rather than the vague “bad place” definition, will be much more useful if you’re thinking of writing a dystopia.)