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:
Yesterday we talked about some common elements in dystopian fiction. Today, we’re going to look at common elements in the dystopian hero. A dystopian her0 generally:
- Helps the reader understand the problems with the society. We talked yesterday about how the society, structure and setting are integral to the story, and the main character is the lens through which we see that setting. Whether the protagonist initially understands the societal problems (like Katniss in Hunger Games) or doesn’t (Cassia in Matched), the readers still learn through the main character. Dramatic irony (when the reader knows something a character doesn’t) is a staple of dystopian fiction. Cassia doesn’t recognize the problems in her society, but the reader absolutely sees them. Even in 1984, where Winston is dissatisfied and unhappy, there is still a hefty dose of dramatic irony: he’s hates his job and his marriage, even though readers realize that Winston’s problems are much much worse than just that.
- Discovers secrets or restricted information. Like we talked about yesterday, dystopian societies hide information from their citizens, and the discovery of this information is almost always the catalyst to spur the protagonist to action. Think of Tally in Uglies, who discovered the truth about the both the Pretties and the Specials, or Winston in 1984, who is fascinated with “true” history, and gets a copy of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a treasonous book written by the #1 enemy of the state.
- Feels trapped/isolated. While the protagonist is learning more about the problems of their situation, they are trapped, both physically and socially. Their physical isolation comes in the form of constant surveillance and inabilty to to speak freely or act freely. But the social isolation is worse: the philosophies of the society are so rigid and ingrained that it’s often very difficult to find anyone who dares/wants to discuss societal problems.
- Is often more ideological than practical, and is willing to take huge risks. To some extent, this can be said about characters in many types of fiction, but its especially prevalent in dystopia. Dystopian protagonists are rebels. When they decide to take an action, whether it is to attempt a revolution, or disseminate information or simply escape, they understand that the consequences are very dire. Aside from the threat of punishment, they also know that they are rejecting society and friends–often everything they have ever known. And, very often, they don’t know what the consequences will be even if they succeed: What would escape mean? What would take the place of the current society?
- Is almost never an outsider. While the protagonists of utopian fiction were outsiders, very often travelers who visited a new civilization and learned about its society in great depth, the dystopian hero is almost always an insider. Winston worked for the government, actively censoring history. Cassia, while not privy to dark secrets, was completely immersed in the society to the point of being oblivious to the problems happening around her. Even Katniss, who lived in the outer provinces and was well-aware of the problems of society, still counts as an insider because she has grown up in and accepted the reality of her society. “Insider” doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re complicit in the nefarious actions of the society (though it can); it simply means that they’re a long-term member of this society–what they’re seeing (and what the reader sees through them) isn’t new and strange.