What Makes Dystopian Fiction Work and How To Write It
Dystopian stories create a dark reflection of the real world that we can use to improve ourselves.
Some of the most popular stories in the world today tell dark and twisted tales about oppressive and dangerous societies whose only hopes rest in those brave enough to stand up against the obvious horrors and risk everything to make the world a better place. Why is that? When the world we live in is already divisive and dangerous enough, why do we get such a kick out of reading about places that have it even worse than we do?
Dystopian fiction seems depressing and useless on the outside, but it actually serves an interesting and important societal purpose when it’s done right. But be careful. Once you’ve seen what dystopia can do, the world will never be the same.
What is dystopia?
Dystopia is a subcategory of science fiction from the larger grouping known as speculative fiction, meaning that these stories make some commentary about the potential future.
The genre is an opposite response to utopian or “perfect” speculative fiction. “Utopia” as a word was coined by Sir Thomas More, who combined the Greek ou for “no” and topos for “place;” literally “not a real place.” So, dystopia then is an uncomfortably realistic place, taking its name for the Latin prefix meaning “bad” or “unlucky.” If a utopia - which doesn’t exist - is the good place, then a dystopia - which might well exist - is the bad place.
Dystopian fiction takes a negative aspect of society or human nature and exaggerates it past its logical extreme into an unforgiving and harsh sci-fi near future. In these stories, the protagonist’s society has been transformed into a dangerous and disgusting place full of horrors; usually, this means that our protagonist’s job is going to be rising above or changing those dangers. This isn’t always the case, though. With a genre created to be disturbing on a societal level, you’re just as likely to have an unhappy ending as you are to have a (relatively) happy one.
Why is dystopian fiction so popular?
To put it simply, people got really, really sick of “everything is perfect” stories when the world began to fall apart around them.
Specifically, after the World Wars and the Cold War, people around the world were more disillusioned than ever and more aware of the capability humans have for cruelty and harm. Soldiers returning home carried grievous wounds both physically and mentally, and more often than not, they didn’t get the support they needed because the country they came home to was desperately trying to readjust to peace with extremely limited resources. Both they and civilians alike were mourning an unprecedented loss of life and the reality of weapons that could easily wipe out entire civilizations.
In the modern world, we’re facing a lot of the same disillusionment. The Covid 19 pandemic showed us that, despite all of our medical advances, we couldn’t protect ourselves completely, and thanks to poor government leadership, very few necessary precautions were taken, meaning the loss of life was painfully high. Add to that an intensely divided political atmosphere, rampant economic inflation, and the ridiculously rapid development of technology, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for conflict.
You would think this would all mean that we’re looking for escapist fiction, and some people definitely do, but dystopian novels offer us something unique: constructive criticism. They give us a way to look in the mirror and recognize where we’re going wrong as a society, and the extremes to which those wrongs can be taken, while also offering a strong moral stance that can become a rallying cry for change.
Examples of the best dystopian novels
Per usual, the best way to explore what a genre looks like is to see some examples of it in action. Here are some famous examples, widely considered amongst the best dystopian books.
1984, by George Orwell
Three years after the publication of Animal Farm, George Orwell released an even more iconic dystopian novel. Published in 1949, George Orwell’s 1984 (also sometimes written as Nineteen Eighty-Four) is a story set in the society of Oceania, a “perfect” society run by the Party, an oppressive government that uses spy technology - called Big Brother - to remove any and all privacy and freedom from its citizens in order to keep them in line. Protagonist Winston works for the government creating heavily censored propagandist media, but finds himself wondering what life outside of Big Brother’s watchful eyes would be like, leading him to rebel in increasingly serious ways until he is captured and tortured into submission, once again returning to his “perfect” life.
This book was such an instant game-changer that the word “Orwellian” came to mean any government that removes the privacy of the individual for the “good” of the many. It’s been used for a wide range of arguments aiming to protect the freedom of individuality and expression, but it’s also been co-opted by groups wishing to abstain from other types of government mandate, such as vaccination or masking requirements.
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Published in 1953, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of fireman Guy Montag, who, instead of putting out fires, is in charge of setting them to burn banned books in the 24th century. When he stumbles upon Clarisse, a woman who secretly reads, he realizes that his life is depressingly shallow and boring; even his relationship with his wife is a sham, as she’d rather spend all day staring at “telescreens.” Eventually, Guy tries reading himself and falls in love with it, hiding away the books he’s meant to burn, which ultimately leads to his fleeing the city as he’s pursued for their illegal possession. He meets up with a resistance group and joins them in trying to preserve the knowledge of books through the final war.
Fahrenheit 451 was written in the wake of the World Wars when actual book burnings took place all over Europe under the Nazi regime. Bradbury’s story, as well as his wider body of fiction, made scathing commentary about the state of the world, the importance of knowledge, and how vital it is to preserve our history so we don’t lose or repeat it.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
One of the most popular modern takes on dystopia is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. This story, published in 1985, is set in the fictionalized future country of Gilead, an oppressive regime built on the bones of the United States after a murderous coup in the 1980s. In this society, warfare has caused mass pollution of the land, a dramatic increase in infertility, and a decrease in healthy births. Because of this, women of childbearing age are subjugated into essentially slavery for the wealthy elite, forced to attempt to bear children for them as Handmaids. These Handmaids lose everything - their freedom, their families, and even their names - and have to endure brutal indoctrination, strict rules that control every aspect of their lives (including being forbidden to read), and frequent sexual assault.
The story follows Offred, a Handmaid who has maintained her individuality and fighting spirit in secret even through attempts at brainwashing and indoctrination. She rebels in bigger and bigger ways throughout her journey, from reading an illicit message left by the former Handmaid to having an illegal sexual relationship with her captors’ chauffeur to finally secretly joining a rebellion before she’s found out by the wife of her captor. The story ends on the uncertain note of Offred being “arrested” by people who could be members of the resistance in disguise.
Atwood’s story has become a rallying cry for feminist movements in the 21st century, used to draw uncomfortable parallels to real-world laws affecting women’s rights to reproductive care. Its popularity spawned an award-winning Hulu adaptation and a sequel, both of which double-down on the theme of women’s independence and the right to bodily autonomy.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
In 2008, Suzanne Collins released the first installment of what would become a genre-defining series known as The Hunger Games.
In these books, North America has been reconfigured post-unspecified-apocalypse into the nation of Panem, which is separated into 12 districts and a capital city. To keep the districts in line, the Capital holds an annual gladiatorial game called the Hunger Games, where two children, ranging in age from 11 to 17, are selected from each district via lottery and sent to a remote arena to fight to the death; the last child standing wins. In the first novel in the series, Katniss Everdeen becomes the female tribute from District 12 when she volunteers to take her little sister’s place. Katniss refuses to play the Capital’s games, and in rebelling against the system with the goal of going home to her sister, Katniss sparks a revolution that changes the very foundation of Panem.
This series spawned a brand-new subgenre of Young Adult dystopia that had not previously been explored. Many copycat series emerged using the same general structure - young woman driven by love and a sense of justice overthrows an oppressive regime with arbitrary categorization for its citizens - but most failed to capture the nuance of The Hunger Games. Collins’s series made excellent commentary on the pageantry and excessive waste of upper-class society, the trauma of growing up in poverty and oppression, and the monumentally destructive effect of war on every single stratum of society. It also has some of the best depictions of mental illness, namely PTSD, in modern literature.
Now, this is just speculation on my part, but I’m firmly of the belief that this series is, at least in some small way, a part of the rush of young activists we’re seeing in the world today. We grew up on stories where young people taking a strong stand were able to take down oppressive governments and dismantle abusive systems from the inside out - it makes sense that we would take this as inspiration to do the same.
Other popular dystopian fiction stories
While I don’t have time to describe every single important piece of dystopian fiction, I do feel like there are a few more must-read novels that deserve at least a mention.
- Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a modern dystopian classic about a hyper-empathetic girl named Lauren Olamina, who lives in 2024 Los Angeles (this book was written in the 90s) amid rampant gang and drug violence. The book tackles themes of racial tension and issues with organized religion.
- Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a story about trading individuality and emotion for “perfection,” to the point of losing everything that makes us human. When Jonas is chosen to be the Receiver of Memory, what he learns upends his “perfect” world.
- Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a story written between the World Wars about the value of individuality versus societal stability and the meaning of freedom.
- Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a story about an anonymous man and boy traveling a barren wasteland post-apocalypse with nothing left to care about but each other.
- Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, a dystopian classic about the effects of violence both on a personal level and in larger society, and efforts by government bodies to subjugate the masses for “their own good” using dangerous medical treatments.
- Naomi Alderman’s The Power - Five thousand years in the future, the world is ruled by women, who maintain their grip on power through their possession of electrical superpowers.
- Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven - This book jumps backwards and forwards through time, looking at life before and after a flu pandemic. The book explores what extreme conditions do to people.
- H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine –A Victorian scientist discovers time travel and travels to the year 802,701, where he discovers humanity has evolved into two distinct species.
- Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go – Kathy and two friends escape the grounds of their English boarding school to encounter the outside world for the first time.
- Stephen King’s The Stand - After COVID, the opening act of this book will probably hit readers much harder than it did when the book first came out in 1978. After most of the world is wiped out in a pandemic, the survivors clash over how the world moves forward.
How to write dystopian fiction
So how exactly do you write good dystopian fiction? This may be the best possible use case for the old adage, “write what you know.”
Look at modern society
To begin creating your dystopian world, look at the world around you. Consider the current political climate and the social issues that you can observe in your daily life. What affects you? What upsets you about how the world works right now? What’s the topic that, if you were to look it up on Twitter, you’d have to grab the popcorn to go over it?
Your goal here is to find something that, if you could hold it up to a mirror, you would show everyone why it’s bad. That’s essentially what the most effective dystopia is - a dark mirror of the real world.
Some common dystopic themes are
- The rights of the individual versus the good of the community
- The morality of military conscription and operations
- Humans’ effect on the environment and its implications on our future. Think climate change, or the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
- The fundamental nature of human beings as either inherently violent or inherently altruistic
Take a strong stance
You’ve picked your issue, so now you need to pick your stance. This is the belief that you’re trying to show off and explain the morality of. You can’t be in the middle here; when you’re writing dystopia, conflict and disparate opinions are vitally important parts of telling the story effectively.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have a nuanced opinion, though, or that you’re blindly supporting one “side” or another. You can critique certain aspects of your belief and the opposing argument at the same time; the whole point of the genre is to point out that we aren’t perfect and there is no perfect solution to any problem.
Take things to the extreme
So here’s where you get to have some fun. Take the issue you’re exploring and turn it up to eleven. Kids are being conscripted into the army at 18 in the real world? Now they’re being forced into gladiatorial combat at 11 years old. Women are losing the right to reproductive healthcare choice in the real world? Now women are literal property whose only value is babies.
Go to the logical extreme of the issue and then push beyond it. Apply it to every aspect of the society in your story until it's an obvious satire with extremely obvious moral choices to be made…and then let no one make them. Make the characters view this setup as completely normal (at least in the beginning), or have characters who question the status quo sit on the outside of the norm and be criticized or even persecuted.
Add details to bring it all to life
Once you know what your overarching plot is going to be, and what the central theme of the story is, you’ll want to focus down on the little details to really drive home the emotional impact of the story. It’s difficult to care about big, heavy topics like this without strong character and world building; if your characters aren’t strong and the setting feels generic, your story might come across as preachy or insincere.
Give us the nitty-gritty details about how your world got to the point that it did. What decisions led to this horrible outcome, or was it inevitable? Were actions taken to cause it, or did it come about by inaction? If your story takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, explain that apocalypse to us (even if your characters don’t know what caused it, give your readers some clues).
You should also build out your world from your protagonist’s perspective. What does their daily life look like? Who do they care about, and why? How do they spend their free time (if they have any)? Make us believe that they are a real person living in a real life so that we can root for them to make their world a better place.
Dystopian fiction serves a purpose that utopian fiction never could: it offers us a chance to actively improve our society. We can daydream all we like about what a perfect world would look like, but until we address the reality of our flaws and failings, we can’t actively work toward getting near that ideal.
By driving everything to the extreme, we can express our frustrations at the state of the world around us and, hopefully, inspire the change we need to avoid that dark and twisted fate.