Friday, May 2, 2014

Some Tips on Writing Dystopian Societies

For reasons I cannot explain it appears that dystopian futures are big right now... really big. The young adult genre (which isn't really a genre, but more on that another day) seems to have a particular hard-on for them of late, with The Hunger Games and Divergent as two stand outs in the sales categories. If you're thinking about writing your own bleak, Nihilistic romp through a crumbling, amoral wasteland though it's important for you to stop and take a deep breath.

Just because everyone else is jumping off a bridge doesn't mean you should too. In the event that it's a really kick-ass bridge though, make sure you know the best way to stick the landing.

Tip #1: Understand What Happened

The term dystopia was coined in 1868, and it is a term based on Greek that means "imaginary bad place." As a genre dystopian works are characterized by societies filled with hardship, deprivation, oppression, a low quality of life, and constant terror. If you're writing about events in a society like this, then it's your job to explain to us just how the hell it got that way.

And then the penguin masters took their rightful places...
Societies are organic things made up of the people who populate them. Every society from post-apocalyptic tribes of violent mutants to crumbling cities filled with the repressed populace of downtrodden workers has reached its current existence through logical forces. Every civilization that's formed on this planet (and probably on other planets too) so far happened because of human forces, and the evolution of society into a dystopia needs to come with equally sensical events.

For example, did society collapse under the weight of a corrupt, wealthy upper class? If so, did this lead to the formation of a communal society where ambition, individuality, and even attachment to material possessions are seen as crimes? Alternatively did the wealthy and privileged form an oligarchy, buying their way into politics, media, and law enforcement so they can continue to maintain their positions of power while abusing the lower classes, the planet, and the resources available to the society? Or did something cataclysmic occur, leading the frightened masses to turn over power and liberty to the clergy, who now rule with an iron fist over all aspects of a sectarian society?

These are all valid examples, and they all have an inciting event, a reaction, and a change. Your society is a character, and the first step to developing it is to know what led to it becoming the way it is now.

Tip #2: Look at Real Life Examples

Contrary to popular belief dystopian societies exist in places other than between book covers, and on the silver screen. As a writer you should look at what happened in the real world to see if what you're portraying on the page can measure up.

Nero's decree against pants was really the beginning of the end.
Let's take one of the biggest dystopias I can think of; Rome. Rome began life as a city state like any other, and due to its advances in science, military training, culture and law it devoured huge chunks of the known world. Rome grew, and at some point its ideals began to fade. It grew corrupt and darker, with the great games to distract the upset populace as the government served the ends of the wealthy rather than its citizens. It eventually toppled due to outside forces who sacked Rome and took all she had to offer.

History is filled with other examples of dystopian societies. Sparta is a good example; an entire nation where the upper class trained from childhood to become the ultimate warriors in the world, and where all the work was done by a slave underclass who had no rights and who could often be killed out of hand. The cult in Jonestown who eventually committed suicide set up a miniature society to follow the religious whims of its leader, up to and including drinking poisoned kool aid. The rise of the United Soviet Socialist Republic, which was characterized by oppression, brutality, and violent destruction of anything that challenged the status quo. Arguments could even be made for how Iran and Afghanistan transformed from relatively progressive democracies into religious theocracies in a few decades thanks to the meddling of the world's superpowers putting brutal dictators in power because they were allies.

If you study how societies go from pretty good to totally screwed in the real world then your dystopia is going to feel like somewhere out of a news broadcast rather than a fantasy.

Tip #3: What's Keeping it From Toppling?

Being in a dystopia sucks. Everything is gritty and grainy, the work is back-breaking, there's no healthcare, and as soon as you find anything you can take pleasure in there's a good chance it will be crushed under the boot heel of the government. The many are being regularly trodden underfoot because of a few people who have managed to rig the system that way.

So what is keeping the whole thing from tumbling down like a pack of cards?

This. Mostly this.
In order for a dystopia to exist, and for it to have existed for longer than a few years, you need to know what makes it tick. There's got to be some glue holding the whole fucked-up place together, otherwise it would have crumbled a long time ago and the people who were left would have built something new. Most of the time the collapse of the dystopian society is what the work is about, but not always. Sometimes there's just so much Nihilism that despite the struggles of the cast the whole, horrible clock just keeps on ticking away.

This is one of the hardest things to do, so I'll give you some examples of people who've done it before. In the film Equilibrium all the people left after the third world war agree to form themselves into a new society, and to dose themselves with an emotion-repressing drug called Prozium. Emotions have been outlawed, and those on the dose don't realize how terrible this is. In this case the only thing holding the society together is the law enforcement arm called the Grammaton Cleric and Prozium; once the drug disappears the whole population begins to wake up and the basic building block of the society crumbles.

In The Running Man the world has become a dystopian oligarchy where there are no safety regulations, no unions, no environmental regulation, and the wealthy and privileged can do whatever they want. The lower classes are held in check by a combination of jack-booted thugs, and the free entertainment beamed into every home via television. The Free Vee not only distracts the working class from how badly they're being abused, but it provides them with a dream; a dream that they too could get on TV and better themselves by winning one of the games where victory means millions. If that dream is ended, as Ben Richards predicts it will be, the poor will rise up and tear the wealthy down off their thrones and take over the society that they really helped build in the first place.

Lastly, let's take a look at Fahrenheit 451. In this world firemen are actually called to locations where people are hoarding books, and it's their job to burn them down. The society is based on ignorance, and on a populace who does their jobs without question. Everyone is too distracted by the perks of technology to question what the government is doing, or to ask why books are being burned. When our hero starts reading he has to escape, and when that society is bombed into dust by its enemies he and others like him have the accumulated knowledge of memorized texts that they'll be able to use to build a new, better society.

Tip #4 Follow the Ripples

This rule typically applies to writing alternative history, but dystopian futures can benefit from it just as well. Every choice made has an effect in a society, and the bigger the society the bigger those ripples become. Say your dystopian society claimed that all unmarried women have no rights (because The Handmaid's Tale is still pretty goddamn scary). Would that lead to people taking elaborate precautions to have more sons? Would a new industry arise to buy unwanted daughters from their parents? Would rich families who loved their daughters create trusts, managed by men, so that they would be cared for after the parents passed?

Who knows what would happen? You need to in order for your world to make sense. If there's a logic hole, or something exists even despite the fact that it shouldn't (a female lead in a world like this where she aggressively back talks men in public with no repercussions, for example, would be completely against the culture you've created) your reader is going to notice. For every decision you need to ask why? When you've run out of why's, then you have a solid stage to play out your drama on. Whatever it happens to be.

Thanks for stopping by! If you'd like to help support The Literary Mercenary then drop by our Patreon page, or click the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son" button on the upper right hand side. If you'd like to get regular updates then put your email in the box above that, or follow us on Facebook and Tumblr. Hope to see you next week!

1 comment:

  1. "If you're thinking about writing your own bleak, Nihilistic romp through a crumbling, amoral wasteland"

    As a wise man (probably) once said, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOPE. This is coming from someone practically shackled by biases, but a part of me is convinced that dystopias are a narrative dead end. I've always felt like you could do more by going beyond and building a world rather than ruining or destroying it outright, and -- like you said -- there's enough saturation out there already. Unless it's an airtight story, I'd think that avoiding writing a dystopia would be the way to go.

    That all said, I recognize that dystopias can be done well. And you highlighted why especially in the fourth point -- because the ripples need to be followed. I was under the impression that dystopian stories (and "darker" stories in general) exist to explore the possibilities created by their worlds. See "what would happen" if there were new rules -- in a sense -- and spin a yarn from there. The bad stories don't really do that. The good ones do.

    Well, whatever the case, this was an interesting post. I'm not one for dystopias, but there are still plenty of principles outlined here that I can keep in mind. You know, just in case the day comes when I decide to/have to write one of my own. If nothing else, it'd make my brother happy.

    Then again, he's always hounded me to write a story about cyber-ninjas. So pleasing him shouldn't be that hard.