With dystopian fiction all the rage, and Divergent having just premiered on March 21st, one might be feeling the urge to dive into as many dystopian novels as possible. Or, you might even be considering writing one yourself, whether it be short story, script, or full-length novel. Like any other genre, dystopian fiction has a plethora of fantastic, average, and not-so-great works floating around. If you’re wondering what sets the entertaining apart from the simply silly, or preparing yourself to create a dystopian world of your own, perhaps looking through some qualifications below might clarify why some dystopians rock our world and others, unfortunately, fall a little flat.
Proper World Building: Dystopian settings are generally our world at a different stage of time (generally the future), although they don’t have to be. Even if they do, it’s better not to think of it as simply this civilization in a few years. The best dystopian fictions operate successfully as their own world, and benefit from not depending on writing the history as if it were Earth with a few tweaks. Readers notice when an author has failed to expand their world to its full potential. For example, Hunger Games was critiqued for showing nothing outside of Panem (was there another government on the planet? more people?) and failing to even enter all of the twelve districts the country is broken into, while Divergent depends a little too heavily on the concept that Tris’s world is a futuristic, decaying Chicago. The best fiction writers will write a deep, planned-out world, detailed down to its history, government creation, character’s roles within this society, and the general public opinion on all of these happenings.
Motivation: Much like fantasy, sci-fi, and similar works of fiction, the element of motive behind actions must still come into play.What these means is that despite the awesome setting of a dystopian novel, characters must act with recognizably human motivation and drive. This goes for individual actions as well as movements in the history and major plot of the novel as a whole. In the Hunger Games Katniss stays true to her character —even when her reluctance to lead can become frustrating— which results in a believable character whom we can depend on to act according to her personality. Tris, likewise, in Divergent, often puts her relationships on the line as she follows her gut and partakes in risky, sometimes unnecessary behavior. The characters must have their personalities, faults and all, and can’t be changed on a whim in order to please readers or forward the plot.
Go Easy on the Social Commentary: Some writers and readers expect all dystopian fiction to function as some sort of commentary on our current or possible future state of affairs, when in reality, this isn’t always true. Some people just enjoy reading or creating dystopian worlds as a form of escapism. However, if the intention is to provide commentary, a dystopian should do so through the plot of the novel - not through long-winded speeches by characters, or heavy-handed over-symbolism that leaves readers rolling their eyes. Subtly here really is the key, no reader wants to be hit over the head with an author's beliefs if they didn’t expect it coming in. If a writer feels like humanity is becoming too dependent on technology, the narrative should show this reliance through characters’ actions and the story as a whole, and refrain from having every problem in the book the fault of technology directly (it simply isn’t believable to blame technology for every single problem). Ender’s Game, which was also transformed for the big screen last year (more details here), does an excellent job of discussing the blurred moral lines that are often crossed in war -especially when technology reduces face to face interaction with an enemy to minimal, if at all. Instead of outright discussing this issue, we watch as Ender, by far the most talented young army commander in the world, struggles with his knack for killing, and the repercussions of his actions in war. It’s a more nuanced, subtle approach to taking on technology that leaves room for the reader’s interpretation.
At the end of the day, Divergent and Hunger Games both succeeded at implementing most, if not all of these tactics. Where the two books both tend to fall flat is their lack of world building, which can be a common trend with dystopian novels. Some dystopian novels that do flesh out their world, without weighing down the text, include Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, or The Giver by Lois Lowry (which is also arriving on film soon!). Given the fact that all three of them are now considered classics speaks to the importance of putting in the effort to create that world.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, Elizabeth!