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Monday, November 29, 2021

A New World: Tips on Building a Dystopian Setting

Hi, everyone! It's no secret that I am a fan of the dystopia genre. I still remember my first three dystopia reads: Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix, and later, The Giver by Lois Lowry and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. This week, writer Kelsie Haynes is here to share some of her tips on building a dystopian setting. 

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Dystopian fiction is a kind of speculative fiction that deals with a world or society that is built on deprivation or oppression. These kinds of stories aren’t new, with the oldest one, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, dating back to 1921. However, Facts and Stories discusses that dystopian fiction continues to be appealing to people of all ages. This is because these works tend to contain commentary regarding how authorities abuse their power by imposing an authoritarian and collectivist society under the guise of protecting the people. Readers enjoy following characters who have the courage and wit to rebel against authority.

Despite this commonality, these novels still vary greatly, from themes to settings. To help you get started building your own dystopian world, below are a few tips to keep in mind.


Create a Backstory

One of the most important things in a dystopian novel is knowing how the story world came to be. The backstory should be strong enough for your reader to understand and accept that it would undoubtedly result in your current world. A previous post here entitled "Maximizing or Minimizing Your Setting" discusses that setting is also essential to establishing your backstory. In a dystopian story, mentioning your setting in a then-and-now context will make the change in society more authentic and make the world feel bigger.

For instance, George Orwell’s 1984 introduces Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain), as a province of Oceania. The backstory for 1984 is that the world is divided into three superstates following a war. The US released atom bombs on Britain and absorbed them into its superstate named Oceania. Capitalism, nation-states, and democracy were then dismantled to build a totalitarian state. 


Consider the Power Dynamics

Dystopian stories contain societies that are controlled by powerful authorities. Because of this, you’ll also need to provide a context for those in power — such as who they are, how they got or maintained their position, and how they treat different people under them. In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Gilead, formerly the US, is a totalitarian and theocratic state ruled by the Commanders of the Faithful.

The Commanders are a social class of powerful Gileadean men who used the military to assassinate the Congress and president. They then proceed to strip women of their rights, forbidding them to hold properties and jobs and be educated in anything other than the Gileadean ideology. Part of what they were taught is subservience to men and the responsibility to bear children.


Give Characters Motivations

There’s a reason a story’s backstory and power dynamics are the way they are, and this would be because of motivations. After all, you do need to show why societies are oppressed or deprived of something to the point of it being dystopian. Lois Lowry’s The Giver, for example, is set in a seemingly utopian world. After all, society is devoid of all negative aspects of life, such as hunger, pain, and war. But it’s actually a dystopia since society is also being deprived of the concept of love, colors, and excitement. The reasoning for creating a collectivist society is that if everyone is the same, then there would be no conflict.

However, memories can’t fully disappear. Someone called the Receiver is tasked to keep the collective memories to help the community avoid making the same mistakes of the past.

Dystopian fiction isn't the easiest thing to write. However, by carefully planning its setting, characters, and backstory — the commentary and thoughtful narrative can only follow.

BIO: Kelsie Haynes is a freelance writer currently based in Florida. Reading has always been a part of her life, and it subsequently led to her interest in writing as well. Her favorite genres include mystery and science fiction. 


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