How to Create a Dystopia

We’ll be discussing dystopian fiction all week in anticipation of the final installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. Collins’ trilogy has increased exposure for an already popular sub-genre of YA literature, and it seems more writers than ever are now inventing their own dreary societies for us to discover. Here are some of the common elements of fictional dystopias.

The Fatal Flaw

A dystopia with a narrow focus is far more interesting than a society that’s messy all across the board. Since the point of a dystopian novel is usually to magnify a current flaw in society, it works best to create a world based on one main flaw. In M. T. Anderson’s Feed, the flaw is the feed itself–an internet connection implanted in the brain. The feed permits rampant consumerism by allowing constant impulse purchases and by blasting non-stop, personalized advertisements. The shallow nature of this society permits environmental and intellectual deterioration (for example, school is no longer for studying history and grammar but for learning new ways to use the feed.)

The Hunger Games has a laser-sharp focus: The problem with Katniss’ society is that it compels young people to fight to the death in annual, televised games. This one flaw rests on many others (the poverty of some districts, the tyranny of others), but we see all that is wrong in Katniss’ world through this one instance of oppression.

The Curious Individual

The protagonist of a dystopian novel must serve as a stand-in for the reader, exploring the fatal flaw of her society. She’s an insider who isn’t quite like everyone else, someone prone to questioning authority. In Lowry’s The Giver, Jonas is singled out right away as unique. He’s given an unusual assignment–to receive memories of past civilization–and it’s in this forum that he’s best able to question his society.

In Westerfield’s Uglies, Tally rebels against conformity after being influenced by a new friend who encourages her to see things differently. In Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go, Todd begins to question authority as he approaches his rite of passage, and after he stumbles upon an unusual spot of silence amidst the constant “Noise” that plagues his settlement. In Feed, Titus starts to view his rampant consumerism for what it is thanks to his new girlfriend, who had her “feed” installed too late in life to allow her to conform to her peers. (Also, Titus is apparently the only one of his friends to use metaphors, or so says the girlfriend.)

The Backstory

How did things get to be so bad? Unless readers can answer this question, they won’t buy into the story. It’s clear why Jonas’ society in The Giver has chosen uniformity and sacrificed passion: his people fear war. Captain Beatty gives us the explanation for book-burning in Fahrenheit 451: books contradict each other and create confusion. Also, the political race that takes place during the story gives a small glimpse into how the public has been controlled. In The Hunger Games, we’re told that a failed revolt led the Capitol to exert a public display of might via the Games. And The Knife of Never Letting Go is all about Todd’s quest to discover what has really made his society the way it is–was it the fault of an alien-created virus or something even more sinister?

Sometimes you can’t enjoy the story because you keep wondering why the people in the society allow themselves to be thus controlled. Some of our bloggers have said that they had a hard time believing in the profound misery of certain fictional dystopias. Joni has said that she doesn’t buy into the annual Hunger Games, that she thinks a rebellion against them would have come much sooner than it has. I personally am not convinced by the society Condie created for the upcoming Matched, which feels hollowly vindictive. Without a believable backstory, a dystopia doesn’t work.

The Tragic End

Dystopian novels generally have unhappy or unresolved endings so the point of the novel can be driven home–if society is allowed to develop into this, we’re all doomed! Protagonists rarely prevail against the dystopia, although they sometimes escape, as in The Giver and Fahrenheit 451. Often they are defeated and die, as in the stunning ending of Huxley’s Brave New World. Or else they survive but are deeply traumatized, as in Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. Dystopias in books for younger readers are the most likely to be conquered, as in Christopher’s Tripod trilogy and Patrick Carman’s Atherton trilogy (if I remember correctly).

It remains to be seen what will happen to Katniss in Mockingjay. Will she bring down the Capitol? Escape to a new, independent district? Die in one last round of Games? Of one thing I’m convinced–even if she succeeds in leading a revolt, she will have to lose something, whether it be her life or one (or both!) of her love interests.

Parker Peevyhouse would love to hear your dystopia recommendations

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21 responses to “How to Create a Dystopia

  1. Great post! I just reread Catching Fire this weekend and I was amazed by how quickly that story sucks me in. I really loved Matched on my first frantic read but you’re the second person I know who didn’t like it. Maybe when I reread I’ll see flaws, but it really pulled me in the first time through.

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      I’m glad you liked MATCHED–there were a lot of things I liked about it. But I did struggle with suspending my disbelief, and so my interest waned about halfway through the book. Still, a very intriguing dilemma for the main character.

      • Try reading the sequels (Matched). I enjoyed Matched but the sequels were horrible. They feel tacked on and add nothing to the series. Catching Fire was not AS good as the first but pretty good. MockingJay in my opinion was better and ended the series on a solid note. Although, I’m not too sure about the actual last few pages…

  2. Indeed a great post with lots of thought-provoking analysis and examples. Thanks!

  3. I love dystopias and this this is a great way of looking at what goes into them. But I don’t think that the problem with the world of the Hunger Games is the Games themselves (though that’s certainly *a*) problem — it seems to me that the greater issue is an underlying one: the way the Capitol controls things and uses human misery for their entertainment. It’s certainly a comment on a few things in our society, ranging from reality TV to haves vs. have-nots.

    I definitely have to add Feed to my TBR pile now. :) And I’d rec Robin Wasserman’s Skinned series (the last book comes out pretty soon, I think). It’s a very interesting, not-too-distant feeling dystopia.

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      I agree that the real issue in Katniss’ society is tyranny. I love how the Games bring out all of these different issues. And while I read the books, I can’t help feeling guilty for making Katniss’ struggle my entertainment.

  4. Birthmarked by Caragh M O’Brien is a terrific dystopian read, as are The Declaration and The Resistance by Gemma Malley. Love this post, btw. :)

    • Great post! I have enjoyed most of the books listed. For me the criteria is an exciting book, interesting plot-twists, characters that I connect with, and a satisfying ending. This is why that although I enjoyed FEED all the way to the end, the end ruined it for me. Also because of one death in KNIFE, I won’t read the other books.

      I’ll admit I’m a little worried about Katniss for two reasons:
      1. author recently asked librarians/reviewers not to reveal spoilers. What would be a most disturbing spoiler than the heroine not surviving? But I have read her GREGOR books and only one character died that I cared about, leaving the main characters alive.
      2. The author compares HUNGER GAMES to a mythology, citing another story of tributes sacrified until a hero sacrifices himself to slay the beast.
      I am very eager and a little afraid to read MOCKINGJAY.

  5. I’m a “reality” TV show watcher. Among others, I enjoy watching “Survivor.” I have to admit to feeling a little guilty for watching it after reading The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

    I suppose I easily bought into the whole Games theory because I watch those TV shows and totally believe they’d eventually put something like that on TV.

    You mentioned Joni had believability issues because she thinks there would have been a rebellion sooner . . . there was. District 13 rebelled and was wiped out. Fear of this has helped keep the other Districts in check . . . well, that and the soldiers that would be sent to punish any who choose to speak up against the Capitol. ;-)

    So, will The Hunger Games series stop me from watching reality TV? No, but I am more concerned about what “reality” TV may bring us in the future . . . though I’d like to think I’d draw the line at watching people hunt and kill each other. *shiver*

    Great post and discussion. =D

    • Yeah, Joan… we’ve already pretty well established that while I’m one of the people who would not stand for it and would end up shot because I expected other people to rise up with me and they didn’t, out of fear. Or so I’m told. ;) It probably goes along with the idea that unlike Linda Joy above, I think that having a main character die in the end can be a terrific and completely satisfying way to end a book! There are worse things than death, IMO.

      Just thought I’d clarify, too, that while there were social-structure elements I had a hard time swallowing, I still really enjoyed those books.

      • I also believe having a MC die can be just as satisfying . . . everything doesn’t end happily ever after in life and it shouldn’t in fiction either. Not that some things can’t, but not everything should. ;-)

        I enjoy the books too, but I got thinking about it after I posted last, and I started wondering what I would do as a parent in that type of society.

        Would I really allow my child to go off and fight? I realize they don’t have a lot of choice in that society, but I don’t think I could stand by and watch one of my children be sent off to fight to the death for entertainment . . . but I’m not really in the situation so it’s easy to say what I’d do, but I can’t be certain I really would. LOL

        We never truly know if we’ll rise up until we’re faced with the moment, but I’d like to think I’d rise up and fight with you . . . but in my version we’d be incredibly clever and manage to go undetected for a long time. In the end, we’d still be shot, but we’d do a lot of damage before they got us. :)

        That’s what makes fiction so much fun. We can say and do things we likely wouldn’t in “real” life.

  6. Great analysis!

    I wonder – are dystopian novels the new vampire novels?

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      Some say dystopia is the new YA trend. It seems a good alternative for those who are tired of vampires and fairies and fallen angels–a little more realistic but still plenty of invention.

  7. Jan

    In the sci-fi world, dystopian trends seem to accompany negative periods in our own world. In some ways I think they are a healthy response, encouraging us to think about potential trends or threats. On the other hand, I really believe that young readers need to feel optimistic about their future too. I like the effort some sci-fi authors are making to write positive sci-fi.

    Thanks to the July blog contest I won an ARC of Matched. I read it in one big gulp. I liked Condie’s spare and simple style, so reminiscent of The Giver. While I often felt Katniss was too adult for a young girl raised in her constrained society, Cassia seems appropriately naive. Matched appears accessible by middle grade readers, like The Giver, as well. I’ve had mixed feelings about the appropriateness of Hunger Games for the 9 and 10 year olds who are picking it up.

    Frankly, The Knife of Never Letting Go was too violent and disturbing for me to continue reading. It was one of the few books I’ve abandoned in many years.

  8. One of the reasons I love juvenile novels is that they usually end with hope; not devastation and death. You can get plenty of that in adult fiction. And since we’re adults discussing this (any teens want to join in?) I understand enjoying deeper fiction with tragic consequences. But these books are NOT for adults. They’re kids to enjoy.

    So I stick by my “do not kill the main character” requirement. If an author kills the main character, I will probably not read anything else by them. And it’s not a book I’ll recommend to a young reader. (The same goes for killing animals…yes, I am referring to the KNIFE trilogy…which I stopped reading after Book 1).

  9. I have loved dystopian novels ever since I read 1984. They draw me in. Why? Not sure. Maybe because the stakes are so high for the protagonist, forcing them to make difficult choices and sacrifices.
    Have you read The Silenced, by James DeVita? I recommend it. It was quite a shocker when I read the author’s notes and found out it’s based somewhat on real events in Nazi Germany.
    Maybe that’s why dystopias are so appealing–we know evil has existed in the world, and still exists today. The stories of people who triumph over evil are always gripping. We (or at least, I) ask ourselves: could we be that brave? Could we stand up against tyranny? Could we try to make the world a better place? Or would we walk around, heads down, trying to slip under the radar and live?

  10. Parker Peevyhouse

    Thanks for all the great suggestions. My reading list is getting very long!

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  13. I have really comes to love Dystopian literature. It all started when I read 1984 and then again with The Hunger Games and Total Recall. I am actually working on writing my own right now. I have a great idea.

  14. Great post! I particularly love dystopian fiction that creates a world to mirror the social flaws and character rebellion. Usually it is in the form of a unique and detailed landscape (in the Hunger Games we see this in the distinct characterisation of the Districts and Capitol and the very detailed game arenas) – but I’ve started to consider how fashion also has a big role to play. This is obviously more clearly seen in the movie/television adaptations, but maybe there is an opportunity for dystopian literature to also explore this characterisation?

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