The first dystopian novel I ever read was George Orwell’s iconic 1984. The misery, the fear, and the inescapable doom were palpable, frightening, and all too real. And then I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and felt much the same way. In these books, I found a desperate reality that saturated me, one that felt like a somewhat inevitable (but definitely probable) consequence of society as it currently exists.
And, that’s the job of a dystopian novel. It takes its cue from what actually exists and exploits it to create a world that may eventually exist if left unchecked. It’s part social commentary, part psychological drama, and it’s all terrifying.
So, how do you begin to write a novel like that? What type of research goes into it? How do you create a believable future that’s ripped of its humanity?
In this guide, we’ll discuss what I believe are the best ways to research something that hasn’t happened (yet). Let’s get started.
Let’s start things off by looking at the basic features of a dystopian story. A dystopian story generally:
- Takes place in the future (although it could be an alternate history, too)
- Features a huge disparity between the haves and the have nots (or thrusts everyone into abject poverty and survival mode)
- Has an oppressive government (but, on the flipside, there could be apocalyptic anarchy and the oppressive element could be the possibly of death at every turn, i.e. The Road by Cormac McCarthy)
- Features society’s complete reliance on government (or, in the absence of government, every individual must fend for himself)
- Includes an enforced groupthink consciousness (individuals are obligated to think like everyone else and accept propaganda or they are punished)
- Limits information and individual freedom
It’s also important to note that in a dystopian world, the villains are in control. Evil triumphs over good, at least in the beginning…and the middle. Perhaps, by the end of the story, there is a spark of hope, but even that may be ambiguous and up for interpretation.
A dystopian novel is definitely not a feel-good fairy tale. It’s one that’s rife with struggle (both internal and external), and often features martyrdom. All dystopian novels, the good ones anyway, share a sense of crushing hopelessness that, perhaps even the protagonist can’t combat.
For these reasons, a dystopian story is most effective when you focus on the theme, and then use that theme to draw parallels to the reader’s present. Orwell was a master at it. Let’s explore theme now.
Give Thought to Your Theme
The theme of a story is its big idea. In a dystopian novel, the theme is usually one of the following:
When researching for your dystopian novel, it helps to pinpoint your theme. What is the idea that you’re trying to convey in your story? What sort of statement or observation are you making about society?
If you’re novel tackles the idea of an oppressive government, research oppressive governments of the past and present. What are some real life ideas that you can incorporate into your dystopian world to emphasize your theme?
To examine how low humanity can sink under the fist of an oppressive government, start studying Nazi Europe and the Khmer Rouge killing fields of Cambodia. When you look at these shameful times in our human history, pay attention to how these regimes came to power, and how they maintained power.
On the other hand, if your novel tackles rebellion, start studying the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831 or the storming of the Bastille of 1789. Make special note of what caused these rebellions, and also consider the experiences from both sides (the rebel and the rebelled against).
When you settle on a theme, pull examples from real history to create a stronger narrative.
Create Realistic Characters
Your dystopian novel should feature a cast of compelling characters. The protagonist should be relatable, but never perfect. The antagonist may be evil, but never one-sided.
When you’re creating and fleshing out your characters, take time to consider how they view their society. Perhaps your protagonist was born into the dystopia, and has no other reference point, so he accepts it without question. Or maybe your protagonist had a life before the events that created your dystopia, and mourns for it.
You’ll need to research your characters. Understand each character’s backstory. What history do they carry with them into your story? Sure, you’re researching “fictional” characters, but it’s still a real process, and a necessary one if you want to create a rounded, consistent character.
It may be a good idea to interview your characters. A few questions to ask include:
- How do you feel about your society and why?
- Who do you trust and why?
- What rules do you like and why?
- What rules do you hate and why?
While it may feel silly, remember that the interview is confidential. Only you and the character have to know. This information may or may not make it onto the pages of your novel, but it will help you shape the motivations of your characters.
Remember that these characters aren’t transplants from our time and world– they live and shape the world of your novel, and won’t always have the same mindset as your reader. The characters should act according to their own logic.
Lay Down the Law
What laws does your dystopian society abide by?
Even in the most anarchic worlds, there are rules– even if these rules forged and followed by just your protagonist alone.
But, if your dystopian novel deals with an oppressive government, they’ll definitely be a ton of rules that society must follow. What are they? How should you create them?
I recommend that you do the following:
- Study the laws of both totalitarian governments and police states
- Make a list of the laws that keeps the ruling elite in power
- Make a list of punishments for not keeping the law
From caste systems to cannibalism, you’ll find an exhaustive list of ways that the ruling class has preserved the power balance in their favor. How can you implement these rules and their consequences into your novel?
Also, decide on the method of control. How does the antagonist exert control over the protagonist? The antagonist can be a government or an oppressive element like diminishing resources. Is it through propaganda? Is it through police raids? Is it through poverty?
Finding Ideas for Your Dystopian Novel
Stumped and not sure how to find ideas for your dystopian novel? Turn on the news. We’re basically living in a dystopian landscape anyway.
What stories grab you? What do you care about? Child slavery, privacy, the environment, lack of resources, immigration?
Exploit that idea by setting your story 50 or 100 years into the future. What’s the inevitable (or probable) end of this idea? This can serve as the basis of your story.
Remember to Build the World
World building is particularly crucial in a dystopian novel. In your dystopian novel, you’re introducing a completely new world that the reader isn’t familiar with.
What does the world look like? Are there mountains and mist? Is the world dull and gray? Is it a dense, green jungle?
What caused the world to look like it does? Was it an earthquake, a war, a robot apocalypse?
What resources are limited? Sunlight? Water? Food?
By the way, don’t just focus on one small part of the world. The reader should have a sense of what’s happening throughout your dystopian landscape.
For a dystopian novel, world-building must come from your rich imagination. That’s because this world doesn’t exist yet and definitely doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. But, this doesn’t mean you can’t research your world’s landscape.
For example, if your novel takes place in a desert, you can research deserts to learn more about the people who live in that environment, including what they wear, what they eat, and how they survive the harsh conditions.
Read Other Dystopian Novels
Finally, familiarize yourself with the very books that define the dystopian genre. By reading and researching these books, you’ll have a better understanding of what your reader is hoping for when they read your dystopian novel.
When you read the following dystopian novels, do so with an analytical eye. Critique it. What worked? What didn’t work? How would you change it? How was the pacing? What was the theme? What motifs did the author use to convey the theme?
At the end of this post, you can download our list of the greatest dystopian novels to research.
Be sure to check out these resources before you begin writing your dystopian novel:
- How to Build a Dystopian World
- Character Development: How to Create a Consistent Voice
- Use These 5 Tips to Create a Backstory