Dystopian fiction is a truly beautiful genre of literature, captivating and exploiting the inner child within us all, fascinating us with the believably far-fetched and apocalyptic descriptives, and satisfying our deeply morbid desire for destruction with graphic, gory, brutalist and grimy scenes. It touches a nerve that no other fictional literature type reaches; unlike magic, it’s believable. Unlike non-fiction, it allows for complete creativity. Unlike horror, it isn’t routed in simply scaring us. But it can gently tap at other genres — scattering of romance can spruce up the human element of your writing, dashes of reality add a level of veracity hard to ignore.
The dystopian genre of literature is completely different. You can, and often do, build on current events; political tensions, rising threats of nuclear warfare, fears of the fast advancement and surpassing of the human race by and of technology or a suspicion of the surveillance state in a 1984-esque fashion. Under the dystopian genre, anything is possible, especially in the ‘real world’. Throughout my writing career, I’ve been fortunate enough to be paid to produce fictional literature — and I often find myself reverting to the same core theme; dystopian writing. And here’s how you can write about it too, in a really, really easy guide.
The very core essence of a successful dystopian is to draw on the current fears present in today’s society, or fears of the recent past that may still exist within some today; fears that are real, usually rooted in science, and collects the fear of a wide audience. For example, I once explored the fears of nuclear tensions between Russia and the United States, expanded and exploited by the recent Presidential election of 2016. I created an entire short story based on the moment the bombs fell, I manufactured a mock ‘Presidential address’ warning the US public, and envisioned the gory reality of what such a scenario would be like for the real, average person — not some far-fetched superhuman that conveniently saves the world every other second. See, it’s a real issue, based on current events, and real people, but drawn out and expanded upon in the not-so-distant future to create a believable scenario.
To begin with, you want to set the scene. Powerful descriptives desperately come into play here — remember, you’re telling a story with words alone, not pictures. You need to be able to visualise exactly what you read, and you need to write down exactly what you want your audience to see. Is there an immense, choking fog overhanging across a vacant town? Tell us that! How dark is it? Is there debris floating around? What does it smell like? There more details you provide, the more your audience feels included within the story. Desribe the fine coating of sand and dust that lays on your boots, or the scuffed flower patches and grass. That crunch of glass as you step on it? Describe that. The splinters of broken, busted door frames and jagged metal scrap, describe that. Synaesthesia works wonders, too — blurring the senses, such as “the disgusting odor shattered my nose” or “the barren landscape screamed silence”. Also, frequent semantic fields, that is a repeated theme of (usually) adjectives or concrete nouns to describe a specific issue, such as “dark”, “foggy”, “dirty” and “devastating” act as a semantic field of destruction, enforcing a dystopian theme, perhaps one caused by a nuclear apocalypse or ravaging natural disaster, and thus drawing the reader to become more involved with your writing, and envisioning just what you are.
In your opening scenes, you also want to tease at the disaster that created the dystopian landscape, but not explain it fully. You want to entice your audience to read more, and by hinting that through clever subliminal inclusions, you can do just that. Instead of saying “nukes fell from the sky”, allude to the aftermaths in little ways. Describe the children that heard about stars that fell from the sky and smashed the ground, the veterans that sit alone, shells of their former selves, unable to talk of the past. Describe the colour of the sky as a rustic orange, describe the withered flowers and burned trees, the toppled towers and cracked roads and imposing craters scattering the city. The foul dust and grime that sits atop everything, and how clouds aren’t the same as they used to be. These open up for a wider range of descriptives, but also give the audience a reason to read more — to find out what happened.
One of the most vital aspects of a successful dystopian is to develop your character from everything like their name and eyes, to the boots they wear, the colours they like most and what battles they’ve faces based solely on the scratches, tears and dirt present on their clothing. Open with an aptronym, a clever name for the character that foregrounds the conclusion of the story — Latin last-names are glorious for this, with translations for “doom” (malum), “armageddon” (exitium) and “loss of hope” (desperato) being amongst the favourite types of wordplay across all genres — particularly coined by Shakespearean writing. If your character stems from a prominent career, allude to that. If they’re in the military, hint at that. If they’re a ruthless killer, guess what? Throw us a clever wordplay for that. As above, the subliminal really ties your dystopian fiction together, and only in hindsight will it make sense, furthering audience interactions. This works quite well if you envision sequels or prequels to your writing, and leaves everything open-ended in a non-destructive or disruptive way to the reading of your writing.
Next, the clothing. In a dystopian world, things aren’t quite perfect, as you’ve probably worked out by now. If the world isn’t blown to pieces and scattered with dust, debris and blood, it’ll probably have an overly-utopian aesthetic with dystopian societal internal values, like that seen through the rise of Artificial Intelligence, cloning and surveillance states. Your character needs to reflect this, so we’ll split it into two sub-categories:
Dystopian world — My favourite character descriptions stem from when they’re within a dystopian setting, such as a post-nuclear apocalypse or other ‘survivor’ scenario that plays of desperation, morality and animalistic instincts. You can create tattered, torn, broken and weathered clothing that reflects this nature with incredible detail and freedom. Whether you like the ‘Mad Max’ mish-mash style to the tattered pirate style of Pirates of the Caribbean. As a guide, start with their shirt/ jacket, describe its faded colour, markings and rips. Work your way down to their pants, arer they torn? Do they reveal wounds? Then finally the shoes, usually boots. Describe and stains on them in detail, this further alludes to the disaster. If there’s a lot of green grass stains, there was probably no nuclear attack. If there’s a lot of red, maroon and crusty material on it, your character has probably had to wade through dead bodies and blood. See, you establish inference without describing something explicitly.
Utopian society — On the other side of the spectrum, you may choose to optimise your character with a futuristic, clean, almost idyllic apparel, designed to reflect the utopian facade of society. To do this, focus of bright, simple colours — white being your best friend here. Also, chrome and platinum colours emphasise a futuristic vibe pretty nicely, think about the colours used for new iPhones, what makes them so sleek? Your character should be clean, their clothing should appear in perfect condition and typically all the other characters of similar social status will be wearing the same uniform. As a contemporary example, those under the Nazi German army wore the same uniform which was utopian for them. This enforces complete social solidarity and loss of identity, ideals which can quickly create a dystopian society. It is very important to note that, whilst your character may look perfect alongside the aesthetics of your world, this doesn’t make it a ‘utopian fiction’. Very often, utopian fictions revolve around dystopian themes, like mind control or surveillance 1984-style. Tie in old and new technologies, which are also utopian to the time they were created; at one point, cameras were revolutionary. In the same way, future technologies will be revolutionary when realised, so think ahead and tie that in some way.
Originally published at futurism.media.