Thursday, April 28, 2011

Getting Dystopian Societies Right

Reading thuRsday

In the bumper crop of current YA dystopian offerings, the societies in which the stories take place tend to cluster around the ends of the spectrum between order and chaos.

At one level, this clustering is simply classic extrapolation: taking an aspect of current society, amplifying it, and working out its ramifications.

But at another level, we're in the midst of creating dystopian tropes and, soon, clich├ęs, because some authors commit a sin with their society that they would never commit with their antagonists.

There's no room in modern literature for characters who are purely good or evil. Characters, at least the ones who ring true, are more complex. Indeed, the best villains sincerely believe they are the heroes of their own story and the fruit of their labors will be a better world.

So how do you avoid stereotypes, like a definitionally oppressive government, when developing your dystopian society?

Socrates set the precedent way back when, in The Republic, he suggested the way to understand personal virtue was to examine virtue on the scale of a state. In other words, approach your dystopian society just as you would an antagonist.

Just like good characters, societies need back stories that outline a plausible path to the present. People generally don't wake up one day and decide to be evil. Similarly, whole societies don't turn to oppression overnight. The good news is that a society showing the lengths to which reasonable people can go is far more frightening than one that's just bad because it's bad.

The proper study of how societies change over time keeps an army of sociologists, anthropologist, and historians busy. A short note like this doesn't begin to do justice to such a rich field of study. But one key to creating believable dystopian societies it to remember that there are always winners and losers: one person's dystopia is another's utopia. And the real engine of any society is the much larger group in the middle: people who are neither winners nor losers, but believe they can be on the winning side.

[If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in Verisimilitude, book 5 of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides.]
Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /