Way With Worlds: Dystopia Time!
This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. -David
Previously I discussed Utopias. They’re not always popular, often poorly done, and are best handled by doing real world building first. Seeking to force a Utopia into your world tends to be about as successful as forcing it in real life. If you don’t get that joke, please avoid any participation in politics until you do.
So now we’ll talk their opposite, Dystopias. You know how those go – they’re awful, terrible, explore the darker parts of human nature. A few even roll post-apoclapytics into the Life Sucks Stew for a complete course of misery.
However while Utopias don’t seem to be that popular for a variety of reasons I covered, it seems that a lot of worlds I see these days are just overloaded with Dystopias.
Which makes building good ones a bit more difficult . . .
I often wonder why Dystopias are so popular in fiction, at least modern fiction and modern popular fiction. As I write this in 2014 it seems like the shelves are filled with terrible worlds, often but not entirely in the realm of Young Adult Fiction. I’m starting to think adults might want to speculate what kind of world they’re leaving to young people here, but let’s focus on why there’s so many.
So why do we have so many dystiopias? I’ve been thinking about that one for awhile.
- Conflict and challenge are important to getting interest in fiction, so Worldbuilding with a dystopia means instant conflict. Conflict means interest.
- Dystopias also appeal to people’s morbid curiosity. When you see something horrible you wonder how bad it can get.
- Dystopias also appeal to curiosity since there’s almost always the mystery of “how come this is so awful.” Curiosity is a powerful thing.
- People may have trouble visualizing a better world, but can easily visualize a bad one. They may thus find Dystopias more believable – even when they’re not.
- Dystopias may also seem more believable to people because of real-world examples – human history has had quite a few terrible societies.
- That set of historical examples also provides plenty of material to use in building dystopias, so you have a pretty big construction set.
- Dystopian settings may be seen or portrayed as “more realistic” because of the above examples – and the strange tendency in Western culture to believe “dark” is “realistic” or “mature.”
Finally, there is one thing that differs Dystopias from Utopias. Both may be written with agendas (as I noted with Utopias), but I believe the above factors mean that agenda-created Dystopian worlds may seem more believable and the agenda of the author may not be visible. It may even be welcome because it came in a “mature” manner (in short as part of a horrible setting that some may see as realistic). Dystopias let you get away with more.
Now this popularity may make it easier to create a Dystopia and make it part of your setting, your game, your book, etc.
That’s the problem.
A Warning On Dystopia
Because Dystopias are so popular, so common, they’re actually a danger for you as a writer. Thus, a few warnings for you, cultivated from my observation over time of how many of them are in literature and games (and poorly executed).
If you are thinking of creating a dystopian setting, keep these things in mind:
- These are easy to do because there’s so many. It may be tempting and easy to make one in a setting for no good reason.
- Dystopias are also tempting as people see them as “realistic.” That temptation can lead you to taking your setting in a dark way believing its realistic – and it may be anything but.
- There are so many accepted tropes on Dystopias that its all to easy to pile a few on, meaning even an attempt to make an effective Dystopia can fail if you resort to tropes – which is very easy unconsciously.
- Dystopias can conceal agendas that you’re accidentally working into the story. Readers/players may detect them easily while you may not see them, combining embarrassment with poor world building. Yes, you may see how other people put agendas into their Dystopias – be aware you may do it too.
So now with these warnings, let’s ask a question . . .
Why Build A Dystopia?
The simple answer – do it if it’s appropriate. Just as I mentioned in Utopias.
In a lot of cases it just works. I’m no fan of the overload of Dystopias in today’s media, but sometime your setting and world building may lead you to conclude that “yeah, this part of the setting is going to be awful.” Run with it – in fact this is the best way to run with it as you reached that conclusion honestly.
I also find that, much as building more ideal settings, building a good Dystopia is a real way to expand your world building skills. Making a good one as opposed to a pile of tropes is a real challenge. Extremes are educational.
Dystopias are also fascinating because if you can build a believable setting that is believably terrible, then you’ve really achieved something. Bad Dystopias are just as ridiculous, just as able to remove believability, as bad Utopias or general bad settings. Good ones? That’s a challenge.
Dystopias are also interesting to explore historically – namely, how did something end up being so awful? This is always great fun to explore as a world builder because you explore so many different options, histories, and psychologies.
Finally, extremes are just fun to explore as a world builder, good or bad, high-tech or low-tech.
So if you decide it’s time to make your setting an awful spectacle of misery then what happens now? What should you do?
Of course I have an answer.
Putting Together Dystopia
So, if you’re going to build a Dystopia (as much as one designs suffering and misery). What do you do?
Just like Utopia, you need to sit down and do some work and make a real setting. Good, bad, neutral, whatever world building is world building, a creation of thinking things over, tying things together, and figuring out how things work. It’s all good world building
Yout biggest barrier will likely be the tropes and cultural issues mentioned above. Don’t take those for granted, because they seem to be bloody everywhere. Take it from an old geek, it’s like those bad post-nuclear games and tales I saw over and over in the 80′s.
But as for specific advice:
- Dystopias can be intentional or untintentional – and indeed one person’s Dystopia may be another’s Utopia. It’s important to ask how it came about – and how conscious or unconscious it was. In a few cases you’re really writing post-apocalyptic stories, which is another kettle of dead fish.
- A real Dystopia is identifiable – it has an identity and a duration and is not a transitory state. That’s another distinction from post-apocalyptic which often has a strong transitory element.
- A Dystopia, as terrible as it is, has to be sustainable for it to be identifiable and have duration. You’ll have to figure out how such an unpleasant setting exists and maintains itself by resources, social cohesion, etc.
- Dystopias also require you to explore the psychology of people in them. People may not be happy, but they’re likely contributing to the situation somehow or maintaining it aware or unaware. Because a Dystopia needs to be distinct and somewhat sustained, its likely people are contributing it or at least not opposing it.
- Dystopias also present the interesting question of how they react to change. Change may be embraced or resisted, but how does your terrible/unpleasant setting deal with it?
- Did the people making this society know what they were doing or not? How do those who maintain it now react to it?
Dystopias take some work to do. Good dystopias are just about as difficult as building Utopias.
Go Build The Worst
Hopefully that’ll help you in creating lousy and horrible worlds for your characters/players.
I think having seen so many bad/dervitive utopias, readers and gamers and such want something that’s really good. Applying good world building to Dystopias makes you a good world builder – and gives people something they’ll appreciate.
Even when it’s awful.
– Steven Savage
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers and community at www.musehack.com, publishes books on career and culture at www.informotron.com, and does a site of creative tools at www.seventhsanctum.com. He can be reached at www.stevensavage.com.