speculative fiction / utopia and dystopia

Utopian or Dystopian Story Writing

Two popular sub-genres of speculative fiction are utopian and dystopian fiction–and these genres are widely explored through novels, short stories, film, video games, and other formats. This post will discuss these genres and then provide a list of questions for writers to consider as they plan and develop their own utopian and/or dystopian stories.

A utopian society is an imagined state or social organization which is highly idealistic and aims for perfect conditions. The term derives from Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), though utopian proposals go back at least to Plato’s Republic and even further back into archetypal myths of perfect original societies lived close to nature. The term is also used to imagine future (often distant, fictional) times and places which will achieve such perfection for humankind (or for some other race or species). More recent utopian novels include Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Marshall Brain’s Manna, as well as films and video games such as Kozue Amano’s manga and anime series, Aria.

A reformer who envisions and aims to develop such a society is known as a utopian. Theoretically, a utopia would have no problems, as it is often based on ideals such as peace, equality and justice. The methods of creating a utopia depend on the underlying ideology–therefore, a utopia’s basis might be socialist, feminist, capitalist, patriarchal, anarchist, egalitarian, religion-based, a particular family style, or any other kind of intentional community.

However, actual experiments with creating utopian societies have generally met with quite spectacular failure, as none of the underlying ideologies are themselves perfect, nor are the beings who inhabit them and develop them. In fact, utopian societies, whether in real experiments or in fictional expressions, often devolve into the opposite: dystopian societies.

In dystopian societies, everything is unpleasant, frightening, miserable, often environmentally degraded, and almost always under totalitarian rule such as dictatorship or police state. In a dystopia, there is generally mass poverty and oppression for most inhabitants while a few elite members of the society are exceptionally wealthy and powerful, and exhibit little or no social conscience.

In literature and story-telling,both  utopian and dystopian genres explore social and political structures through fictional accounts, and are often also meant as political warnings. Authors have often written dystopian stories to point out, in fictional/analogy form, problems within their own societies. In extreme circumstances, if these issues were to be discussed in non-fiction format it might even lead to the author’s imprisonment or death, so they choose fiction as a way to express their thoughts.

Famous dystopian novels include George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Dystopian works have become very popular in other formats including film and video games.

Some famous novels combine both utopian and dystopian ideas, including Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

Some utopian and/or dystopian novels and films focus on a particular viewpoint, such as the ecotopian films Wall-E and Avatar or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopian novel, Herland.

Writing ideas: Consider these questions and ideas when planning your story:

  • What aspects of utopia/dystopia do we have in our own current society (either globally or in particular nations or groups) and how could these aspects be developed into a fictional account that explores them?
  • What causes your fictional world to spire into a dystopian society?
  • Is your world meant to be a utopian society but really isn’t? Why?
  • Describe in the story the protagonist and his/her family and friends, as well as what the current government is like. What side are protagonist and his/her family and friends on, or are they divided? What difference will that make?
  • Sketch and make notes on your main character and other important characters.
  • Create symbols for the opposing groups or individuals. What will those symbols be? Icons? Myths? Clothing? Music? Some combination? Something else?
  • Draw a detailed illustrated map of your society. Go well beyond just physical features.
  • Create at least 5 rules that govern your world–and then consider how those rules could be broken, and what the results could be.
  • What makes your protagonist a hero? Is your protagonist a positive or negative hero or a combination?
  • What makes your antagonist and/or aspects of your world unusual and dangerous?
  • What problems are avoided when people conform to the rules or wishes of others? What happens when they don’t conform?
  • What new problems does conformity create?
  • How important is it for people in your world to have choices? What happens when they don’t have choices?
  • What are your favourite utopian/dystopian novels? What makes them so intriguing?
  • Whose point of view (POV) will you use? What difference will that choice of POV make?
  • What factors/situations combine to create utopia? dystopia?

Check out all the posts in this series on writing speculative fiction:
Mapping and World Creation (with a focus on Science Fiction and Fantasy)
The Hero’s Journey
Utopian or Dystopian Story Writing
World Building Through Mapping
More Aspects of World Building–Part 1 (conflict, political systems, technology, magic, values, small details, economic system, cultural groups)
More Aspects of World Building–Part 2 (realistic hangouts, world naming, food, alternate realities, time/era, transportation, morality, architecture, overall considerations)
Characterization in World Building
Links to Some Great Posts on World Building
Tips for Writing Super-Hero Stories

Coming Up: Watch for other posts coming up related to other speculative fiction sub-genres and topics.

Comments: Have you (or are you presently) writing dystopian or utopian fiction? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments–and the titles of any novels or short stories you’ve written in these genres 🙂

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