5 Ways Dystopian Fiction May Surprise You

Kath here. Please welcome author Karen Duvall to Writer Unboxed today. Karen is an award winning author published with Harlequin Luna and is currently working on a new contemporary fantasy romance series. We were pleased when Karen agreed to guest post about dystopian fiction, which is enjoying incredible longevity and strength within the SF/F genre. Karen says,

Dystopian, or post-apocalyptic fiction, is a fascinating subgenre of fantasy and my first experience writing it for Harlequin Luna’s ‘TIL THE WORLD ENDS anthology offered me a creative outlet I’m eager to explore.

To learn more about Karen, follow her on Twitter @KarenDuvall or on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/karen.duvall2

Take it away, Karen!

5 Ways Dystopian Fiction May Surprise You

Wow, we just barely escaped the end of the world, didn’t we? It turns out the Mayan Calendar wasn’t about the world ending after all, but the end of a cycle. That’s not to say it can’t still happen.

When Harlequin Luna invited me to contribute a novella to an anthology called ‘TIL THE WORLD ENDS, I was thrilled with the invitation, and slightly intimidated by the genre. I write urban fantasy and the anthology has a dystopian theme. I’ve been reading dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction for years, but I’d never tried writing it before. Enjoyment of the genre gave me confidence I could create a good story, but what surprised me were the revelations I made in the process.

  1. An endless supply of scenarios – How many ways could the world end? Dozens, and all can be spun in a variety of possibilities. The subject opens a distinct avenue of creativity and an opportunity to invent something totally different. I came up with five story ideas for my editor to choose from. The one about devastating solar storms ravaging the planet was selected, but I still plan to pursue my idea about bees for a future project.
  2. In-depth exploration of current events – The best stories are often rooted in reality, and there’s no shortage of potential problems the world is currently facing that could lead to its demise. I learned a lot while conducting my research. Education is always a welcome bonus.
  3. Try out your science fiction wings – Though dystopian stories are fantasy, there’s often some science responsible for putting an end to the world as we know it. Geological, astronomical, meteorological, virological… Adding a fantasy twist to the science is both challenging and fun. It also affects the world-building because post-apocalyptic environments are tainted with visual, social, political and emotional devastation as a result of cataclysmic events.
  4. Romantic conflict – Vulnerabilities abound in an unmade world where people seek companionship, guidance, consolation and support. When survival is at stake, we turn to those we trust, and we crave the one thing even the ending of the world can’t take away from us: our ability to love. Getting it and keeping it may not be easy in a dangerous world that’s all but destroyed. There are so many delicious opportunities here for romance.
  5. Characters put to the test – Will the good guys continue to be good and the bad guys only get worse in a post-apocalyptic world? When faced with the ultimate test for survival, you can imagine how such a life-changing event might affect people. Good guys may not be so good anymore, and the bad guys could discover a more honorable side to themselves. Communities will be forced to cooperate if they want to live on the limited resources they have available. It’s incredible what you can learn about people in the face of adversity.

If you’re looking to expand your fiction repertoire, the dystopian genre could be the right choice for you. I know I’m hooked, with more story ideas brewing. If you were to write a dystopian tale, what would it be about?

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Comments

  1. says

    I’ve never read a dystopian or post-apocalyptic story, but I have always enjoyed movies of that sort. I might have to give one a read! As far as writing my own dystopian story, I’m not sure that would be much of “my thing”. I already write in a “universe” in which Earth’s inhabitants have colonized other worlds due to overpopulation, so I suppose mine is post-apocalyptic in a VERY loose sense, :-).

    Great article, Karen! Can’t wait to read your story!

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  2. Denise Willson says

    Great timing, Karen. I just finished reading Divergent, the dystopian series by Veronica Roth. The concept is ingenious and the story written remarkably well. Although I’ve never written dystopian, I think there is something every writer can learn from reading it. Creativity at it’s most earth shattering end. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  3. Steve Sanderson says

    Great article!

    I’m a longtime fan of dystopian fiction, and love the genre. It’s sort of an obsession for me.
    I’ve even written a dystopian book, called Slavebot Jonathan. I’m working on the final draft and am having a really good time with it.

    This is a such a great genre, and good luck with the new book. The world needs more dystopian fiction!

    Steve

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    • says

      I agree, Steve, that we do need more dystopian fiction in books. That’s cool that you’ve written one. I’m collecting as many dystopian books as I can find. :)

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      • Steve Sanderson says

        Have you read This Perfect Day, by Ira Levin? I read this awhile ago, and it stuck with me…

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  4. says

    My first thought regarding “what would it be about?” was “can I give it a happy ending?”
    Lame, I know. But I loathe, LOATHE depressing, dark, ‘we’re all gonna DIE!!!” stories. Paint me with sucker paint, whatever.
    But I’d sidestep the alien, mutant gene, judgement day, nuclear fallout crap and do what makes sense, we ran out of oil and now we’re ALL Amish! Ha! Or not…But I’d set the story in such a manner that all kinds of technology worshipers suddenly had to learn how to ride a horse and the oft mocked live off the land types suddenly were valued and respected. It’d definitely have a humourous streak and a lot can be done with teaching a CEO how to weed a garden, or a gel nail princess having to learn how to , you know, read.

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    • says

      LOL, Jennifer! I love that. Yeah, it’s great when the ending of story set around the rebuilding of all that was lost has a happy ending. It’s only the end of the world as we know it, and though things would undoubtedly be rough at first, people will hang together to make it work and the outcome could be even better than how things were before.

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  5. says

    I love reading dystopian stories. I just finished Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, and Legacy by Marie Lu is next on my list!

    In my YA novel-in-progress, my protagonists, Tommy and Carine, are brought together by chance as the United States braces for a chemical weapons attack. The government issues an antidote to the poison, but the side effects of the drug render people incapable of caring what’s happening to them. When Tommy and Carine discover the true nature of the threat, they must rely on each other to survive.

    Dystopian stories make us think about the world around us, and make us more aware. The scariest stories in this genre are the ones that could actually happen!!

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    • says

      You’re right, those are the scariest stories, Tracy. There are a lot of real-life scenarios believable enough that we can see their possibility. Your story sounds fascinating! I look forward to reading it.

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  6. says

    I’m writing more of an apocalyptic novel, imaginatively (and tentatively) titled Apocalypse. It’s more about a New World than a dead or dying world. Sure, pieces of a meteor have hit and decimated most of the Earth, but in the novel mankind was making that happen, anyway. So the survivors have to deal with a great many things, some of which are:

    –a gay black woman (as of this draft) is creating a new Bible for this new world. (I apologize if this is blasphemous for some.) Her reason: as it stands, the current Book has not much for her, especially the OT. And would God suddenly disappear after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.?

    –the survivors are of all nationalities in various locations around the globe, and they all realize (belatedly) that an Us vs. Them mentality doesn’t work anymore, and perhaps never has. There’s one scene where a tape of Dubya says “God Bless America,” followed immediately by another of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, who, of course, says, “God bless us, everyone!”

    There’s a lot more, and it’s not all political or religious, but that’s a snippet. The joy of writing this kind of thing–and a dystopian work, too, which I suppose mine sorta is–is that, as Stephen King said about The Stand (and I’m undoubtedly butchering this), it is a pleasure to wipe out the whole thing and start all over again. As Ms. Duvall mentioned, there are so many possibilities with this. It lets me paint the struggles of this world, as I see them, on a very broad canvas.

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    • says

      Steve, your book sounds great! And i love the political intrigue you’re weaving in. That’s a real grabber for me. I think controversial plots are a risk worth taking. I hope to get to read your book someday. :)

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      • says

        Thanks very much, Karen, for the kind words. I hope you (and everyone else) gets to read my book someday, too! :-) Now I just have to find the time to write it. Too bad we can’t find more time like we find more spare change. Stick your hand into the pocket of an old jacket and–Whoa!–five extra minutes.

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  7. A.E. Chester says

    I’m trying to write a story about a world caught between two dystopian futures. I quite like the idea that we’ll destroy ourselves but there is also something about a society built on religious fundamentalism that’s spookily fascinating. I’m currently trying to use elements of both to suggest a society on the brink of a revolution, with all the upheavels and identity crises it brings. Having fun so far :)

    Can’t wait to give ‘Til the World Ends a read!

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    • says

      Thanks, A.E. :) Religion is controversial and therefore and incredible premise for a good dystopian story. I love your idea! I can’t wait to read it.

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  8. says

    Karen,
    Thanks for this post. I’ve never considered writing dystopian fiction, but the possibilities you raised are intriguing. If I did I have toyed around with the idea of a story in which the United States splits into two countries (red states and blue states), with the red states pursuing economic growth strategies and the blue states pursuing enovironmentally sustaining policies with conflicts arising between the two.

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    • says

      Ooh, CG, that sounds great! Almost like an alternate history with the Confederates and Union Army still going at it. It could definitely work. I’m intrigued. :)

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  9. says

    Most of my stories are about people developing or not developing better human characteristics. The ordeal normally takes place during a life changing crisis. It would be the same if wrote dystopian fiction, maybe a little more grit would be added.

    My Dystopia would be caused by worm farming. The world discovers that worm farming is a good way to dispose of waste. Everything changes when the concept becomes commercialized. The mass production of worms seriously disturbs the ecosystem. It causes a chain reaction of problems and Dystopia is born. Even though the world would be affected, the story would be focused around a small group or varies small groups scattered throughout the world.

    Thank you for the post Karen Durvall. You just added more awesomeness to Writer Unboxed

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  10. says

    Thank you for this. I just published a post-apocalyptic novel, and now I feel legitimized in choosing that genre to write in. All of the elements that you discussed were included, and like you said, there are an endless supply of possibilities yet to be probed.

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  11. says

    I agree, dystopia is a fun genre, limitless opportunities for character development, and current focus as a writer. Fun fact … an acclaimed professor of sociology once mused on what separated humans from fellow mammalians. In his opinion, humans are the only species that “think” about the future.

    Dystopia to me, are stories that go bump in a future dark. Way cool.

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    • says

      You’re so right about character development playing a huge role in dystopian fiction. A dystopian society totally defines a character and so much of that deep inner soul searching needed for great characterization is practically built-in. Sympathy for both the good guys and the bad guys is immediate and results in a compelling story. I’m so glad you think dystopia is cool because I do, too. :)

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      • Steve Sanderson says

        Love this post about character development. This seems to be overlooked when people talk about dystopias – they like to focus on the how of a dystopian society, not the people who have to live there.

        Also, humans are the only species who think about peanut butter. And sandwiches in general…

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  12. says

    I loved this, Karen. I’m getting ready to pitch a YA dystopian, despite having been told by agents that after Hunger Games, publishers filled their dystopian lists through 2016. While that may prove out, it’s one of those genres that never seems to die (like a post-apocolyptic zombie – but in a good way). I think your list applies well to steampunk too, incidentally. Any suggestions on great recent dystopian must reads?

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    • says

      Gabrielle, I really enjoyed the Enclave Series by Ann Aguirre. It’s YA and there are 3 books in the series. If you’re into classic stories by some of literature’s greatest talents, you will enjoy the post-apocalyptic novel WHITE LOTUS by John Hersey that was published in 1965. It’s an alternate history about China winning WWII. An awesome book. Then of course there’s Margaret Atwood’s HANDMAID’S TALE. THE CHILDREN OF MEN by P.D. James is another great classic dystopian tale that I thoroughly enjoyed. I have to say, however, that my all time favorite dystopian novel is A CREED FOR THE THIRD MILLENNIUM by Colleen McCullough, which is an amazing story that deals with a few controversial issues, primarily that of religion and the second coming. Now I have a hankering to read it again. :)

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  13. says

    Interesting.

    I have definitely noticed a trend of Dystopian sci fi movies. All though I don’t call them that.

    Its kinda disturbing actually.

    Ever wonder why most stories depict such negativity and darkness?

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  14. says

    Yeah, Darnell, it seems the darkness attracts a lot of viewers and I’m not sure why. I prefer to approach my dystopian themes with the perception that it’s always darkest before the dawn. I like happy endings.

    I just finished watching the trailer for a computer game called The Last of Us, and it reminds me a lot of the new fall hit show Revolution. I think both have gained popularity with the younger market. I started watching Revolution with enthusiasm, which has waned considerably with each episode as I grown more eager for a shred of hope. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem forthcoming. It just keeps getting worse and I’m starting to lose interest. I want to root for attainable goals.

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  15. says

    Terrific post, Karen. I love the idea of sunspots and solar flares. Very creative! You’re so right about the many, many ideas you could spin out of the end of the world topic. Just the word “dystopian” lends to dark and depressing, but that romantic conflict you mentioned, leading to a hope for abetter tomorrow is a nice counter.
    Can’t wait to read your book! You’re next on my TBR pile. :)

    Marie

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  16. says

    Dystopian fiction has a long and storied history. In fact, it’s one of the earliest genres, and probably is an off-shoot of satire. “Gulliver’s Travels” comes to mind as an early classic. “A Canticle For Leibowitz” is a religiously themed dystopia. (Need we even mention “Brave New World,” “1984” or “A Clockwork Orange” (though that’s comprehensible more in the movie version, I think) or even “Lord of the Flies”? We’re used to “blow up the world” dystopias – after-the-end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it. But there are “quieter” dystopias as well. One of the most powerful is LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” You mentioned Romantic Conflict and Characters Put To The Test. Of course, these are narrative imperatives, at some level, in all stories. But there’s a misperception about dystopias – frightening as they are: they begin with discord, disruption, dissolution, but they’re about the struggle against – and triumph over – the dystopic forces. That’s why I think dystopia are a branch of satire (without the leavening of humor as a plot or motive engine): they extend, exaggerate and examine one point (your items #1 and #2). Thanks for the post!

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  17. says

    I think a lot of people get dystopian fiction mixed up with post-apocalyptic fiction. The two sub-genres often go arm-in-arm, but don’t necessarily need to.

    Dystopia is about a society which is about as bad as it can get, and which – more importantly – CONTROLS the people. Rules, laws, enforcement – and therefore, rebellion. Whether the world has been destroyed or not is irrelevant.

    Post-apocalyptic fiction is about the end of the world as we know it. Such a world may not have a society to control people at all. There may be complete anarchy, or so few people that society is often more egalitarian.

    I, personally, am a fan of books which combine the two sub-genres.

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  18. says

    Tam, I’m also a fan of books that use both dystopian and post-apocalyptic themes. It achieves a nice layering effect to explore a diverse and decimated world. Combining the two creates a much deeper story. Thanks for the comment! :)

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  19. says

    Karen, I’ve been doing a lot of reading in this genre as well, but haven’t attempted to write it yet. It’s like a siren song, though, tempting in so many ways.

    Thanks, Kathleen, for featuring Karen here today. Very intriguing post.

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  20. says

    I think the dystopian category will always be popular. People are drawn to what if, in the future… types of stories. In my opinion, Margaret Atwood (mentioned in other comments above) is the reigning Grand Dame of the genre, and Suzanne Collins brought it back into the mainstream and reminded everyone that dystopias aren’t all high tech.

    I completely agree it’s one of those genres that will never die. People will always be fascinated by tyranny.

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    • Steve Sanderson says

      Mari – I hope it stays with us. I love dystopias and find them strangely uplifting. There’s something about a beautifully constructed world, even if the world itself is far from beautiful, that is so much fun.

      Maybe it’s time to take my meds…

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