The Making of the World

One of the most important things that separates a dystopian novel from all the rest is simply: setting. While the setting of any novel is important, the setting for a dystopian novel is key. It is, after all, the changing world that makes a dystopian novel a dystopian.

Nathan Bransford said there were three important traits of setting in a novel:
  1. Change Underway: the setting should be dynamic, something should be happening in the outside world, be it a storm (King Lear) or a world that responds to outside influence (Narnia)
  2. Personality and Values: Setting doesn't just include the weather or the physical location of a place--it also include the society, and societal expectations. Does the world expect your character to be a slave, or a hero?
  3. Unfamiliarity: A good setting should show the reader something new. Whether it be China or Mordor or even our own backyard, we need to discover something.
These are certainly excellent traits to consider in a setting, but since setting is so vital to a dystopian novel, I think there are a few more characteristics that need to be considered:
  1. Antagonist: This is a dystopia, not a utopia. The setting in some way needs to stand against the character. This could be because the world situation is actively trying to kill the main character (The Hunger Games), or because the world is no longer quite habitable (The Road), but the setting itself needs to present a conflict to the characters.
  2. History: Dystopias are reflections of our worlds that have gone wrong. There needs to be some element of our current world reflected in the new, darker one. It could simply be a reminder of what the world was like before the apocalypse (The Forest of Hands and Teeth), or it could be a driving force of the novel (Life as We Knew It) but this new world needs to reflect something of the old one.
  3. A Stage for the Character: The most important thing about a dystopian setting is that it provides the main character with a chance to rise above the dark world and be a hero. Not only should it present conflict, but the setting also needs to be a vehicle for the hero to become better. In The Hunger Games, Katniss's world was against her--but it also provided her with the opportunity to change it. In The City of Ember, Lina and Doon see the world is wrong, and work together to change it. 
In short, it's not enough for a dystopian novel's setting to just be. The characters can't just stare out the window and notice what the world looks like. Instead, the setting of a dystopian novel must play a dynamic, interactive role within the book.

As Heather Zundel put it, the setting needs to be a character itself. She says:
Setting is a character, and must be given that same amount of attention as any "real" character, and not just act as the backdrop to everything else. Think of of it like the cardboard scenery from your elementary school days. It's there, but has no substance. A bad setting will feel the same way.  ...Because when your world comes alive, so do your characters.

So, what else makes a good dystopian setting? What are some good dystopian settings you know of? 


Angie said...

Great post, Beth. The character does need to be at odds in some way with the world in which he/she lives. And I agree that in most YA/MG stories set in a dystopia, the protagonist does rise up to change her world. (Uglies series, for instance.) However, I have soft spot for stories where the hero maybe only changes a little--like in FEED by MT Anderson. The main character becomes aware of world and the bad things in it, but we're not entirely sure he truly changes in the end.

Anonymous said...

My current WiP has a dystopian setting, and this is such a great post. I will definitely keep all those points in mind!

Lisa K. said...

Excellent post. I've always been drawn to settings both as a reader and as a writer, and I've always believed, too, that setting can be a character as well. I've left this post feeling like I've learned something. Thank you.

About Me said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
About Me said...

Great post, Beth. The setting in a dystopian must play a key role in the characters' lives for it to rise about just being background noise.

Angela Ackerman said...

One word: LOVE.

Great post. I wish I were talented enough at world building to write this genre, because I love it. :)

You guys rock!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Jana said...

Thanks for the post. I just did a dystopia vs. steampunk post on my blog. Go and tell me what you think about that.

Julia said...

Great post, Beth!

One of my favorite world settings is in Z for Zachariah.

Elana Johnson said...

Most excellent post. I love the part where you say the setting is a character in a dystopian novel. This is BEYOND true.

Kay said...

The best dystopian settings to me take something from our world and stretch it past its breaking point. For example, in Among the Hidden, Haddix takes concern for overpopulation and famine (and China's one-child policy) and stretches it to a society where illegal children are killed. Weyn does a similar thing in The Bar Code Tattoo. She stretches our fear of lack of privacy with all the information available in the Web and encodes in all into one piece of id tattooed on your arm. How convenient, how frightening.

Myrna Foster said...

Great post, Beth! I like Lois Lowry's settings. The settings are inseparably integrated with the characters.

Jemi Fraser said...

I love your point about the setting being the antagonist! So true. That's part of the fun - creating a world that's alive - and angry :)

PJ Hoover said...

Beth, I love this post! It's such a great reminder of all the world building we need to do!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Excellent post. I particularly like the point that the main character is presented a chance to rise above the dystopian world.

Dr. Mohamed said...

Great post. Also work to create the psychological environment of the setting: is it suspicious, oppressed, afraid, etc? Pick the most critical aspects and build them into the narrative.

melissa @ 1lbr said...

You know, I think it should be different from our current world, but also recognizable. We should be able to connect how we got to that point - plausibly. Great thoughts!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Beth. I'm writing my first dystopian after several contemporary novels and am really digging the setting. It's tons of fun!!

Maggie Desmond-O'Brien said...

Great post! Thinking of a setting as a character is always helpful, in my opinion, but it's especially important in dystopia! Thank you so much for the advice - I know I'll be using it in my work in progress! =)

Nishant said...

I will definitely keep all those points in mind!
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Christina Farley said...

Excellent post and I think setting is critical in all genres to bring a book to life. I love Lowry's ability to capture different worlds such as Gathering Blue.

And I must admidt that after reading Among the Hidden, I was a little unnerved since countries today live in similar situations. Many of the issues that dystopia captures are real and alive among us. And perhaps we don't have to look too far to see these realities afterall.

Eeleen Lee said...

Not just dystopia- any alternate world, think fantasy and the new weird by writers such as China Mieville

Steve said...

I think for many the evewryday world we wake up to each morning is already a dystopian setting. Although I didn't expliicitly conceptualize it as such, I now realize that the fictional setting ffor my WIP - Wood City ("Forest Products Capital of the Midwest"), which represents any mid-American city, is actually entirely dystopian relative to my main character and her friends.

The theme of the WIP is youthful rebellion against the mindless conformity of both adult authority and one's own peers.


"Stop! Hey, what's that sound?
Everybody look what's going down."

-For What It's Worth
Buffalo Springfield

musicm said...

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Jonathan said...

How could you not mention 1984 in a guide on how to write a dystiopian story? and to answer you question, key to a dystipian setting is the belief that there is no advancing, and that there is no advancing in you position, you are who you are and will always be the same. the government/people in control hold all the power over your life. and the government must show a facade of being not only all powerful but perfect in everyway.

Jonathan said...

A dystopian novel needs to be able to be full of colorful settings (such as a park or a meadow) but still seem gray and depressing, even when there is nothing really to be depressed about. A true dystopian government or system is the same as a utopia, only the antithesis of one. that is to say, perfect, making a true dystopia unbeatable.

let me know what you think about this discription of dystopia, and ignore my crappy spelling

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