Using Fear To Create A Dystopian World

Okay, so we know that a lot of writers use their personal experiences in their fictional works. And if you didn't know that, well, now you do. (Of course, this is not always true, but there is a piece of each author, I believe, in everything they write.)

For me, I use my fears to create a scary dystopian world. Maybe fear isn't the right word. I think about things I'd really rather not live without, and then take those away in my society.

For example, I love to take really long, hot showers. So, in my world, shower time is regulated to five minutes, and five minutes only. The temperature of the water is decided for you, and it never varies.

For me, that would suck. I'm hoping that readers will think so too; that I can use something as simple as a shower to make a connection.

I've seen this used in other dystopian works I've read. Let's look at THE MAZE RUNNER by James Dashner. He creates an immediate sense of world--and suckage--by having Thomas lose his memory. Isn't that something we're all afraid of? Not remembering what we need to remember? Have you ever felt frustrated when you couldn't remember?

It's an instant connection. And a terrifying one.

Another device I see used a lot is the idea of a fence, or a wall. I've been blogging about it a lot on my personal blog, but I love fences/walls/barriers. To me, they symbolize fear. This thought of "There's something bad out there."

I saw a fence in DELIRIUM by Lauren Oliver, a wall in BIRTHMARKED by Caragh M. O'Brien, social walls in SHIPBREAKER by Pablo Bacigalupi, a fence in THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, nothing but walls in the space ship in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE by Beth Revis.

Walls are caging, confining. And who likes feeling like that? Using fear to make a connection helps in dystopian world-building, and it establishes an emotional connection from the reader to the story.

I'm all about the fear.

What do you think? What do you love that if taken away, would really stink? Could you write that into a dystopian novel? What have you read in dystopian fiction that you thought, "Wow, this world sucks. Wouldn't want to live without [fill in the blank]."?


Lenore Appelhans said...

I am with you on the long hot showers!

When I was touring Europe for the first time, we stayed at a lot of campgrounds where the showers only ran for 3 minutes (at $2 a pop) and the water was lukewarm at best. THE HORROR!

Mindi Rench said...

For me, it would be books. I think I would go crazy if my reading were restricted. For example, in The Giver, each household had only three books, simple reference books like a phone book or dictionary. Books are my escape, my $20 vacation, my doors to new worlds.

Although those metal walls and fake sun in Across the Universe would drive me batty, too!

Mrs. DeRaps said...

I love that I have the freedom to speak my mind...If I were living in, say, Panem, I would've been carried off long ago. And it's true about walls and/ or barriers in dystopias. Because that's real, too. There are walls in the real world that keep people from rebelling or being truly human. North Korea, East Germany...Good parallels.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Great post Elana. I think that's why I love Fahrenheit 451 and Anthem so much. In one world, I'd lose all my books and in the other, I'd lose my sense of self. The thought of losing either terrifies me and draws me in. =o)

Anonymous said...

I agree - I couldn't live without my books and nice, hot showers. Also, I hate it when I can't eat what I want - in all these books, whenever I read about food rationing, I die a little inside.

Elana Johnson said...

Oh, brouillions, yes! The food rationing. That would be difficult.

BE, losing your sense of self... you are brilliant.

Mrs. DeRaps, yes! There are so many walls and fences in our lives, and not all of them are physical--but some are.

Mindy, the fake sun would be horrible, wouldn't it?

Lenore, are you kidding? That is horrifying!

Anonymous said...

Technology. In my work in progress only government officials are able to use cell phones, vehicles, and computers.

lotusgirl said...

So. Many. Things. How can I pick just one? Maybe that's why I like Dystopian so much. In one of my wips, I have an unwritten law against touch. One group of people can't touch another group even if they trip and are trying to keep from falling. They'd be better off to fall.

Matthew MacNish said...

There's another thing that sucks about The Maze Runner, no girls. I mean I'm a dude and of course I'm awesome, but being around nothing but a bunch of other sweaty, hairy, smelly dudes? No thanks.

Unknown said...

Good to know.
I put the end of relationships into books. They scare me, but are also so natural. I wouldn't want to live without my laptop - it's my book, TV, workspace, entertainment, Ipod, telephone, messenger, game... everything knocks it down.
Nahno ∗ McLein

Dadrocant said...

What really hits me in a dystopia is not just one thing that's taken away, but the sum of things and the effects they cause in the characters. Take for instance Winston Smith from 1984, it's not the food rationing per se, or the lack of heat and basic comforts that we take for granted today, not even the constant control and lack of intimacy, it's the sum of all these, and other, things that eventually drives him to rebel.

Some instances of Dystopia are even more subtle in their deprivations, such as Fahrenheit 451, where Guy Montag seems to have every possible comfort, save for books, but when you look at what lies beneath you notice that there's also a lack of connection to others, a vacuous relationship with his wife and fellow firemen, no intellectual stimuli of any kind. He doesn't really know these things were taken away from him, but their absence is enough to lead him to become a fugitive (and at the same time an entertainment show on TV).

In the end Dystopia is not so much about fear but more about lacking, emptiness.

Science Fiction & Political Thought

Sarah E. Bradley said...

Wow Elena, i completely agree on the showers, but now that you mention it, what if we had to walk everywhere, i mean seriously, everywhere. Cars, buses, bikes, gone. That would really change a lot of things. How often would people even leave their towns?

Anonymous said...

I love this way of thinking about dystopia - especially the shower business - and I've never quite dissected my WIP like this before. I would say I fear losing my individuality most, but that's awfully broad, isn't it?

Colour, though. A world without colour would be terribly sad.

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