Guest Post: “Crafting a Believable Dystopian World” by Madeline Dyer

By Madeline Dyer

As a writer of dystopian fiction, I often get asked: “How do you create a dystopian society?” or “How do you make such a world seem believable?” And those are excellent questions. A lot of work goes into crafting a believable dystopian world, and before I even begin writing the first chapter, I spend days researching and jotting down ideas. It’s often the case that only after I’ve spent a few weeks (at least) mulling over possible ideas for the basis of my dystopian society, and delving into all the minute details of it, do I realise whether it is viable or not to set a story in that world. There’s nothing worse than a great plot being let down by holes and contradictions in the world building.

By definition, a dystopia is a frightening society. Most commonly, a dystopia reveals how a societal system that was originally intended to improve people’s lives has actually created oppressive circumstances. Dystopian fiction usually has a dark gritty tone and a strong social message, where the dystopian world acts as a warning of what could happen in real life. Of course, it’s unlikely to happen, but the possibility must be there; one of the most important things with a dystopia is how it interacts with the real world. And that means your dystopian world absolutely must be believable and as realistically portrayed as possible.

To craft a believable dystopian world, you need to know everything about your world. And by ‘everything’, I really do mean everything. How did this world emerge? What is the society like? What are the rules/laws? How is the law enforced? How do people live? How are people divided? How do people feel about this system they live in? What currently stops them from rebelling? Has anyone rebelled? What are the consequences?

Basically, you’re creating a whole new society. Think about the one we live in now: how we operate, how things are run, how we behave, what the norms are, what the problems are. You need to know all of this for your dystopian world—and more. And you need to make sure you know the answers to any questions about this world—and that your readers know these answers too.

Creating a Dystopia: the Foundations

Because many dystopian novels call for change and incorporate a strong social message, dystopian societies explore the consequences of what happens when things are run differently, or when one thing is favoured over another. Building your dystopian world on the basis on an existing issue, (one that has the potential to become a huge problem), will immediately make your dystopian world more believable.

Problems and issues that are typically explored in dystopian fiction include politics and governments, the economy, poverty, loss, climate change, the true nature of man, technology and scientific advances. A good way to create a dystopian world is to take one of these issues and exaggerate it beyond all current proportions and show the oppressing side effects. Because you’re creating a dystopia, your society must be frightening. It must be a place where we wouldn’t want to live. It has to make us feel fear. There must be the imminent threat of loss throughout, and a strong sense of danger that accompanies the magnification of the issue explored. For example, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games exaggerates the rich/poor divide, as well as exploring how far people can go in the name of ‘entertainment’, depicting the suffering and violence this causes. Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy explores the notions of divisions, experimentation and control, as well as how far people will go for power, thereby emphasising the risks of dehumanisation.

Once you’ve decided which theme and issue your world is going to explore, you’ll need to focus on how the exaggeration of this issue or problem is going to cause damage to your society. Will it oppress men? Will it have dehumanising effects? Will it result in violence? Or will it be the ‘solution’ to this problem that actually damages society more? Perhaps the only way to keep this problem under control is through a method that causes a loss of free will, imprisonment and the degeneration of man? But without this ‘solution’ would the exaggerated problem get worse, causing more oppression?

If you do include a ‘solution’ for the problem, then you need to know everything about this ‘solution’ and how society has been ‘fixed’.You need to work out why such a ‘solution’ would initially have been chosen, and how it’s gone so wrong. How long did it take for this to happen? Was there initial distrust of this ‘solution’, or were the bad effects only realised later? What is at stake? What will happen or be lost if nothing is done? What are the consequences—both for past actions and developments and potential ones? Is there a way to reverse the damage the solution is already causing? Or to prevent more damage and loss? Why is it apparently so difficult for your characters to fix it (because it must be difficult)? Who is trying to stop your characters from disobeying their new societal system or trying to change it?

Another way of creating a dystopian premise is to toy with the idea of taking something away, (something that is essential in our everyday life), and seeing how that changes a society, and the complications and consequences that arise from this. Or, how about exploring what would happen if something was added? Something completely unexpected. Something that sends the world into chaos where new systems and strategies have to be introduced almost overnight. This is the case with Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave, which deals with an alien invasion and how that affects the human population, changing their society and values.

Remember, young adult dystopian fiction is big at the moment. So many worlds have already been created, with so many problems ‘fixed’. Of course, it’s unlikely you’re going to come up with a completely new idea—because haven’t all storylines already been done?—but the execution of your idea is where you can shine. And crafting a believable dystopian world comes into this.

And, remember, even if everything that you plan out doesn’t actually go into your book, if you write your manuscript knowing this, the world will automatically be more believable to readers. And, perhaps most importantly, you need to know exactly why this new ‘solution’ has made your world so frightening. Remember, the crucial thing is how your dystopian world interacts with the current world, so if readers can notice how small parts of your world tie into the world/society they live in, immediately this link helps to make your world more believable.

Creating a Dystopia: Knowing the History of this World

Knowing how your dystopian world operates is only one step of the process of crafting a believable world. In order to make your world as believable as possible to readers, you need to be able to show how this dystopia evolved. History plays a vital role in our society, and it will in your dystopian society too. The more details you can give about every aspect of your world, the better and more believable it will be.

How exactly did things get into the state they are now? Was it a slow process? Or a quick one? Was there opposition? If there was, how was that sorted? Are there still consequences from previous opposition now? Can any of the people in your world remember the ‘old world’? If country names and boundaries have changed, when did this happen? Is the history of their society taught to the people in your dystopian world? Is the past state of society used as a threat against them?

Those are just some of the questions you need to ask yourself. The more detail you can put in about the transition from the present-day world to your dystopian world, the more believable your world will be.

Creating a Dystopia: the System and the People

Now that you’ve created your own dystopian society and you know exactly why this world is a frightening place, you need to work out the details of how this society runs. We need to know everything. Why has no one instigated change before? What’s stopping them? Who is in charge? What type of government is in place? Who is in power? Who is oppressed? Can those people see that they’re being oppressed? Or can they see it some areas, but not others? What will happen if nothing is changed? How are laws and rules enforced? What punishments are used? How are criminals dealt with? Who is viewed as a criminal?

Other questions to think about include: how similar is this society to ours? How different is it? What is the economy like? Is it fair and equal to everyone? Who is privileged? Is there a healthcare system? Does everyone have access to it? What about education? And what is taught in schools?

An important thing to consider here is gender relations. Which gender is more privileged than the other? Of course, you don’t have to stick to binary genders here either.

Another part of crafting a believable dystopian world is understanding how your characters interact with the world they live in. You know how such a society was created, but how do your people really live? In cities? Or in rural areas? What do they wear? What is their culture? How do they name people and things? Which types of technology do they use? Or is technology feared? What are their rituals and beliefs? Which religions are the most dominant?

To what extent is equality an issue (because it nearly always is an issue in dystopian fiction)? What about class systems? Who is discriminated against? How different are the characters’ attitudes to given things than to ours? What’s the dominant ideology? And ethics? How many hours is one expected to work each week? How can an individual aspire to get more power and status? How do different people react to the oppression?

Remember, if someone’s grown up in a culture so different to ours, is that person really going to be able to see their own culture—and its flaws—in the same light that we see it as outsiders? This point is particularly useful to keep in mind if you’re writing in the first person. But this isn’t to say that your main character won’t see that there’s anything wrong with their world at all; there still needs to be tension and conflict. Those two things are vital to any plot, and it is the characters’ motivations and the goals that they set themselves that should drive the plot.

Creating a Dystopia: the Little Details

There are still many, many details left to iron out, and quite frankly, you’re not going to get them all sorted quickly—if at all. You just need to account for as many of these details as possible so that your readers aren’t being drawn away from the plot to ask questions about the world that they’re being asked to temporary live in.

So, you’ll need to know how food is produced in this dystopian world: is there still farming? Or is genetically engineered food the norm? How much food is available? How is it divided between people?

What about water? Pollution? Contamination?

What is the climate of the world like? Why is it like that? How does that affect the people who live in it? Do they inhabit all areas? Which plants are able to grow in this environment? Which animals are present? At this stage, creating a map can be very helpful.

As you can see, once you really get exploring your dystopian world, more and more questions will crop up—and, by no means are the questions I’ve mentioned in this article the only questions you should consider. But it is only through delving into your world and exploring it thoroughly that you can really begin to get to know it, and learn exactly how your dystopian world operates.

Your Dystopian World Must Feel Real to You

Your world must feel real to you. Only once you know absolutely everything that you can know, will your world begin to seem real to you. And it must seem real to you, if it’s to seem real to your characters and at all believable to your readers.  And believability is something that you definitely want. There’s no fun in reading a book where the characters seem unintentionally confused by the world they’ve been placed in; where the author regularly gives contradictions regarding the rules of their world and how it came to be; or where there are so many holes in the creation of the world that the reader notices them more than the actual world’s rules. In fact, quite frankly, this wouldn’t be a great book to read. And, given just how successful dystopian fiction is in the young adult market today, readers would probably drop your book for something more favourably written and better thought out.

I like to think of the world and setting as the foundations to the plot. If you’ve not crafted a strong, believable world, then it doesn’t matter how strong your characterisation is, or how excellent your plot is—there will be cracks across the whole book. And with how in dystopian fiction it is usually an incident of unjust societal oppression that spurs the main character to attempt to instigate change, the world you’ve built will be directly linked to characters’ motivations and the plot.

The Importance of Planning Your Dystopian World

As I’ve said, to achieve a sense of realism in your dystopian world, you will need to know everything about your world, including its rules. For this reason, I find it very hard to write a dystopian novel without doing a lot of planning beforehand. If I’m going to place characters in a new world, I need to know everything.

Often, when writing the first draft, even after carrying out countless amounts of research and spending hours plotting, you won’t convey your dystopian world in the most believable way that you could. There will still be holes, and you’ll have to go through it time and time again.

Before I started writing my first YA dystopian novel, Untamed, I was sure that I understood the world I’d created. But it was only after I’d finished the second draft and explored all the characters’ motivations in detail—and how they were reacting against this unfair world—did I realise that I only thought I knew my world well. It turned out, I didn’t. Not really. There were lots of holes. A few minor contradictions, as well as things that didn’t make sense, especially regarding the history of my world and timelines. And although I knew that there were aspects of my world that weren’t working, I couldn’t necessarily work out exactly what it was that needed fixing. I was too close to my manuscript to see them. It was only after a break, and getting feedback from several other writers and critique-partners, that I was able to see the areas of my dystopian world that needed more clarification and definition.

A great way to make sure you’ve covered all these questions and aspects involved in crafting a believable world is to tell someone else about your world. Ideally this should be a person who doesn’t know a thing about your plans for this world. Explain everything to this person—a friend, a fellow writer, or a family member, perhaps—and then let them ask questions. Often, when there are holes in the world that we’ve created, the author is too close to see the holes. Having a fresh set of eyes to look can be really beneficial. Especially when they can point out a whole new side of things that we’ve overlooked. And encourage them to ask questions. Find out what they want to know, that you haven’t yet covered.

Of course, the answers to all the questions I’ve outlined above, in regards to crafting a believable dystopian world, should tie together and make logical sense. The dystopian world you create will be more believable to readers if it works as a whole, rather than as individual fragments. And it should be logical.

It’s very likely that the majority of the details that you know about your world won’t even come into your manuscript at all. But it’s still vital that you know about them. That way, when you’re writing you’re likely to subconsciously slip in details that reinforce ideas, as well as suggesting and reinforcing the motives of characters, because that information has come naturally to you. If you have to stop and think about every detail you want to put in, as you’re writing, the chances are your pace will become jilted and you’ll lose the momentum, as well as bringing in quite a few contradictions, if you’re adding in details that you’re making up on the spot every time.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you can’t create a believable world unless you’ve done your planning and created your world before hand—it’s just likely to be a lot harder with room for more errors.

And another thing: remember, the art of creating not only a believable world, but an engaging storyline is all about how you deliver the rules of your world to your reader. As soon as possible, your readers need to know the rules of your world, but this doesn’t mean you should dump a load of information on them in Chapter One. No, you still need your writing to be engaging. You need to write the opening of your novel as if the reader already knows—because the characters most certainly do—but, as you do it, feed in little snippets of explanations until, as soon as possible (and ideally within the first chapter), your reader knows two of the most important things about your dystopian world: why the society or system is a threat in its existing state, and why nothing so far has (successfully) been done about it.

A great way to explore how other writers introduce new worlds in an engaging manner is to read as much as you can. Never underestimate the benefits of reading other dystopian novels. Take a look at how other authors craft their worlds, and which ones feel more believable to you. Work out why, and examine what they do. And read outside your genre. A lot of speculative fiction novels—fantasy and science fiction especially—are set in new worlds. Learn what you can from them, and have fun exploring the world you’re creating.

Remember: the believability of your dystopian world essentially boils down to knowing your world. It has to be real to you, for it to be believable to anyone else. If you don’t believe in it, how do you expect your readers to?


Madeline Dyer is the author of Untamed, a YA dystopian novel releasing from Prizm Books on 20th May 2015. Madeline is currently working on book two in the Untamed Series, as well as a new YA dystopian novel.

Untamed will be available to buy through Prizm Books, Torquere Press, Amazon and good bookstores from 20th May 2015.