Writing a Dystopian Novel: Balancing World-Building with Character-Building

Occasionally I’ve heard science fiction writers complain that in order to create a future world or alternate reality they have to sacrifice characterization; to create a world and to create characters would take too long, be too wordy, and might bore the readers.

That is crap. It’s an excuse used by 1) lazy writers who don’t want to bother with characterization, and 2) inexperienced writers who haven’t yet learned to “show, don’t tell.”

Ray Bradbury created an unfamiliar world populated with well-defined characters in Fahrenheit 451, as did Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, as did Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games, as have many other science fiction and fantasy writers.

You don’t need to waste lots of words describing your futuristic world; a few well-chosen words will do. In one of his stories, Robert A. Heinlein has doors that operate like camera shutters; they open automatically when someone approaches them and close after the character has passed through. To communicate this concept to his readers, as his character approaches a door, Heinlein writes three words: “The door dilated.”

Similarly, don’t waste words describing your characters; show them in action. The best way to engage your readers is to create characters who are like them, characters who want the same things and who react emotionally in the same ways. This establishes an emotional bond between your characters and your readers.

To create a dystopian world, find something that may be slightly wrong in our contemporary society and exaggerate it so that it is has caused your future society to be seriously out of whack. For example, Ray Bradbury took censorship to the next level in Fahrenheit 451 when he envisioned a future in which firemen seek out illegal collections of books and burn them.

So you have characters to whom your readers can relate, and you have a society in which something is broken. Now combine the two.

Remember that, although the characters have an emotional tie to contemporary readers, their thoughts and actions must be consistent with the society in which they live. In Fahrenheit 451, for example, at the front of the characters’ minds all the time is the knowledge that possessing a book is a serious crime. They know also that speeding 100 miles per hour down the freeway and trying to hit anything that moves is a good, and accepted, form of recreation.

That’s it in a nutshell. Writing a solid dystopian story is as easy as writing a contemporary story if you follow these three guidelines:

  • Create characters of the future to whom contemporary readers can relate
  • Exaggerate a flaw in contemporary society until you’ve created a world that is seriously broken
  • The thoughts and actions of the characters must be consistent with the society in which they live

Good Luck!

The article originally appeared on BEAUTY IN RUINS on April 12, 2012

Categories: Books, Writing Fiction

Tagged as: , , , , , , , ,

4 replies »

  1. Phew, Dave that was fast. Who said science fiction was not true? I have just leapt in time from your April 2010 web comment site to your September 2012 page. I had not noticed the forward arrows before… here we are in the future… or is this the present?

    David in this post I agree with you, a writer must give the reader a character description to relate to, preferably in the early stages of introduction. As your story unfolds each character is then understood having their own reasons for doing what they are placed in the story to do. However, I can’t see how a writer can “create characters who are like them,” (the reader,) “characters who react emotionally in the same ways. This establishes an emotional bond between your characters and your readers.” Now you must agree, we authors have no idea who will ultimately read our books… emotional bond. the reader could be an axe murderer.

    I think most readers relate to a well researched could be true “realistic fiction” story. A story with a good riveting plot, with a few sub-plots that unfold as the reader just starts to think they have the answer.

    I know, you are going to say this would make a story too complicated and boring, well try getting your head around J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series or 2001 Space Odyssey… One stiff scotch would ruin anybody’s concentration.

    In Fahrenheit 451, or Celsius 232.778 the story is pure science fiction and a good read. You know, only the USA and Jamaica still use the old Fahrenheit. This novel is set in the 24th century, maybe America will still use the Fahrenheit scale in another 300 years? Realistic fiction is what readers can and will relate too.

    As my Daddy used to say, why tell a lie when you can say something that is close to the truth. Have a look at my example in “The 9th Place.”

    Kind regards Niven.


  2. Thanks for your comments, Niven. But I think you misunderstood when I suggested that writers create characters “who are like them.” Whatever story you write is going to be read by a specific audience (and the writer must know who that audience is in order to market the story effectively). For instance, I don’t think axe murderers form a very large target market, so it probably isn’t one most writers will go after.

    Everyone has the same emotions. A good writer observes how people respond to anger, love, fear, etc. We don’t all respond the same way to these emotions, but your characters need to respond in ways that your readers will recognize and relate to. An example of a story I couldn’t relate to is a science fiction story in which the characters lived more than 100,000 years. That was outside of my experience, and the story quickly bored me.

    It is true that readers can and will relate to realistic fiction; however, J.K. Rowling has proven that there is also a commanding audience for fantasy.


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