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:
The article originally appeared on BEAUTY IN RUINS on April 12, 2012
Ray Bradbury once said that there are three great adventures: being born, living, and dying. Last night Bradbury embarked on that last great adventure when he died at his Los Angeles home at the age of 91.
Bradbury not only had a profound influence on my writing style, but his book The Martian Chronicles inspired me to start writing in the first place. We exchanged a few letters in the 80s and early 90s, and I found him to be an approachable and generous man.
The first time I wrote him, I sent him a copy of the college thesis I’d written about him and his early work: Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. In less than a week I received a note of thanks along with galleys for a new book of criticism of his work another author was publishing.
My first inclination when I heard of Bradbury’s passing was to take time off and read some of his stories in honor of his memory. But I immediately realized that the best memorial to a man who got physically sick if he didn’t write at least two pages every day would be to write. So as soon as I post this, I’ll go back to work on my novel. I’ll read some of his stories later.
In 1966, Ray Bradbury wrote: “I find now, after the fact, chances are Fahrenheit 451 might be around for a few years.”
At that time the short novel, originally published in book form in 1953, had “been around” for 13 years. In 2003 it celebrated its 50th year in print, and now, in 2010, it is still as popular as ever.
Why has this story had such longevity?
Is it because Bradbury reversed a widely accepted premise–instead of putting out fires, future firemen start them? Is it because people are horrified at the idea of censorship? Is it because of the passion with which Bradbury tells his story of rogue fireman Guy Montag?
Perhaps. But I believe the main reason Fahrenheit 451 has become a classic is because of its powerful, three-dimensional, multi-layered storytelling.
On the surface, Fahrenheit 451 appears to be about a Fireman’s new-found love of books and his rebellion against burning them. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Bradbury is painting a picture of a world that has become desensitized, a recurring theme in much of Bradbury’s early work.
In Bradbury’s future, life goes on in the parlors, where the walls are giant, interactive television screens. People plug their ears with seashell radios, even while they’re asleep, and they often OD on sleeping pills in order to get to sleep. They drive more than a hundred miles per hour to have fun. They avoid thoughts of death or anything else that makes them unhappy; five minutes after a person dies, his or her body is dumped into a giant incinerator and reduced to ashes. Even in his descriptions of Montag’s wife Bradbury symbolizes the drab artificiality of the society:
“Mildred stood over his bed, curiously. He felt her there, he saw her without opening his eyes, her hair burnt by chemicals to a brittle straw, her eyes with a kind of cataract unseen but suspect far behind the pupils, the reddened pouting lips, the body as thin as a praying mantis from dieting, and her flesh like white bacon. He could remember her no other way.”
“She ran past with her body stiff, her face floured with powder, her mouth gone, without lipstick.”
Bradbury also gives us a credible villain in Captain Beatty. Although Montag is a mouthpiece for the author, Beatty makes a good argument that books cause unhappiness and should be eliminated–because the focus of this society is on happiness and not on thinking too much.
But Montag suspects that people are not happy. The television walls, the driving at super high speeds–and hitting things that wander unaware into their paths–the seashell radios, and the giant flues where dead bodies are reduced to ashes in a second anesthetize them, numb their pain. If they don’t think, they can’t be unhappy. And books make them think.
Bradbury suggests through Montag and Faber–a retired English professor who, after initially being frightened to openly oppose the status quo, helps Montag with his rebellion against conformity–that only when one thinks and feels, is one truly alive; stop thinking and feeling, and you become a zombie.
Although for the most part the technology is a bit dated–Bradbury missed the Internet entirely, and communications are still snail-mailed–his prediction that television would play a major role in the mind-numbing of future generations appears to have been right on. That was a pretty astute speculation for 1950 (when Bradbury wrote his original novella, The Fireman, which was published in Galaxy Science Fiction) when many folks did not realize the powerful force that television would become.
I would have to agree with Bradbury’s other prediction in 1966; I think Fahrenheit 451 will be around for a few more years. Although it gets a little preachy at times, is a powerful story and encourages us to think. I highly recommend it.