When writing dystopian fiction in our somewhat dystopian society of 2020, everything you thought you knew about writing speculative fiction has been turned on its head.
Dystopian meaning: A dystopian world is one where there is great suffering or injustice. Stories of struggle are often set within a dystopian society in these books. Usually set in the future, dystopian fiction books are often aimed at the young adult book market. The Handmaid’s Tale is a famous dystopian series and 1984 is a dystopian novel.
I think you’ll agree with me when I say that 2020 is turning out to be the strangest year that any of us have ever experienced. And as authors who try to analyse events and capture the fears and feelings of our readers, it’s doubly difficult to write dystopian fiction.
Ten years ago I began writing a novel while at university. It was a detective crime thriller story, set in a dystopian society, in a world that had been ravaged by a virus. Militaries had seized control of governments and citizens lived under restricted conditions, similar to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Strangely enough, in the novel Britain had left the EU, something I thought would never possibly happen at the time. I wanted it to be a wild, unusual and frightening world in which to set a detective novel.
Here’s the quick blurb from the novel:
Detective Ellie Harper was investigating a grisly murder scene, when the victim’s body stood up.
Charlie loves to kill and he’s itching to do it again. When his police escorts are murdered, he sees his chance to escape.
Hannah’s parents are dead and there is a stranger in her house.
Summoned to an emergency meeting, Ellie learns that the world faces a new threat. A virus unleashed. With the world in lockdown, Ellie barely escapes with her life when her train home crashes. The passengers are attacked as they attempt to flee the wreckage.
Alone and afraid, Ellie seeks out other survivors. Together they must fight their way across a ruined city to rescue Ellie’s sister. But with the power out and danger lurking around every corner, this group of strangers are running out of time.
Forced to kill and on the run, can Ellie survive the horrors of this deadly new world? With a killer hidden in their group, will they even survive each other?
This dystopian novel needs a rewrite for two reasons. Firstly, I have improved as a writer over the past ten years. Secondly, the bleak dystopian story is no longer a wildly fantastical piece of writing. Instead, it could easily be a report of normal life in 2020.
The antagonist in the novel, Charlie, is a serial killer. He murders two police officers, steals one of their uniforms, then embeds himself within a group of survivors lead by the protagonist, Detective Ellie Harper. Given the breakdown of the system, Charlie has the power to do whatever he wishes, with no accountability. This creates an unnerving thriller, where the reader is desperate for him to be discovered and stopped, before it’s too late.
When writing my dystopian fiction novel, if I had decided that the survivors would gather in mass protests against the military government, risking their lives during a global pandemic where one cough could kill you, who would believe it? It would have to be for a just and worthy cause that was worth risking your own life for.
And we can all agree, the right to breathe is the most fundamental of human rights. Whichever way you want to argue it, George Floyd was wrongly robbed of that. It’s something that should never be allowed to happen again.
With devastated cities looking like warzones following riots, where looting is rife (yes, I’m talking about my story, a difficult distinction to make in 2020 I know) what crazy writer would then try to squeeze in plot lines about police brutality, corrupt leaders, minorities being locked up and innocents murdered in the street – the major events in the story would pile on top of each other to create a completely unbelievable world.
And yet, this is the reality of 2020.
Time has made fools of all writers who attempted to push boundaries in their dystopian novels. In a way, readers have also become numb to the events, with little time to process each tragedy before another occurs.
Wildfires, massacres, shootings, stabbings, plane crashes, murder hornets, toppled statues, the threat of world war 3, an impeached president, the death of loved celebrities and even the revelation that UFO’s exist all seem to be met now with muted acknowledgement – none of them getting the true outpouring of grief and time to heal that they each deserve – because each week we expect something new and even more absurd and tragic to happen in our very own dystopian world.
So how can we, as authors of speculative dystopian fiction, capture the feeling of nation?
Societies will never go back to the old ‘normal’ ever again. Instead, a new normal will be established and this should shape our writing.
Firstly, we have learned that humanity is easily capable of operating at extremes. Including extreme stupidity and extreme prejudice. Secondly, a story doesn’t have to only have a single major event. We have seen how quickly one event can trigger multiple others. Thirdly, we need to think bigger. Big events, all interlinked, occurring as a result of each other. Each plotted with the intricate complexities we normally reserve for character development.
Characters don’t just react to events – multiple events can now react to each other.
However, I always like to bring in a message of hope to my dystopian stories. Characters who have overcome the odds to learn valuable lessons, forever changed in a positive way by their experiences.
So how can you give people hope, in what appears to be a hopeless world?
In response to that, I say look at the difference that real people have made. The positive effects of the Black Lives Matter protests include arrests being made and charges being brought against perpetrators, not only of the original incident, but against those who have transgressed and shown their true dark feelings since. Police reforms are being discussed. Many companies have taken a stance against racism in any form. Injustices have been recognised.
In our dystopian fiction novels, we need to write strong protagonists who can achieve the same level of positive change within our fictional stories, with multicultural characters with depth, that reflect modern communities. This is how us writers can have our thoughts and feelings recognised and our voices heard.
Our dystopian stories won’t be comfortable reading, but then speculative dystopian fiction isn’t designed for that. It’s meant to ask the ‘what if’ questions and make readers question the world around them. I don’t know how the story of 2020 will end yet, but I will do everything in my power to ensure that the bad guys will never win, no matter how hard the struggle.
Kindness and respect, always.
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Aaron Mullins (@DrAaronMullins) is an award winning, internationally published psychologist and bestselling author. Aaron has over 15 years experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in business strategy for authors. He owns Paperjoy Press, a publisher specialising in books that support mental health. He previously owned Birdtree Books Publishing where he worked as Editor-in-Chief, partnered with World Reader Charity and taught Academic Writing at Coventry University. Aaron’s book How to Write Fiction: A Creative Writing Guide for Authors has become a staple reference book for writers interested in a publishing career.