Writing Dystopian NovelsFeb 07, 2021
Utopia and Dystopia are a hair's breadth apart, explains our writing coach Polly Ho-Yen, author of Dark Lullaby in which a mother desperately tries to keep her family together in a society where parenting standards are strictly monitored.
Utopia came first. Written in Latin and published in 1516, Thomas More first coined the phrase as the title for his work of fiction and socio-political satire – ‘a little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in a state and about the new island Utopia’. More portrays a socialist idyll of hospitals and shared food. (Not all the details are so homogenously equal but considering the time it was written, there’s a lot that seems remarkable.) But utopia literally means ‘nowhere’, from Greek ou ‘not’ and topos ‘place’; this was somewhere that could not be found.
(Warning: Spoilers for We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1984 by George Orwell, A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Children of Men by PD James.)
Moving on to what’s considered the first dystopian novel, We (1921) by Yevgeny Zamyatin, one emerges in One State, a world of glass boxes for homes, where life is managed and contained by The Benefactor. Perhaps it looks like a utopia – unless you happen to be unlucky enough to be living within it. The protagonist D-503 only has to dream to be considered mentally deficient. But by the end of the novel, he’s submitted to an operation to remove his imagination and seemingly believes himself to be in a utopian state of mind:
No more delirium, no absurd metaphors, no feelings,—only facts. For I am healthy, perfectly, absolutely healthy.... I am smiling; I cannot help smiling; a splinter has been taken out of my head and I feel so light, so empty! To be more exact, not empty, but there is nothing foreign, nothing that prevents me from smiling. (Smiling is the normal state for a normal human being).
As Naomi Alderman, author of The Power puts it: ‘Utopias and dystopias can exist side by side, even in the same moment. Which one you're in depends entirely on your point of view.’
I find considering utopia and dystopia in this way, in relation and conversation with each other, a rich thinking point. It’s an incredibly useful approach to thinking of how a character’s internal journey will develop throughout a story. How might their point of view alter so much that what at first would appear as a dystopia to them may at the end feel utopic? What would have happened to them for such a change to occur? Would it be something as drastic as the operation from We or the imprisonment and torture of Winston in Orwell’s 1984? Or perhaps a changed point of view could come from something learned.
The Channel 4 series Utopia, a show about an engineered virus that would sterilize 95% of the human race to avert overpopulation, illustrates this journey masterfully. From the beginning, you are wholly on the side of the small group who are slowly uncovering (and who are against) the plot of the virus. But as the series develops, you come to consider the antiheroes’ point of view and understand their motivations. Their villainous masks drop as they become so wonderfully human: earnestly trying to do what they think is the right thing, in the right way. A character switches sides, joining the team who want to spread the virus. It’s a momentous yet wholly believable scene.
Another way to look at how a character views the world as a utopia or a dystopia is through the placement of power. Dystopias often follow a totalitarian society where the power lies in the hands of those in charge – the Big Brother of 1984, the Benefactor of We, the Commanders in A Handmaid’s Tale. Or, as Naomi Alderman shows us in The Power, a dystopia might explore society during a period of change. In The Power, which side of the utopia/dystopia coin you land on is dictated by the biology of your sex – the ability to release electrical jolts from their fingers emerges for women only as they become the dominant gender.
Where the power (with a small ‘p’) lies and, importantly, what you imagine power looks like in your story, is key to whether your character’s world is either experienced as a utopia or a dystopia. In my novel, I knew my protagonist would choose to have a child in spite of the overwhelming pressures that the parents in her world encountered. I felt her powerlessness from the beginning. But as I wrote, I found her fighting back with every word.
Writing a Dystopia can help process your anxieties
When I was in the middle of Dark Lullaby, I’d be waiting in the fertility clinic for growth scans of the follicles in my ovaries and then going home to write about a woman who gets pregnant despite all the odds. Though it seems almost ridiculous to admit here, I still felt a distance between what was happening and what I was writing. My dystopia felt like it was actually serving as an escape from the growing, gnawing worry that perhaps despite everything we tried, we would still not conceive.
In fact, it was much more than an escape, although I couldn’t quite see that at the time. Ray Bradbury said of science fiction that the genre ‘pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us.’ I feel the same could be said of dystopia. Though this writing was for me a waking workout of a brutal ‘what if’ ahead of me, it was also a facing up to my present. It pushed me further than I could bear to go than in conversations with my husband, loved ones and even myself. But I was able to contain it: in a turn of phrase, a sentence, a chapter. I could do all the work of processing it through the safe lens of a story and a character who was not myself.
As things increasingly started to feel further and further from my control as we progressed with fertility treatments, writing a protagonist who was taking action was a tonic like no other. At this point, I was writing how the mother was fighting to get her daughter back. She was finding inner strength, and so was I. I was writing a made-up story but I was also telling myself a message: you can do this.
Burn your anxiety out by writing a dystopia, the tagline could read. Of course, I’m not holding up scientific evidence here and this is very much born from personal experience but the more I write, the more I’m struck by how, without any design, the story I’m writing forces me to examine unresolved feelings and push them into the light. In a dystopia, you can end up exploring your very worst fears but by writing through them, they can become manageable.
You’ll never know your characters better than by writing them into a dystopia
If you truly want to know who your characters are then write them into a dystopia. If you want to know how weak they are, how strong they can be, what truly drives them forwards then this is the genre for you. The intrinsic nature of dystopia means that characters are pushed to their very edges and forced to confront what really matters to them.
As 1984 shows us, this can lead to unpleasant awakenings. Orwell demonstrates this through his protagonist Winston to devastating effect. As Winston is interrogated and imprisoned by the Thought Police, the conflict within him to submit or to fight he holds alongside his feelings for Julia, whom he is trying not to betray. Reading Winston’s internal struggle during his imprisonment lies in sharp contrast to the following interaction between Winston and Julia when they both meet again:
'I betrayed you,' she said baldly.
'I betrayed you,' he said.
She gave him another quick look of dislike.
'Sometimes,' she said, 'they threaten you with something you can't stand up to, can't even think about. And then you say, "Don't do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so." And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn't really mean it. But that isn't true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there's no other way of saving yourself, and you're quite ready to save yourself that way. You WANT it to happen to the other person. You don't give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.'
'All you care about is yourself,' he echoed.
Orwell forces Winston (and Julia) to confront their own limitations and in doing so, these characters become completely vulnerable, utterly knowable.
Or consider a different approach seen in Offred in Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. If the military coup had not happened and we instead saw her as a mother of a young family, what would mark her out? Yet in Atwood’s telling of her enslavement, her ordinary becomes extraordinary. The opening chapters take us through Offred’s everyday; her waking in a bare bedroom, a shopping trip. The reader finds Offred in an altered world and begins to grasp that beneath her quiet demeanour, she is forced to walk a tightrope.
Protagonists in a dystopia will often feel themselves being watched. We imagines a society watched over by The Guardians. In 1984, it’s The Thought Police. In A Handmaid’s Tale, it’s The Eyes. The writer of dystopia can be privy to not only their characters’ selves being stripped away but scrutiny of their outward projections too. It’s a harsh examination of a private and public life like no other. The surveillance of the protagonist and their allies as they try to resist the tyranny within a dystopia looms large in these books; it becomes a many-faced yet faceless character all of its own.
As in the Utopia television series, dystopia also pushes you to consider the antagonist closely. In my novel, I created Enforcers who worked for an organization named ‘The Office for Standards in Parenting’ or OSIP – a team mobilised to monitor parenting standards judiciously - and I felt myself irresistibly drawn to exploring who might become part of this observing army. I pondered on how their motivations to become an Enforcer would feel believable, inevitable to the reader. How could it be a person just like you or me, or your neighbour? How could I know them so well to make this decision feel realistic and plausible?
Whichever way you tackle the protagonist’s journey, the stakes naturally fall high and jagged in a dystopia; you will not fail to find that story, story, story that will keep your characters turning, and your reader with you.
Dystopias are all around us
In Dark Lullaby, it is impossible for families not to come under the scrutiny of the organization that monitors parenting, OSIP. The parents that I imagined suffering in my story were trying their best, they were doing a good job, but in the eyes of this organization, it was not enough.
When I tell a parent about this premise, they blanch. Imagining parenting where you’re being watched, scrutinized and openly judged sometimes doesn’t feel so far away from the present, unfortunately. It can be felt in the smallest of expressions, in the silence of a response or in an irate social media post, after you’ve shared a parenting decision you’ve made: that you’ve sleep-trained, that your child plays with your phone, that you cut their finger when trimming their nails using the wrong sized clippers … the list is endless. In Dark Lullaby pressing into that judgmental mindset, formalizing it and dressing it up into a government organisation that existed for the good of children transformed this experience from the everyday to the terrifying.
I like that one of Atwood’s rules for writing for A Handmaid’s Tale was not to include any events that had not happened somewhere, at some time, in her plot.
If I was to create an imaginary garden, I wanted the toads in it to be real … No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities. God is in the details, they say. So is the devil.
Placing your story in reality and then giving it a hard (or gentle) push over the edge into fiction is an incredibly useful tool. It floods your prose with plausibility but gives you, as I’ve touched on earlier, a safe distance to explore what’s happening or happened, too.
And should the circumstances that surround us become overwhelming, if our here and now feels closer to a real-life dystopia than feels comfortable, dystopian fiction can also provide us with a route forward. There’s the possibility, in such a moment, of allowing a sense of powerlessness to overcome us. Writing it into a dystopia challenges this. Imagining what your characters would do in an impossible situation forces you to ask what you would do, how far you would go and ultimately, who might you need to become? Dystopias offer us this agency.
Happy Endings aren’t the be-all and end-all
Winston emerges from Room 101, a broken man. Offred the handmaid is bundled into a car, perhaps by The Eye. D-503’s imagination is removed.
We don’t find happy endings in dystopias. But I am drawn to thinking about the ways that these dystopian endings are evolving.
In We, D-503’s submission to The Benefactor feels absolute:
But on the transverse avenue Forty, we succeeded in establishing a temporary Wall of high voltage waves. And I hope we win. More than that; I am certain we shall win. For Reason must win.
This erosion of self is taken even further by Orwell in 1984:
But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
This contrasts with the ambivalence in the ending in A Handmaid’s Tale, as Offred is taken either by members of the secret police or of the resistance:
And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.
In The Children of Men by PD James, as Julian notices that Theo has taken the ring to become the Warden of England, we see their internal struggle:
Julian looked up at him. For the first time she noticed the ring. She said: “That wasn’t made for your finger.” For a second, no more, he felt something close to irritation. It must be for him to decide when he would take it off. He said: “It’s useful for the present. I shall take it off in time.” She seemed for the moment content, and it might have been his imagination that there was a shadow in her eyes.
PD James has said of this ending that ‘the detective novel affirms our belief in a rational universe because, at the end, the mystery is solved. In The Children of Men there is no such comforting resolution.’
This was something that I wanted to carry into my final scene in Dark Lullaby. Though what I wrote may be viewed as bleak, it felt to me more like a safeguarding – the ability to be with things that should not be, and yet to survive and seek a way forward.
Perhaps in the way that our dreams and nightmares show us that we can survive the worst of things, writing dystopia can do the same.
Are You Writing a Dystopia?
I’ve written a dystopia.
It feels like a confession I have to make. I see their eyes glaze over a little when I tell people because really, right here, right now, why would we want to sink ourselves into a world with an inescapable, nightmarish quality built into its core?
I didn’t mean to do it, I sometimes say, remembering how it began.
It started with a sentence: ‘Mimi was three the last time that I saw her’. I only knew two things as I blindly wrote these words: this story was set in a world where parenting was being monitored to an excessive degree and the mother, my protagonist, would be separated from her young daughter.
I shudder now to remember how little I knew going in.
I’d had the idea about parenting being monitored after experiencing school inspections as a teacher. They’d filled me, and my colleagues, with such dread, cloying paranoia and a constant sense of failure that placing a kernel of this into the heart of a story emotionally magnetized me towards it, even though at this point I was not entirely sure what I was writing.
The opening chapter came easily: a birthday scene, but with none of the usual jollity as the mother knew that this would be the last time she would see her girl. The scene closes as her daughter blows out the candle on her cake to the sound of someone rapping hard on their front door. (I didn’t know for quite some time the mechanics behind exactly why they were being separated.)
I was working on some other books at the time – middle-grade novels and some projects for younger readers – and in that period I started a new job which meant my husband and I moved from London to Bristol and we started renovating a house in the south of the city. We also began talking more seriously about starting a family together as we’d been trying for a while with no luck. But I kept circling back to that tentative beginning - a mother and daughter, a birthday that was a goodbye, a stranger at the door - and I grew it whenever I could.
I knew that in the writing of that first chapter and from my vague, unplanned thoughts for a premise, I had created a huge number of questions for myself. As I started down the long road of plotting and finding solutions, I kept getting stuck on one question in particular: I needed a good reason why parenting was now under this intense scrutiny. As I do whenever I’m stuck with a plot problem I wrote down every reason I could think of – however bad, ludicrous or unbelievable it might seem – but I couldn’t find one that felt right.
At the same time as I was attempting to untangle these thoughts, my husband and I watched by as our friends became parents. Twos became threes, all around us. It seemed to happen gradually and then all at once; a flood of babies. We attended a friend’s birthday party and realised afterwards that we were the only ones there without a child. I learned not to let my face fall, to reply with a steady voice when yet another person would ask me if I had children. I felt each month land as my body would turn with period cramps and I felt a heaviness and a release twist inside me.
My husband and I went to the GP who looked shocked when we told her how long we had been trying for a baby. She went through our health histories and we were referred with a startling efficiency to a specialist. After that, we went through a number of tests and though we braced ourselves for bad news, each time the results came back clear. There was no reason why I wasn’t falling pregnant. It should have happened by now, our doctor said, there’s something else happening here, something that we don’t understand. We were told that out of everyone who experiences subfertility, two-thirds of this group learn the reason why it’s happening. And there’s the other third who, like us, never know the reason why. ‘Unexplained subfertility’ is the term our doctor used.
The answer for my novel was something that I was facing day after day: what if the number of cases of ‘unexplained subfertility’ increased? No one understood why people were experiencing it now and so if that number grew, I fathomed, it might still remain a mystery. And if the children that were born were so few and so precious then wouldn’t it naturally follow that parenting would become more strictly monitored? I’d finally arrived at the crux of my dystopia: the world in my novel would be afflicted with unexplained subfertility and so the women in it would have to go through aggressive fertility treatments in order to become pregnant; families, here, would be rigorously monitored.
I had many more hurdles to clear before this book would emerge into the light (which if I tried to cover in any detail would make this blog piece about as long as the finished book.) I built the story persistently over many drafts with a lot of help from a very committed agent and an incredible, guardian angel editor. I can’t help thinking now that if I’d followed more of the guidance around planning that The Novelry teaches then I wouldn’t have had to unknot and rewrite my story as many times as I did. But the first chapter remains the same – it’s still the birthday scene I imagined, only Mimi’s ended up much younger in the final version. She’s the same age in fact as my daughter whose birthday is next week. Our girl arrived last year after fertility treatments we received at the Bristol Centre for Reproductive Medicine. She also came after a lot of persistence and help.
I’ve just had an email from my editor telling me that finished copies are on their way. She was the one who found its title of Dark Lullaby. I can’t wait to hold a copy in my hands, to have actual physical proof that it’s finished. Every book I write teaches me something and this one felt like a lesson in endurance and belief. And I can’t help thinking that I will return to dystopia for my next novel.
Writing Coach at The Novelry
Polly Ho-Yen is the author of six children’s novels and four children’s picture books. Her children’s books have been nominated for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Award and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. in 2023. Enjoy the online creative writing courses with writer coaching from Polly.