Well, I thought that I’d talk about dystopian fiction today. This is mostly because the dystopian alternate history novel that I’m reading at the moment (a novel from 2012 called “Dominion” by C. J. Sansom. Mild SPOILERS ahead) contains some absolutely perfect examples of one of the most essential (but easily missed) techniques for writing good dystopian fiction.
Although “Dominion” fits into the classic “What if Britain lost WW2?” genre of alternate history fiction, it is even more chilling than other things I’ve seen in the genre for the simple reason that – for some parts of the story – the dystopian elements are kept in the background. In some parts, the story almost just reads like an “ordinary” historical novel set in 1950s Britain.
Even though these “everyday life” elements of the story can slow the first half of story down quite significantly, they are there for a very good reason. By occasionally focusing on the banal, ordinary side of life – Sansom not only makes the story’s more obviously dystopian moments stand out more by contrast, but he also adds a significant amount of chilling realism to the story too.
After all, everyday life is usually ordinary, mundane and banal. And, by showing the characters having to deal with all of this boring everyday stuff (or even seeking refuge in it), the dystopian world of Sansom’s novel seems considerably more chilling.
Not only is this because it makes it easier to relate to the characters, but it’s also because it allows for all kinds of clever (and disturbing) social and political satire too.
For example, there’s one scene in “Dominion” where three of the characters stop off at a pub during a car journey. In the pub, they briefly overhear a few grumpy old men moaning about how the government (which, in the novel, is run by literal fascists) isn’t treating unemployed people harshly enough.
This disturbing dialogue segment could, almost word for word, probably be heard in some actual pubs during the early-mid 2010s (eg: during Iain Duncan Smith’s tenure as Work and Pensions secretary, when he tried to introduce an unlawful “work programme” ). This scene is an utterly brilliant, but very disturbing, piece of social and political satire. And it works because of how ordinary, mundane and everyday it is.
Likewise, the way that some of the many horrors in the story are sometimes pushed into the background also mirrors how people cope with the idea of bad things happening in the world.
In other words, showing the characters in a dystopian story sometimes focusing more on mundane everyday life (instead of thinking about all of the horrors that are happening out of sight) lends the story a chilling level of timeless realism. Especially in an age where, thanks to modern news media, we hear about all of the horrors of the world on a very regular basis.
In addition to this, a more obvious focus on the ordinary and everyday also helps to add a chilling sense of powerlessness to a dystopian story. For example, many of the more famous classic works of dystopian fiction deliberately avoid focusing on obviously “heroic”, powerful or influential characters.
For example, the protagonist of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a low-level bureaucrat, the protagonist of Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is literally a prisoner and the protagonist of Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451” is a low-ranking government henchman.
By focusing on characters who lead miserable “ordinary” lives in the dystopian worlds of these stories, the writers are able to create a chilling sense of powerlessness that you probably wouldn’t get with a more obviously heroic Katniss Everdeen -like main character.
Yes, your dystopian story obviously has to have moments of suspense, drama etc.. too. But don’t overlook the banal, the mundane and the ordinary too. It is these things that can really bring a horrifying fictional dystopia to life!
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂