I’ve been trying my hand at writing dystopian science fiction, but I always feel unsatisfied with the end product. As much as I try, it’s like I keep treading the same ground other writers in the genre have walked upon to death with my characters. What do you think I should take into consideration when trying to write a dystopian story with characters that don’t feel like standard cut-and-paste genre caricatures?

By having something to say. Without exception dystopian lit is political. It’s a genre founded in the axiom, “be careful what you wish for;” using human misery to drive the point home. The payoff is always the argument you’re making in the process.

In writing a dystopia, you’re asking your readers to inhabit a fundamentally horrible world for awhile. You need to do something to justify that. It can be compelling characters, but that’s more of an end than means. If your world exists for a reason, it will go a long way towards explaining what is there, and giving it the unique identity it needs.

Also, don’t assume you need to be writing a fascist state. I see a lot of writers conflate these, don’t make the same mistake.

You do need a setting that makes sense. Ask your self how “normal” people go about their day to day lives. This is just general world building advice, but it’s incredibly important when you’re setting up a dystopia.

No one is stopping you from cranking your setting too far. Making things too desperate and bleak. But, for a functioning dystopia, you need people buying into the system, because what they gain through participation is more valuable than what they’re giving up.

One very good way to handle this is by hiding the unsavory nature under a veneer of public safety or health. “They’re not rounding up political opponents; those are just ‘the mentally ill,’ It’s for their own good, really, they’ll be sent to reeducation centers.” There’s a part of your brain that knows how horribly wrong that is, but if it sounds legitimate, that dissonance will serve your setting fantastically.

Also playing in the opposite direction is also useful for selling a setting that’s gone off the rails are excessive propaganda. Playing up how wonderful the world’s system is, even while the audience is shown the real horrors lurking under the surface. Orwell’s 1984 has a wonderful (read: horrific) take on this by rewriting the language people use to deny them the ability to dissent.

It’s important to understand that an effective dystopia needs people that will actively defend the status quo and view it as desirable. Either they actually benefit from it, or because they think that, one day, they will benefit from it.

In case you really want to run with fascism anyway, here’s a few things to point out.

Almost universally, fascism starts in a desire for revenge, marching lock step with nationalistic pride. The poster children of Fascism, the Nazis, came to power by appealing to the German peoples’ resentment over World War I reparations, which had left their country in economic shambles.

Fascism frequently secures it’s power base by playing bullies. That is to say, they pick a culturally acceptable target and start going after them as a means to make everyone else feel better about themselves. This could be an ethic group, a sexual orientation, political or philosophical ideology. They vilify that group, and let everyone else feel good about going after them. It’s important to remember, those targets aren’t picked out of a hat, they play on existing social prejudices; sanctioning and playing into them.

They also thrive on giving petty people enormous power to mess with people. Police and low level bureaucrats are given extreme power and allowed to run roughshod over the “little people.” Again, playing bullies. This also often includes picking members from the oppressed group to police their own. The expressed argument is that they are best suited to “protect” their own from outside oppression, but the truth is they will often be far more brutal, and provide a mitigating factor to keep the oppressed from looking at the true abusers.

The biggest possible mistake about a fascist system is dehumanizing the oppressors. They’re still exploiting and/or bullying the people under them, but they are humans who are making decisions based on the information they have. Someone who is evil in an understandable way is far more threatening and disturbing than someone engaged in cartoon supervillainy.

Again, you can just as easily present a dystopia that’s democratic. In some ways it’s easier, because unless you’re specifically talking about governmental overreach, then a fascist state is only going to muddy whatever you’re trying to talk about.

So, here’s a few classic dystopian novels to get you started: Just, fair warning, there’s only one book on this list that I actually enjoy. Don’t expect a lot of happy endings, this isn’t that kind of a list.

Handmaid’s Tale by Margret Atwood. This is a story about a woman caught in a Christian theocracy in the United States. Make sure you read the appendix, it provides a lot of background about the world from the perspective of in-setting academics analyzing the tapes that frame the book.

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. If you thought dystopias couldn’t happen in the real world, I’m sorry. Ivan Denisovitch is partially based on Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in the Soviet gulag system. I hesitate to call it “autobiographical,” but it’s not using a fictional world.

Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany, by Hans J. Massaquoi. It’s The Third Reich, really, any discussion on fascism should probably include this. By focusing on the German people, the discussion revolves around anecdotes about the effectiveness propaganda so great that even those who do not benefit and are ostracized (such as Hans) buy into it. Nazi Germany is often treated as an anomaly in fiction, this is a good reminder that not only did it happen but it can happen again, anywhere.

Native Son by Richard Wright. Because 1930s Chicago isn’t your first thought for dystopian fiction. Except, here it is. A classic of the genre, where you didn’t expect to see it.

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. White Tiger is almost a more comical take on Native Son. Set in modern day India, it deals with a similar narrative. It’s the only novel on the list from the last 20 years, but at this point you could probably use some comic relief. It also presents realities of a modern day dystopia that’s heavily grounded in the real world.

Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell. I don’t like either of these, but Orwell is still in print for a reason. Animal Farm does make more sense if you’re familiar with the Russian revolution. And, of course, 1984 is the book on oppressive dystopian governments. If you haven’t read it by now, you need to.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. If I’m honest, I don’t think Bradbury knows what he was saying, or what the book even means. But, he was certainly trying to say something. Probably, about the corrosive nature on popular culture on classical literature. But, I’m guessing. Regardless, it’s worth your time, especially to expand your toolbox of social manipulation from 1984.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. So… I skipped most of this when it was assigned in college. Sinclair was trying to advocate for safer work conditions, but instead lead to increased regulation of food production in America. As with Native Son, this is just America, no sinister space Nazis needed.