dystopian & post-apocalyptic lit

Dystopian & Post-Apocalyptic Lit: Final Questions

Figure 1. The Governor is a one-eyed villainous bastard, yes. But a COMPLEX one-eyed villainous bastard.

Figure 1. The Governor is a one-eyed villainous bastard, yes. But a COMPLEX one-eyed villainous bastard.


Here are the rest of the questions from the Loft Teen Writer Conference which I will answer in a quick-and-dirty dumbshitty manner:

Why are girly-girls portrayed as mean/dumb/shallow (Glimmer from The Hunger Games is one example)?

The world doesn’t like women, no matter what they do. This is the nature of patriarchy. Even people criticize Katniss for being too cold and unemotional. I am sorry we live in this world, young student. But go forth and write girls however you like, because we need to keep telling girl stories, however and whatever they are.

Why is the main character always being controlled?

The nature of dystopia is generally such that individual freedom is not valued. The system or the structure always must be obeyed.

In post-apocalyptic fiction, the demands of survival are what typically control the characters. There is no time for individual frippery or leisure or goopy feeling, generally.

What is the hardest thing about writing either post-apocalyptic or dystopian stories?

Speaking as someone who doesn’t write such stories, I would say EVERYTHING is hard!

But more seriously, the difficult task, I think, would be speculating about a world that is broken/destroyed/reengineered. This, at least, is where I see faults in some of these stories; the dystopian world presented doesn’t seem likely, or the smashing of civilization is unclear/hurried.

How do you create strong characters that stick with the reader?

Make your characters want or need something that they can’t easily get. Remember that sometimes your character will just want a hot cup of coffee or a good night’s sleep, not just world peace or true love. Provide hand-holds for the reader that establish humanity, regardless if character is a villain or the world is on another strange planet: people need sleep, food, amusement, shelter, etc. Providing for your characters in these ways gives the reader a sense of their bodies moving through this unfamiliar landscape.

Is it easier to write dystopian/post-apocalyptic stories than ‘normal’ fiction?

Nothing about writing stories is easy.

Do dystopian novels always have an unstable government system?

Well, it depends on where you encounter the government in the narrative. Often the government is rock-solid at the story’s beginning; discovering the cracks happens slowly as the story moves forward. Restricted information is a hallmark of dystopian fiction; what may seem like a nice system with the trains running on time may only be the surface view and when one looks closer (which is the call of the standard dystopian hero/heroine), it’s apparent that there are many flaws and weak links.

Why does the government in these stories always get overthrown?

The structure is the bad-guy, for sure, in either dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction. And maybe this is because we understand our own government to be imperfect, too. Or we can easily point to lousy governing bodies all over this fine planet of ours. A structure, impersonal and powerful as it is, can be a wonderful villain, too. Especially when we really like delicious, multi-faceted villains these days, it’s nice to pin blame on a system instead of some Big Bad Evil Guy, you know?


I like reading Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic fiction a lot. Really looking forward to the third book in Veronica Rossi’s trilogy, Into The Still Blue, which comes out in January. Though I never write such things, I do love to talk about them. Perhaps this summer I’ll teach another class on the topic at The Loft?

For all the dystopian/post-apocalyptic musings on this blog, go here.

For a Walking Dead-specific fiction discussion, check out this post from Teen Librarian Toolbox.



Dystopian & Post-Apocalyptic Lit: Still More Questions

Figure 1. People in post-apocalyptses & dystopias want slurpees.

Figure 1. People in post-apocalypses & dystopias want slurpees.


Today’s questions:

Why are a lot of post-apocalyptic books violent?

Why do so many dystopian stories feature unlikely endings (happy ones)?

Short/Dumbshitty Answers:

1) The world is violent, now, in the pre-apocalypse.

2) Readers like happy endings.

Longer/More Thoughtful Answer:

The definition of “apocalypse” is a good place to start:

APOCALYPSE: a great disaster : a sudden and very bad event that causes much fear, loss, or destruction

Okay, so we know that even in the best of times, we live in a world where people are stampeded to death while lining up in front of Walmart to get discounted DVD players, right? So if people are capable of violence over things that are petty and trivial, then imagine what they’re capable of when all social order has been removed.

Granted, most people don’t obey the rules because there are rules. They obey the rules because they know that they wouldn’t want anyone stealing their stuff or fucking their husband or knocking over their trash cans in the middle of the night. Plus they know doing that kind of stuff is terrible; not a lot of people feel good doing terrible things.

But laws/rules also represent more than punishment. Breaking the law and getting caught also happens to be a pretty goddamn big hassle. Normal people don’t want to go to jail or trial or any of that crap. So it’s just easier to follow the rules.

Figure 2. Sometimes you just need to ask yourself: WHAT WOULD MICHONNE DO?

Figure 2. Sometimes you just need to ask yourself: WHAT WOULD MICHONNE DO?

However, rules aren’t just words on a sign. Rules have whole institutions behind them that shore up the punishment and consequences. There’s a whole battalion of processes behind rules. Social shame, loss of reputation, fees and fines, future employers finding out you’re a goddamn criminal = just a few of those processes. So punishment – incarceration – isn’t the only reason people follow rules.

But living in a post-apocalypse means that the institutions backing up the rules are gone. The other ramifications of rule-breaking beyond punishment are gone. So if you are hungry, it’s that much easier to steal food in an apocalypse. And if you have to kill someone to steal food, because you and your loved ones are starving, then you either learn to be violent or you starve.

At least this is my guess. Since I’m an expert on watching The Walking Dead and so on. Not because I like to break rules.

Because, RULES: I like them. Anyway.

Figure s. These things tend to happen in the post-apocalyptic/dystopian world.

Figure 3. These things tend to happen in the post-apocalyptic/dystopian world.


As far as happy endings for dystopian stories? Well, for that, I will have to expand from the short/dumbshit answer, but I only have a few speculations:

— Readers and writers alike enjoy happy endings.

— Readers want to see their beloved characters prevail; writers want to give their readers hope.

— Readers get pissy if you kill off their favorite people.

— Writers want to take readers through a full story arc.

But happy endings aren’t necessarily a part of the dystopian genre. Dystopian lit often serves as a warning in many ways. These stories’ messages often suggest to readers that if we continue following certain paths, we’re going to end up in this awful situation. Much classic dystopian lit, such as 1984 and Brave New World does anything but end happy. I think YA dystopia tends to end happy, though probably readers of Veronica Roth’s Allegiant would have issue with that, obviously.

Also obvious: I don’t know everything about this. Feel free to comment your take below.




Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Lit: Even More Questions

Figure 1. You shut up when Merle Dixon's talking, that's for sure

Figure 1. You shut up when Merle Dixon’s talking, that’s for sure


Today’s question:

“What makes a great protagonist in these stories?”

The short answer is that in dystopian/post-apocalyptic stories, generally the protagonist is living within the society; he or she is not an outsider to the situation. This is probably because having to endure such a society gives deeper motivation to a character wanting to dismantle it. But I am sure this precept is broken in some dystopian story somewhere, right?

The long answer?

What makes a good protagonist in any story is also true for dystopia and post-apocalyptic stories. The protagonist needs to want something. Or need something. And we need to want them to get that something.

But. We don’t need to LIKE the protagonist. We don’t need to want to buy her a beer or sit down and play cards with her or want to have his babies or tuck him into bed and sing him a lullabye or whatever. We just need to be FASCINATED when he/she comes on the page.

Let’s go back to The Source of All Things That Matter: The Walking Dead television show.

Let’s take Merle Dixon, as played by Michael Rooker.

Merle Dixon is racist, cruel, impulsive and selfish. He’s a convicted criminal, a drug dealer and addict, and a military veteran. He’s been in juvenile reform institutions and prison and he can cut your throat or kill you without blinking. He also knows his Bible. His mother died when he was a teenager and he was a victim of his father’s physical abuse until he left home. He’s a man built for a lawless world and he’s terrifying in the way that he cottons to physical brutality.

You also cannot take your eyes off him when he comes on screen. He makes you FASCINATE. You’re not sure what he’ll do or say next and that is why he is such a great character.

Now, Merle’s not the protagonist in The Walking Dead, but he’s got everything you want in a protagonist. Some people might argue that your main character should be someone who elicits sympathy and empathy from the reader. But I maintain that while I don’t want to cuddle up with Merle Dixon, I do have sympathy for him. He is broken and unable to connect and I felt for him, being so far gone that he cannot find his way back. You get the sense he wants to fix himself, that he wants to be close to his brother. You can see that he knows it’ll be a long route to becoming a man of honor and he’s never been a man with the patience for such things. You know he feels hopeless and beyond redemption; you know it but you still want to see him teeter on the edge of doing the moral thing.

The notion of honor is also worth noting when we’re talking about dystopian or post-apocalyptic protagonists. There is a streak of idealism and impracticality that runs through the heroes and heroines of these stories and the reason for this is fairly obvious: of course it’s more level-headed to conform and go along with the way things are than the try to foment revolution and smash the state.

Idealism is a luxury that is not often present in the suppressive and hand-to-mouth existences found in these stories; this kind of thinking marks the hero/heroine as a kind of unicorn, someone who will pull the sword from the stone and fix things for the better. You could see Merle Dixon as a kind reluctant hero, then, or at least a hero who is “refusing the call” to fight for Good, or being blind to the injustice, due to ignorance or fear, perhaps.


Figure 2. So, Merle kind of lost his hand this one time when he was being a giant asshole to Rick.

Figure 2. So, Merle kind of lost his hand this one time when he was being a giant asshole and Rick decided to pull him up short. But he managed to make lemonade outta those lemons, as you can see.


Merle Dixon also is the Governor’s top man when it comes to dirty work. Merle can see the Governor is a piece of shit of a human being, but he doesn’t just fly in his face and kill him in defiance. He recognizes the power and charisma of the Governor; he sees himself in the Governor and knows what he’s dealing with. Instead of disobeying him, he bides his time, continues with his mission, continues doing what the Governor asks. Because the Governor asks him to be violent and cruel and Merle excels at both of those things. And Merle owes him a debt, too; when the Governor found Merle, handless and near death, he took Merle in and gave him aid. This is a stew of complications and conflicting desires and this is what we want to cook our protagonists’ stories in.

Okay, now I am done babbling about that; I have another post on Fiction Lessons from The Walking Dead on Teen Librarian Toolbox, if you enjoy such things. I could clearly talk about The Walking Dead all day.  But that is what Twitter is for, right?



Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Lit: More Questions

Figure 1. Get yr flu shot. Daryl Dixon said so.

Figure 1. Get yr flu shot. Daryl Dixon said so. Get a haircut, too, not that he’s a role model in that, of course


Today’s question:

How do you introduce a dystopian/skewed world to a reader? How do you develop this world?

Easy answer: beats the hell out of me, kid. I don’t write that stuff.

Less dumbshitty answer:

Well, you have to think a lot first. I mean, don’t think too much. A lot of my students think more than they write, and you don’t want that. Because sometimes weird good stuff emerges while you’re writing. But with worlds that do not exist, you cannot fly blind. You should spend a bit of time contemplating and moving the pieces all over the chess board.

What the hell does that mean?

It means that you start with a speculative premise what if all electronic devices weren’t useable? what if we lived under a hellmouth full of demons? – and then you lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling and watch how all the dominoes would fall in those situations.

This is something I’m terrible at, by the way. So I don’t really know. Maybe the process involves tagboard or post-it notes or magic markers or something all whizz-bangy and fancy. I don’t do that mapping-visual-business really.

I can say that the speculation should start with FEAR. Something that grips us by the balls to imagine. A world without electricity, or indoor plumbing, or Norman Reedus, in my case.


Figure 1:  Oh my dear baby, let us not think of it, a world where you are not

Figure 2. Oh my dear baby, let us not think of it, a world where you are not


You introduce the world through the character, walking through the world. Not through telling or info-dumps or set-ups like so:

“So, everything’s awful, right? All the fish in the ocean died and the ecosystem was shot to shit and I like this girl who lives in the next cyber-gulag over, but she doesn’t know I exist…”

No. Don’t do that. That can be in your head but not on the page. You want to be smoooooooooth, you know? That above shit ain’t smoooooooooth, brother. And it’ll never get you that cutie in the next gulag over, see. Too obvious.

Also, remember not to have weird stilted conversations about the world you’re introducing. In our lives, we don’t say things like this:

“Dude, what’s up? Since, as you know, we are tethered to the ground by gravity and inhale oxygen and respirate carbon dioxide; this is how we live on the third planet from the sun. So, want to go have lunch?”

This is sometimes called the old “As You Know Bob” gimmick and you should avoid it. (Careful: don’t fall into the TVTropes hole. Many writers are lost there forever.)

Often we are introduced to the precepts of the new world by watching someone break the rules. This may involve an outsider entering the new world, being a stand-in for the reader.

Think of Hagrid in the first Harry Potter book; he’s kind of an info-dumper on the whole Wizarding world, but he does it gracefully, using his hidden wand in an umbrella, that kind of thing. He’s not just unloading data for the sake of set-up.

This is also true in regular old fiction. The less you give the reader, the better. The reader wants to figure stuff out; she doesn’t want you to spoon feed her the situation. Spoon-fed situation = SparkNotes. Readers don’t want SparkNotes; assholes who don’t read or want to do their homework want SparkNotes.


Figure 3. Suck my kiss, SparkNotes.

Figure 3. Suck my kiss, SparkNotes. Same goes to people who don’t read. Chumps.


The fun is in puzzling things out. Don’t take that away from your reader. Lower your rate of revelation, in fact. It seems counterintuitive, at first, but the idea that readers are unsettled and don’t quite know what’s going on is what keeps them turning pages.

The last bit of advice I have?  Focus on boring ordinary details. Sometimes speculative fiction gets lost in its own epic scope and forgets that readers are still humans who need a hand-hold into the story. We still need people who eat and sleep and have minor problems – flat tires, missing buttons – along with their larger concerns – my wife is cheating on me, the government is controlling my mind through my dental fillings.

What did I miss? I’m sure I missed something.


Dystopian & Post-Apocalyptic Lit: Questions

Figure 1: Look, it's Norman Reedus. Smoking. Which I haven't done in fifteen days. Yeah. Go me.

Figure 1. Look, it’s Daryl Dixon smoking! Which I haven’t done in fifteen days. Yeah. Go me.


Today’s question:

How does plot/character development differ in dystopian stories v. post-apocalyptic?

Awesome question.

Easy answer could be – they don’t. Just write it real good and everything’ll be fine.

But that’s a dipshitty answer. Lazy, too.

The better answer involves lots of generalizations, of course.

With dystopian stories, the heroine/hero is almost always a member of the dystopian social system. This often means that he or she must come to a realization that this structure is no good. Remember, whether a social system is dystopic all depends on your position within the system. Some people are reaping lots of rewards, while others are not. Often our main character has to wake up to the fact that this system has big flaws, like Cassia in Matched; she’s fine with things, for the most part, when that story opens. Since isolation and restricted information is such a big part of dystopian structures, our  main character will struggle with what to do about this. Conformity, as well, plays a role in suppressing the main character’s ability to communicate with others his or her concerns.

So, often the story opens with us seeing the heroine/hero moving through the society as a functioning member, and seeing some small cracks that may be apparent to the reader but not the characters involved. Slowly, the hero/heroine learns more, becomes aware, perhaps of others who are also feeling the same way about the social system that rules them, and then there is usually an inciting event that compels the hero/heroine to act boldly.

With post-apocalyptic stories, we are dealing with the rubble and wreckage of a world gone to hell. There is no question about the state of things – everything sucks. There may be questions/gaps in knowledge about what truly happened – District 13’s role in the war of The Hunger Games, for example – but for the most part it is clear that this world is a disaster and survival is the main driver of plot/character motivation.

The post-apocalyptic character has either learned to be a survivor or must learn immediately, depending on when the author has made the apocalypse happen in the narrative’s timeline. Many times, post-apocalyptic stories involve restricted information, too – like Aria and Perry trying to find the legendary Still Blue in the  Under The Never Sky series or Rick and his group traveling to the CDC in The Walking Dead – because the circumstances of life are so difficult, it is hard to communicate or travel without great peril.

Lemme know if I missed anything! Because it’s a very good question and I don’t know everything, obviously.