Writing Compelling Dystopian Fiction – One Author’s Opinion

Writing Compelling Dystopian Fiction One Authors Opinion

Guest Post by Britt Holewinski

I began writing my first “young adult, dystopian” novel in 1995, before the genre was the commercial giant it is today and when “dystopian” brought to mind to George Orwell’s 1984 and other frightening classics. I was in high school, and having just read Lord of the Flies, I began imagining what might happen if the entire world was left in the hands of children. This became the impetus for my first novel, Schism.

As an author of dystopian fiction, particularly a story that takes place in the very-near future, I must always be cognizant of the “world-building” theme when I write. To be honest, I never heard of this specific phrase until recently but now it seems to be everywhere. “World-building,” as I define it, is the ability for characters to create and design their own society in the manner which serves their purposes. And I believe that in order to create a world-building scenario effectively, a writer needs to consider three ingredients: personality, motivation, and ability.

In my experience, personality and motivation are easier to craft: Do my characters inspire others with their vision of how the world around them should appear? If so, are they dictator-types ruling with an iron fist, compassionate souls who want the best for everyone, or somewhere in between? Why are they the ones leading the charge to build this world and not others? Do they want to be in charge, or do they have to?

Keeping in mind these questions guided me through most of my world-building narrative in terms of character development. Ability—or more specifically, the ability of these children to learn how technology works and then replicate it—was more of a challenge.

In Schism, my potential world builders are fourteen-years-old and younger. So I ask myself, “How quickly do children learn?” Extremely fast. Childhood and adolescence are the periods of human development when the brain is growing and absorbing at a rate that will only begin to slow around age 18. Watch a child today with a smartphone or tablet, and they can zip through the screens and functions better than college-educated individuals like me. They are curious and want to know how things work. “Why?” is their favorite phrase when young. Then “why not?” when they are older, or “why can’t I?”

The world-building scenarios in novels such as The Hunger Games or Divergent do not seem to be questioned much because their stories take place in a distant or unknown future. Of course, this type society could exist a hundred or a thousand years from now, readers think. However, I faced a different dilemma because my book begins next year, 2017. The children and teens I write about are the same age and experiencing the same things my nephews and friends’ children are experiencing right now. So I do have to contend with the question, “Can kids today really do all the things you have them do in Schism?”

The straight answer is, “yes” but also, “I don’t know.” I can’t guess exactly what would happen if adults all around the world were suddenly wiped out and only children remained. No one can. However, I can make some educated assumptions, most of which boils down to sheer numbers:

If a plane or helicopter were sitting right in front of you for five years, and you knew exactly what it could do and how it might make your life easier, would you try to fly it? Out of 100 children, maybe one or two would try. Now multiply that by millions, and you’ll get several thousand children who will try. Of those thousands, assume ninety-five percent will fail; they are killed, or they crash and survive but never set foot inside a plane or helicopter again. That still leaves at least a few hundred who will succeed: the smart, careful, and patient kids.

Illness and injury is another concern. If all the doctors have been killed off before the story even begins, the choice is self-medication. So unless there are a bunch of Doogie Howsers running around (wow, I’m dating myself), the immediate choice is either take the medicine that might save you or do nothing and hope your body heals on its own. Amputate a gangrenous appendage or do nothing and face certain death from infection? This is an awful choice, but you’ll probably let your friend with a strong stomach take a saw to your rotten arm. But as time progresses, children would learn what works and what doesn’t.

These are examples of very high-risk undertakings. Learning how to operating cellular networks or subway systems are less risky endeavors, and therefore more likely to be conquered by these young survivors. Will they fail at first? Of course, but once again, the smart, persistent, and thoughtful children will succeed. Especially if they are motivated for one reason or another.

As a writer, I can try to create a more credible world-building situation by considering these three “ingredients,” but each reader will judge for themselves the plausibility. All I can do it hope they will remember that I’m writing fiction and not necessarily a prediction.


“My name is Andrea Christensen. I’m one of the oldest oldest people in the world.”

“Schism” is the first book in a new dystopian trilogy that tells a tale of survival, of good versus evil, and of constructing a future with only memories of childhood.

A government-created virus is accidentally released before testing is complete and within weeks it kills six billion people, children are the only survivors. Andy Christensen and her two friends travel across the country searching for a safe place to live, but nowhere, it seems, is capable of resurrection.


About the Author

Scott Mullins is a freelance writer and digital content manager. When he’s not finding ways to distract himself from writing his novel he writes killer copy for companies all over the world. Connect with Scott on Twitter @ScottMullins86 or LinkedIn. He’s always looking to connect with other writers.