Worldbuilding

Eight Compelling Themes for Dystopian Settings

Mad Max's dreary setting is a dark and violent dystopia.

Using a theme adds depth to your story and gives your audience something to think about long after it’s over. Dystopian settings are ripe for meaningful themes because they challenge not just individual characters but humanity as a whole. While not all themes fit the unique challenges these settings offer, these great options can set your dystopia apart.

1. Trust

Trust comes at a premium in Walking Dead. Trust comes at a premium in Walking Dead.

In most dystopias, with lives on the line, people play dirty and hurt one another to get ahead. The lack of resources and infrastructure also means no police to hold predators accountable. Yet people still must rely on one another to survive, which makes trust critical.

A character’s choice in who they trust will determine how the story progresses. You can use trust or lack thereof to add conflict to a story. Perhaps a character distrusts newly encountered survivors, risking outright violence to protect their own. If characters have to deal with someone they feel leery about, their relationship will be strained. When characters do trust each other, it always carries the chance of betrayal.

Who a character trust tells us much about them and their values. It’s common in stories for an inexperienced character that trusts too much to discover that not everyone is trustworthy. Some people will never trust again, while others won’t learn the lesson in the first place. Well-rounded characters may find the middle-road between trusting too much or too little. How you spin it depends on the type of tale you want to tell and what you want your characters to be like.

2. Tough Choices

Players face many tough choices in Fallout: New Vegas. Players face many tough choices in Fallout: New Vegas.

While tough choices appear in any genre, the danger in dystopias heightens their importance. Characters need to decide how to ration resources, manage threats, and treat other survivors. Survival is always uncertain; wrong choices can be fatal.

Choices highlight a character’s priorities and motivations. Is it worth stealing from the local bandit camp in order to eat tonight? Tough choices show what lines characters are willing to cross, which is especially important in dark tales.

Big decisions are an important storyteller’s tool. They add conflict and give agency to characters. When a character makes a choice, they’re responsible for the end results. Let’s say someone decides to climb down a cliff rather than take the slower way. As a result, they fall and get injured. They’d get wounded the same if they slipped over the edge, but their suffering means more this way, because they brought it on themselves to some degree. Otherwise, they’re just being punished for no reason.

3. Hardship

Batman Dark Knight Returns Frank Miller’s Gotham in Dark Knight Returns is bleak and brutal.

All stories need some hardship in order to have conflict and tension. Because of the extreme settings, hardships play an even more intrinsic role in dystopias, where things are bad by definition. Life is rough when you don’t have access to running water and grocery stores.

Trials and tribulations can either wreck someone or give them a learning experience. Knowledge is an important resource, and some information only comes firsthand. Survivors have knowledge that’s invaluable; they can pass on what they know and lead others.

The types of hardship vary. The conditions of the environment and the hostility of other people can make things harder for the protagonists. Some types of hardships are mental, others physical. Psychological wounds are often as bad as physical ones. Regardless of type, hardships need to scale up to match the circumstances.

4. Control & Helplessness

In the Matrix trilogy, humans struggle to regain control of their fate. In the Matrix trilogy, humans struggle to regain control of their fate.

Society’s infrastructure, like cops and courts, is meant to ensure safety and fairness, even though they don’t always work or protect everyone equally. They try to maintain control over civilians, and if that goes away something else will fill the vacuum. Power is never destroyed; it just changes hands. When it does, will the new leaders use their control to uplift others or render them helpless?

Control and helplessness are two sides of the same coin. Control is a finite resource, and the more you exert it, the more helpless everyone else is. If you give characters too much control, the spotlight is on them all the time. By the same token, it makes them seem strong and capable.

Characters should never be just along for the ride; they need to steer now and again. In any type of story helplessness can act as a character flaw, but it is a particularly dangerous position in dystopias. Threats on every side, scarce resources, and unscrupulous characters can make survival contingent on staying in control.

Alternating between control and helplessness can provide balance in a story. Give a character control to highlight them and their abilities. Make them helpless to set up adversity and trials, as characters need to be consistently challenged.

5. Growth & Entropy

Society suffers at the hand of a drought in Idiocracy. Society suffers at the hand of a drought in Idiocracy.

Dystopias feature decaying environments, but societies can recover lost glory with time and effort. Dark stories focus on loss, whereas lighter ones focus on recovery. Balanced tales mix both as characters climb mountains and descend to the other side.

Entropy is the degenerative road to nothingness. Oceans evaporate, stars burn out, and species go extinct. In stories, it appears as either destruction or decay. Destruction is usually sudden and exciting. For instance, a giant battle might level a survivor’s enclave and force them to move. Decay is death by inches. The survivor’s enclave crumbles day by day, until its denizens lose hope of making it better. Decay is less exciting, but it still fosters tension and drama.

Entropy is the more common tool in dystopias, but unless you want your characters to lose all the time, establishing growth is important. It’s also easy to illustrate; a verdant forest might bloom in the fertile ashes left behind from an exploding volcano. But growth is more than just farms and forests. It extends to culture, politics, and other areas. And it can manifest differently in different societies. For example, Russians and Americans wouldn’t rebound from hardship in the exact same ways.

Growth isn’t always man-made or even desirable.* Mother nature can act as another hurdle for survivors. In many dystopian settings, humanity decays while the wilds grow.

When growth is positive, it still takes time to produce results. New habits must be learned, research costs money, and disasters set characters back. Perhaps the survivors set up a successful farm, but now they need to trade with other groups and drive off raiders that want their corn. If society recovers quickly, challenges feel too easy for your protagonists. Characters need to work for their supper.

Both entropy and growth can shake things up. Use decay and destruction to set up challenges for your characters. Over time, your characters will probably succeed, which manifests as positive growth.

6. Cooperation & Competition

Snake makes many enemies and a few friends in Escape from LA. Snake makes many enemies and a few friends in Escape from LA.

Cooperation and competition are especially important when it comes to dystopias. They tie directly into other related themes, such as trust and control. In emergencies, people can work together or they can be at one another’s throats. Unless they are the only people left, survivors eventually encounter others, and how they interact defines them.

The overt conflict competition brings is exciting, but it can manifest in many different ways. Besides simple violence, characters might compete on a social level for mates or allies. They might also compete over resources, perhaps resorting to theft. Even within otherwise cohesive groups, people will butt heads with one another. Relationships are fluid; new schisms or bonds can form regularly.

Cooperation is less obviously exciting but no less important. People are inherently social, and it’s unrealistic if no groups or factions form. Additionally, cooperation and competition aren’t mutually exclusive. Survivors can work together towards certain ends while being at odds over others. People are complicated, and our relationships generally reflect that.

Dystopias are usually chaotic places. It there was an apocalypse, most people would panic during the first days. Dust will settle over time, and then people may be more amenable to getting along. Use competition to set up conflict and hardships, and then use cooperation to introduce and change character relationships.

7. Evolution & Extinction

In The End, Bruce Banner and the hulk are the only survivors of a nuclear holocaust In The End, Bruce Banner and the Hulk are the only survivors of a nuclear holocaust

Really dire dystopian settings pose the question of whether humanity dies or adapts. Things are rough in Blade Runner, but the human race is never portrayed as being in immediate danger of dying out. On the other hand, extinction has been accepted as nigh certain by survivors in Y: The Last Man and Children of Men. When threat of extinction is present, it can be quick or slow. Stories that portray extinction as an immediate threat are more action-oriented, whereas those that present it as a long term threat generally have more drama.

Evolution is more subtle and less noticeable than extinction. It’s similar to growth, as both imply a change in mankind’s circumstances. However, evolution is specifically a change in behavior or physiology in reaction to external factors. If giant winged monsters start patrolling daytime skies, mankind may become more nocturnal. This kind of biological evolution is a slow process; even minor changes take ages.

That’s why humanity has adapted mostly by coming up with new toys. The progression of technology takes a fraction of the time biological changes do. Smart phones, refrigerators, and penicillin all changed humanity’s standing in a brief period of time. However, technological evolution still takes time and resources. While stories don’t exactly mirror reality, and the audience usually accepts that, making new technology too quickly can still break immersion or make it look like you’re giving your character a free pass.

Evolution has positive associations, but it just means things are different, not necessarily better. Many changes have good and bad aspects, as the best reaction to one problem could create a new one. Then it’s up to humanity to adapt again or face extinction.

8. Hope & Despair

Yorick and Ampersand stand as symbols of hope in Y: The Last Man. Yorick and Ampersand stand as symbols of hope in Y: The Last Man.

Characters react to their unfortunate circumstances in different ways. Will they choose hope, despair, or something in between?

Deep despair can result from pain and loss. These psychological wounds take time to heal, as much or more than any physical injury. While characters that fall into despair can be uplifted by those around them, a few words and small examples won’t go terribly far. If the entire setting is rooted in despair, then hope would require a dramatic and positive shift in the world.

Hope demonstrates determination in spite of difficulties, indicating a character is strong-willed. Even so, too much hope can be a sign of naivety or lead someone into trouble. Well-balanced characters can find a middle ground between the two extremes.

Hope drives characters toward a goal, whereas despair promotes inaction. Canny storytellers use hope to set goals. But characters shouldn’t always achieve those goals, or hope won’t mean much. Survivors might struggle with despair and hope after a big loss, asking themselves why they should bother trying if they’ll only fail. Strong characters break free of despair and find their motivation again. How characters cope in the face of overwhelming odds shows how tough they are.


Dystopias have a wide range of themes to draw upon. Which theme you choose and how you use it will determine the type of tale you’re telling. Will you focus on the light in the dark, the inevitability of change, or courage in the face of death? The themes fall along spectrums; use different hues to produce vibrant pictures.

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Comments

  1. Greg

    Great stuff, David. Permission to quote headlines (with credit and link) in my reference book: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1060921494/millers-compendium-a-comprehensive-writers-referen

    Write on.

    Greg Miller
    Writer – Editor – Writing Coach
    http://othernetwork.com

    “How To Be A Writer Who Writes”
    http://www.amazon.com/How-Writer-Who-Writes-ebook/dp/B00AZ8CLY0/

    • David Mesick

      Hey Greg,

      Glad you like it. I’ve got no problem with you linking, but before I give the green light I need to check with Chris. I’ll reach out and I’ll give you an answer soon as I get one.

      Is there a good email to reach you at, or is a Kickstarter message going to be best?

      Thanks

  2. Greg

    Thanks David!
    [email protected]

  3. Carly

    You forgot to mention Hunger Games and Divergent. They’re dystopian stories.

  4. Kora

    My understanding of a dystopian story is that it challenges current societal behaviors and beliefs, showing us what may happen if we continue down the path we’re taking. I consider stories like Red Queen and The Hunger Games as dystopian fiction, because Red Queen challenges racism, and The Hunger Games challenges aspects of war and the love of violence.
    That being said, I wouldn’t consider many of the stories on this list as dystopian. A dystopian story is not the same as an apocalyptic story. Apocalyptic stories can be dystopian, and they can have complex themes, but they are not the same as dystopian. It’s true that they’re both dreary and dark, but they’re not the same.

    • Leon

      I always thought the crucial feature of a dystopian story was an explotative government that is utterly inaccessable to all but the ultra elite.

      • Cay Reet

        A dystopia is the opposite of a utopia. Instead of showing a positive imaginary society, it shows a negative one. Both are usually based off current social trends, so what is utopian and what is dystopian might change slightly from generation to generation.

        The society of Star Trek is, on the whole, a utopian one. There doesn’t seem to be any scarcity, predjudices seem weak on the whole, the society is egalitarian. Compared to the 1960s when it was created, the world of Star Trek, where a Russian and a WOC part of the bridge crew and that was considered normal, was pure utopia.

        The societies listed above are dystopian ones, boosting negative trends of current society and making them into main points. A lot of apocalyptic stories feature dystopian societies, because we assume that the destruction of society will go along with negative consequences for most people, creating societies where everyone or at least a majority will lead a hard life.

        Generally, you would want to live in a utopia, but not in a dystopia.

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