Universal Plots: Dystopian World

A lone citizen seeks to escape or overturn a totalitarian society that has arisen after a global disaster.

Often called dystopian fiction, the protagonist of this universal plot is usually an insider rather than an outsider in the society. Although they may question the society they generally accept the harsh rules and strict social order until an event occurs which forces them to take action. Think Katniss’s sister being chosen in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Katniss deciding to take her place or Cassia being mistakenly matched to two people in Matched by Ally Condie, until one of them, Ky, is banished to the dangerous Outer Provinces.

In some dystopian novels, the protagonist decides to fight to change their society. In the classic British novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, the protagonist Winston is enlisted into the Brotherhood, a secret organisation dedicated to overturning the ruling Party and Big Brother, only to find that he has been set up.

In other stories the hero or heroine simply wants to escape their fate or society. In Margaret Atwood’s Canadian classic The Handmaid’s Tale, the heroine Offred risks breaking her society’s rules simply to survive, for if she doesn’t get pregnant she will be eradicated, whereas The Hunger Games Katniss must kill to survive.

Dystopian novels rarely end happily. Even if the hero triumphs, the society itself rarely changes, at least by the end of the novel. (Maybe it will given enough books in a series!)  The ending of a dystopian novel is more likely to be open ended or even depict the protagonist dying or being imprisoned.

So why do we like these stories about such grim worlds with bleak futures? Perhaps it’s because we identify with the hero’s struggle to change the world and the fate that has been dealt them. Don’t we all want to do that?

Some dystopian novels you might like to read:

Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid’s Tale

Bertagna, Julie, Exodus

Bradbury, Ray, Farenheit 451

Collins, Suzanne, The Hunger Games

Condie, Ally, Matched

Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World

Malley, Gemma, The Declaration

Moore, Alan, V for Vendetta (series of comic books)

Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Rosoff, Meg, How I Live Now

Westerfield, Scott, Uglies

Wyndham, John, The Chrysalids also titled Re-Birth

Young Moira, Blood Red Road

About Carol Jones

Carol Jones is the author of 'The Concubine's Child', set in 1930s Malaya and The Boy With Blue Trousers set in 1850s China and Australia. Born in Brisbane, Australia, she taught English and Drama at secondary schools before working as an editor of children's magazines. She is also the author of several young adult novels as well as children's non-fiction.
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2 Responses to Universal Plots: Dystopian World

  1. ShadowKill says:

    Good read! So more add on books like Phillp K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Total Recall, Adjustment Bureau, and Minority Report.” Forgot the author’s name but the book “A Clockwork Orange” is also a good title.

    • caroljones says:

      Yes, Philip K Dick has always been the go-to man for Hollywood producers when it comes to stories set in totalitarian future societies. His short stories often feature a hero who is accepting or even a willing participant in the social order until some unexpected event forces him to run. Minority Report and Total Recall are perfect examples of this and in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, later filmed by Ridley Scott as Bladerunner, the hero is an agent of the ruling elite for most of the film until he falls in love with one of the replicants he is employed to hunt down. However much of the more recent dystopian fiction seems to be written for the YA market rather than for sci-fi fans.

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