Tips To Build Better Post-Apocalyptic And/Or Dystopian Settings
While the two aren't necessarily the same thing (a post-apocalyptic world could be very pleasant if things went right, and a world can become dystopic through gradual decline rather than a sudden upheaval), they often go together in fiction and many of the tips fit both scenarios, so this article is going to cover both.
Table of Contents
- Don't forget that the rest of the world is out there, too.
- "Lone wolf" survivalist types aren't likely to survive long.
- Spirituality would almost certainly exist.
- If you're plotting a dystopian government, could anyone actually see its awful policies as being worth the effort?
Don't forget that the rest of the world is out there, too.
Far too many post-apocalyptic works apparently forget that the world outside of its immediate territory exists. (Usually North America, because this type of fiction is almost never set anywhere but atop the ruins of the US else for some reason.) But to make a post-apocalyptic scenario that holds up under scrutiny, you need to ask yourself: How was everyone else affected? How did they respond? What are they doing or what did they do to survive, if they were adversely affected?
One thing that is often strangely absent in post-apocalyptic scenarios is countries trying to form some kind of trade agreements with each other eventually, or trying to take advantage of countries that were severely weakened in order to try and get a strategic foothold in these locations. Another thing you'd almost certainly see is people crossing borders left and right to try to find more hospitable places to live. (Those who lived in places with extreme temperatures in the winter or summer that were only tolerable due to air conditioning would soon be looking for somewhere better to live if they no longer had any air conditioning.)
In dystopias that result purely from decline and/or corruption, it's still hard to believe that the rest of the world would simply ignore your area and vice-versa if only for the fact that the world's countries are economically dependent on other countries. Almost invariably they have stuff they want to get and stuff they're willing to trade to get it. If they don't have anything they can trade and they're really desperate to get at whatever it is they want, they'll most probably try to force whoever does have it to give it over one way or another, such as through conquering them and forcing them to pay tribute, or by threatening military action against them if they refuse to trade.
So in any case, ask yourself: what's the rest of the world up to, and how does the area you're focusing on relate to and interact with it?
"Lone wolf" survivalist types aren't likely to survive long.
Spirituality would almost certainly exist.
Many fictional post-apocalyptic and dystopian worlds are completely devoid of religion and spirituality, which is usually pretty weird when you think about it. Spirituality thrives and blossoms in time of adversity, as it gives people a sense of meaning and order in a chaotic and unpredictable world and often offers them hope that things will get better - if not in this life through a divine figure smiting one's enemies, then perhaps in an afterlife or reincarnation. Those who have wandered away from the religions they were taught as children may go back to them, especially if the events of the day seem to be fulfilling predictions their religions made. People who weren't necessarily religious before but are desperate for some modicum of hope and relief will be fairly easy marks for for anyone offering a religion that seems to offer them just that.
Before trying to handwave it all away by saying that religion/spirituality was outlawed, take note: that's anything but easy. The majority of people in real life believe in some form of spirituality, and even though their beliefs might be very different from each other they'd all be displeased with a ban on such. Also, attempts to violently suppress religion have rarely been successful - adherents might simply go underground or even stage a revolution if there are enough of them, and governments may already have so much to deal with already that they can't devote all of the time and resources it would take to completely eradicate them.
If you're plotting a dystopian government, could anyone actually see its awful policies as being worth the effort?
While real governments do enact policies that end up being detrimental or wasteful in the long run, some of the things that fictional dystopias end up pulling are so ludicrous that they defy belief - one often has to wonder how a substantial amount of people ever could have come to the conclusion or be convinced that the policies were actually worth the effort necessary to uphold them.
A good example of this settings where large governments strictly control and arrange marriage. Put yourself into the shoes of a fictional government for a moment: a program this large would take an incredible amount of effort to set up, maintain, and enforce. Somewhere you've got to have people and/or computer systems doing all the matchmaking, and then you've got to put the effort into prosecuting people who don't comply with the program or riot in protest - and given how unpopular a program like this will certainly be, that's probably going to be a lot of people. Could the perceived benefits of choosing mates for everyone really be seen as worth all of that work in the long run, or would they quickly and easily realize it be easier and cheaper just to let people keep picking on their own?
So if you're planning out some kind of awful policy for a dystopian government to get up to, stop and ask yourself whether you can honestly see real people in your government's particular circumstances actually and honestly coming to the conclusion that these policies are a good idea.
So, to summarize...
- Ask yourself what the rest of the world has been up to, and how they relate to the area you focus on. The area you're writing about shouldn't simply turn into a vacuum.
- Lone wolf survivors are not likely to survive long due to being unable to properly take care of themselves and defend their stuff.
- Spirituality is likely to exist in some form - because if anything, hardship only encourages it.
- If you have a large government doing nasty things, ask yourself if there's any way they could actually justify what they're doing to themselves.
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