Creating Hell on Earth: Dystopian Worldbuilding


Have you ever wanted to play God, build a world only to see it crash and burn? If you’ve ever watched a toddler build a block tower only to kick it down and start over, you know creation and destruction are both intrinsic to our human nature. Maybe that explains the reoccurring floods of dystopians hitting book stores and spilling over into theaters with increasing regularity.

So what does it take to build a dystopian society?  Of course you have to start with provocative hook (e.g. reality show with children forced to fight to the death, fertile women forced to bear upper class men’s babies to combat rampant infertility), but a hook isn’t enough.  In dystopian fiction, the world the characters play and die on are just as important as the characters themselves.  The society is, in essence, another character and must be equally multi-dimensional.  What other factors within society does the key plot device effect?

While I don’t profess to be a literary genius, I am a planner by day so I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to keep a community functioning. Take a crucial block away and it becomes unstable, the makings of a dystopia. Take away a few and the entire city topples. Apocalypse now.

What do you do if you wouldn’t know a comprehensive plan from a set of site plans, and you still think the water coming from your tap comes straight from the local river? Play Sim City.

From the developer: “Build the city of your dreams and watch as the choices you make shape your city and change the lives of the Sims within it. Every decision, big or small, right or wrong, has real consequences for your Sims. Invest in heavy industry and your economy will soar—but at the expense of your Sims’ health as pollution spreads. Implement green technology and improve your Sims’ lives but risk higher taxes and unemployment. In SimCity, you’re the Mayor and how you run your city is entirely up to you!”

So tell your significant other/kids you’re doing research, and go play god for an evening or three.  It doesn’t have to be the latest and greatest version either, but the knock-offs might be too dumbed down and sanitized to be useful.  Although I’ve never tried it, the Societies version looks especially well-suited to this purely academic pursuit. Maybe I could claim it as a tax write-off…

Just like in Sim City, your world can’t have it all. No resource is unlimited even water, and in some worlds, air.  Creating a limiting factor or two for your world is key to making it feel more like stepping into a virtual reality RPG than Candy Land. In the Hunger Games the limiting factor is natural resources and in Divergent information. With limited resources come trade-offs as leaders struggle to meet public demands, or the demands of a select few. Use your game play as a start to get your wheels turning, then let your imagination run wild.

Dystopians also usually have a significant imbalance of power. Often linked to income level but sometimes it’s based on religion, sex, race or species. And of course, where there’s power there’s politics. Whatever Grandma said about keeping talk of politics out of mixed company doesn’t apply to dystopian fiction. For some readers, the sordid political story line is the best part.

Getting back to our Utopian example in the previous post, let’s check in on Songdo, South Korea shall we?

This is the utopian planned community envisioned in its master plan.Songdo Masterplan

This is reality.

Songdo Korea 2014

And on closer inspection we have:

Songdo Streetview

Not exactly the thriving utopia investors hoped for when they shelled out $40 billion.  So what happened?  While the city’s stunning amenities have attracted a fair number of residents, particularly young professionals, businesses have been slow to follow suit.  As a recent World Finance article stated, “less than 20 percent of the commercial space in the district has been occupied.”  Timing is certainly an issue.  The first phase opened in 2009 during the midst of the global economic crisis. Even now, businesses are less willing to take a chance on an unproven location, and the promised government incentives haven’t all materialized (i.e. politics).  Domestic businesses don’t qualify so as not to plunder from nearby cities who would then complain to the President, and without domestic support, international companies are even more disinclined to relocate as the Wall Street journal points out.  Even one of Songdo’s masterminds, U.S. developer John Hynes III, hopped a plane back to Boston.

So what does this mean for South Korea’s utopian dreams? Detroit, Michigan and many cities and small towns across Pennsylvania  are perfect examples of what happens when there is no industry to provide a healthy tax base. The old coal mining town I grew up in could be the poster child for failed economic development. Thirty years ago it was a great place to raise a family. Then the coal ran out.  Next the textile factories closed shop in favor of cheap foreign labor.  Today, the new state prison and drug dealing are the only industries,  and taxes are so high many of the elderly who make up the majority of the population can’t afford heat in the winter. Now that’s a dystopia.

The economy is not Songdo’s only problem. It also suffers from a malady common to most new planned communities.  It’s sterile.

Just like the old cliché, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were the rest of the world’s great cities. Master plans work great for transportation networks, utilities, and subdivisions, but not so well for culture.  Developers create developments, people create cities. So don’t forget to add the little cultural details to your creation that make it unique—local slang, community gathering spots, treasured traditions, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants locals guard as if it contained the fountain of youth.

Hopefully Songdo will be more successful once complete, which is slated for 2018, but it will take much longer to get that comfy, lived in feel. Or maybe it will only spiral downward into the ghost town of a developer and a nation’s dream, the inspiration for the next wave of dystopian fiction.


    1. Glad you liked it! Be sure to take lots of notes as you do your worldbuilding, particularly if you’re doing a series. I didn’t with my first manuscript and learned the hard way to not trust my memory.


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