Mailbag: Many Characters, Many People; Dystopian Fiction

It’s back to the mailbag once again, readers — I always enjoy reading your thoughtful comments, and I’m doing my best to respond to as many as I can. This week I’m taking a quick look on my post “Think of Your Character as Many People“, as well as my post, “What’s the Deal with Dystopian?” So let’s see some comments!

The first post was about how movies showing characters growing up always have different actors playing these characters. It’s an interesting reminder that our fictional characters have different versions of themselves, too.

The Non-Writing Writer said:

I’ve always said I feel like there are different versions of everyone. There certainly are different versions of me! If I don’t take care of myself physically and mentally, I definitely become a very unlikable version of myself. And the people I surround myself with definitely contribute to the version of me that that I am each day. I never thought of how this applies to my writing until now though! I love this post.

Thanks, non-writing writer (and I love your name!). It’s definitely the way most of us think of ourselves — we have different versions of ourselves with our parents or with our children or with our employers or with our friends. But when we get to our fiction, we make the mistake of saying, “All right, this character is “x”, and he or she always has to be consistent with “x.” It makes for a flat, unrealistic character.

My other post, “What’s the Deal with Dystopian?“, wondered why dystopian fiction continues to be popular down through the ages, especially in young adult genres. Many of you weighed in on your theories of dystopian fiction. Eddie said:

How much of our interest in dystopian stories has to do with our desire for freedom from the pressure of eveyday life, from house payments, boring jobs, uncaring and unheeding governmental agencies, threat of nuclear war, bad neighbors, shrinking paychecks? Dystopian, end-of-the-world stories seem better than the world we have. In that part of our brains that hatch fantasies, such a world might seem…utopian, not dystopian. Of course, reality would be far meaner than fantasy–who wants a world without antibiotics, March Madness, the FDA, indoor toliets?–but reality makes might poor reading.

Great point, Eddie — in spite of harsh situations found in dystopian worlds, there’s still an element of escapism about it, a delicious retreat into a world where exigencies are clear, where morality is obvious, where the struggle is only to survive. At the same time, it’s similar to fantasy in the willful refusal of modern conveniences. People love reading about knights and the middle ages and Game of Thrones-type worlds, but who would really give up smallpox vaccinations and indoor plumbing to live there? Nice thought!

mary said:

Eddie makes a good point. Life is really exciting in dystopian times! One must fight to survive each day, people join in underground conspiracies to fight the Oppressor, & we sure as heck don’t sit around glued to the tube when we could be out Smashing the State.

Maybe it is just that sense of community that we crave. In many of these books, things are so bad that small bands of people join together to fight whatever is the Overlord or the Crisis of End Times. There is an agreed #1 enemy for everyone to rally against.

Another great point, mary — another delicious element of dystopian fiction is the simplicity of the enemy. In worlds like Animal Farm or 1984, the enemies may be insidious and hard to defeat, but they still are very clear. And characters always seem to work together so well in these worlds. When similar political issues come up in the real world, the first enemy people have to fight is always apathy.

Amy said:

I teach HS and my kids LOVE dystopian fiction. I agree that it seems to grow each year. One other draw, I think, is that it creates a such a different world that kids can put themselves there and truly ponder what they would do in that situation. It’s easier to imagine themselves as a normal kid in crazy circumstances, similar to Katniss, rather than to try to imagine themselves as a character in one of Sarah Dessen’s novels. It seems odd, but I think a dystopian world is somehow more accessible than the world of jocks, or geeks, or whatever group they don’t belong to. Just a thought.

Thanks for a high school teacher’s perspective, Amy! It’s a great point that dystopian fiction is good fodder for educational reading; it forces kids to imagine the world from a different point of view, and think critically about authority, government, and policy. I think it’s true that kids want to see “normal” protagonists — they want to imagine themselves in “crazy circumstances” as you put it.

So I guess we can conclude that dystopian fiction will continue to be popular for good old fashioned reasons — and that’s a good thing for getting young people excited about reading. Thanks for your input, readers, and I’ll see you next week!

One comment

  1. John Yeoman says:

    That’s a good tip. Characters in novels so often appear to be the same, emotionally and physically, from year to year. Yet the essence of a strong story is that the protagonist changes.

    One trick of transition that’s rarely used is to show the changes in the character’s environment between one radical scene shift – or flashforward – and another. ‘The little Christmas tree that dad had planted when I left ten years ago now reached the roof.’ It subtly shows that time has moved on – as has the character.

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