The psychology behind why we love dystopian books.
What is the cause of our fascination with end of the world and dystopian themed books and movies?
Dystopian novels and films (and their siblings, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic genres) have become wildly popular. What is it about these particular genres that draws us? Why has society become so absorbed with thinking about the end of the world, or how the world will change?
I’ve done some research (and added a little pure speculation) to try and come up with an answer.
7 reasons why dystopian fiction is so appealing:
We feel better about our impact on the world.
We're at a time when the reality of our civilization’s impact on the planet is becoming far more apparent. We are in the midst of a major extinction of species, and we know how destructive our daily activity is to the planet. But changing out lifestyle just isn’t an option. Stories and movies are a way for us to test possible realities in the future, but also to say, "These are awful things and they could happen, but if we work together there's still hope.”
In the majority of literature and film, there are survivors at the end. There is a next chapter. We can feel better about how we are impacting the world, and feel as if it is never too late to change. Consider The Lorax as a prime example of Dystopian literature and film that warns about our impact on the environment. The message is that it is never too late. That unless someone, someone like you, cares a whole awful lot, it’s not going to get better. No matter how far we take our environmental abuse, it isn’t too late to fix it.
The characters are relatable yet strong.
Many dystopian characters are average people in their society who either are born with a gift or through a series of events are thrown into extraordinary situations. These characters, like Katniss in Hunger Games or Tris in Divergent, become the strong, independent person we all would like to emulate. We can connect with them, and through them, feel more powerful. If an average girl from the poorest district can use her bow to overthrow a nation, how much more can we accomplish?
Dystopia appeals to the young adult sense of independence.
Dystopian characters tend to be young and fight against established government. Young adults are inherently independent and bold as they forge their own way in life. They can easily relate to the main characters of dystopian books and film. Even older adults find the sense of strength and independence displayed by dystopian characters appealing.
Death is compelling.
In terms of storytelling, there's always more power when it is a life-and-death situation, and when death is really real. Dystopian and apocalyptic novels, TV, and film do a great job of making our mortality real. Consider the Walking Dead phenomena. Every single moment could be the last for each character—no one is safe. This keeps us on the edge of our seat, and reminds us of our own fragile existence. It is both terrifying and fascinating at the same time.
By creating the promise of imminent death, and reminding readers of that death by killing off key characters, dystopian authors can weave a very compelling story that we can’t put down.
We are trying to predict the future.
Science fiction can be eerie in the way that it predicts our future quite accurately. If you look at things that Jules Verne wrote back in the late 19th century, so many things he wrote about came true, even something like the Internet. So science fiction, far from being just fantasy, might be more of a harbinger of where the human race is headed—maybe our collective human unconscious is trying to tell us something. And therefore taking it seriously is important.
We all want to know what might be in store for us or our children, and through dystopian, post apocalyptic, and apocalyptic literature, we are able to get a glimpse of what logical minds predict the future might be like. By extrapolating current trends and creating a believable future world, these authors are helping us to see what the future will bring.
Dystopian novels provide Escapism.
All fiction stories give us a momentary escape from reality. As our daily lives become increasingly free from the manual labor that used to absorb much of the energy of previous generations, we now have time to focus on the meaning of our daily lives.
We seek a way to escape from the mundane problems of our everyday life. And through dystopian novels, we find characters that are living extraordinary lives, but usually come from a mundane existence in their own world. The average person can achieve something exceptional in this alternate reality, and this is a perfect way to forget, if only for a few hours, the chores and troubles awaiting us in our life.
We can gain a sense of power in our own dystopian world.
Seeing characters overcome insurmountable odds and change the status quo gives us a sense of power in a world in which we might feel quite powerless.
Dystopia is not a deferred future—it's the present that we live in. Our current world is full of corrupt leaders, extreme pop culture, racism, sexism, terrorism (insert your own –ism here), and other themes we see in the future, fictional worlds of dystopian literature.
Through books and movies, we deal with our present dystopia by projecting it into the future. It’s our way to begin to think about what’s wrong with us right now. The Hunger Games comes out of the author's looking at reality TV shows and seeing its logical progression.
Through Dystopian novels, we get the sense that we could have power over the future; that a complete change in society is possible, brought about by individuals who believe strongly. We may have little control over the world we live in now, but in literature and movies, we feel as if the power to change the world is truly possible.
What do you think is so compelling about dystopian or end-of-world books? Share your thoughts below!