Dystopian World Building in Young Adult Lit by Guest Blogger Eric Staggs

This week my blog is taken over by writer, publisher and all around nice guy Eric Staggs. The topic he’s chosen to write about is….

Dystopian World Building in Young Adult Lit

When I was studying creative writing during my undergraduate program, one of my professors suggested that Young Adult literature wasn’t just kid’s stuff. In fact the high-end age was 22 years old. This factoid stuck with me for many years and as I watched the fiction scene change and evolve, I started to really reconsider the audiences of Young Adult fiction.

From Divergent to Hunger Games, and Mazerunner, YA fiction has become more complex, darker and embraced the dystopia. Not your traditional fare for nine-year olds. Even Harry Potter ostensibly the ultimate children’s series, becomes darkly upsetting. This departure from the expected opens doors to audiences who would traditionally avoid Young Adult literature.

One of the keys to creating a believable dystopia, which in itself provides characters with limitless challenges, is creating a consistent internal cosmology. Thankfully, authors are taking this cultural trend seriously, and creating fully fleshed out, believable worlds. As readers are exposed to more stories, more plots, in a way they become as expert as any veteran writer. An evil king just doesn’t cut it any more.

Complex systems of government are created – through research into history, politics, and often, inspired by current events. Here’s where the internal consistency comes in. An author can push the limits of plausibility through consistency. If a duck talks, that’s weird. If all ducks talk, then it’s not such a big deal, not such a shock to the system. So, in the example of Hunger Games, an oppressive oligarchy that sacrifices children in a ritual arena suddenly becomes much more plausible. When President Snow tells us (readers and viewers) through actions and dialogue that the 74th annual ritual sacrifice of children is about to occur, we accept it. It’s the 74th, after all. They’ve been doing this for sometime. It’s expected.

So how does a writer go about pushing the limits and boundaries of what audiences and readers will accept? There are a few techniques that are sure to help.


Take copious notes. Write down everything about your world. Imagine, George R. R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones and his note keeping. His work is obviously not YA, but his setting is elaborate and detailed. I imagine his notes system is some thing like a giant library, deep underground.


It’s important to take the time to document the history of your setting. The earth (our earth) has been around for a few billion years – long enough for several civilizations of humans to rise and fall. In fact, the earth has been around long enough to have non-human species evolve, rise up civilizations, and fail. Long enough for all evidence of those civilizations to disappear. No, you don’t have to document the entire prehistory of your world. But, knowing the lineage of your heroes, villains and supporting characters isn’t a bad thing. Understanding your world’s history will help you in moments when the writing is coming slow. Depending on your story’s time scale, going back a few generations is a good place to start.


Real world civilizations have some common factors – laws, resources, borders, and governments. How do these things work? If you’re writing about fascists, you’d better do some research on historical fascist regimes. The world you create will be more detailed – more believable. You will increase your plausibility and help you audience stay immersed in your tale.

These steps are going to create a flood of materials. You’ll have plenty of background information to pick and choose from. Don’t feel you’ve got to include it all – in fact you shouldn’t. But details make the story real, research reinforces internal cosmology and settings don’t just appear – they have a past, an origin.


Eric Staggs (www.ericstaggs.com) is a writer and publisher. As founder of Spectacle Publishing and Great Lakes Games, Eric works with authors at all stages in their writing careers. Learn more at his website.


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