Why would be choose to use a setting like a post-apocalyptic future, a depressing dystopia, or some form of apocalypse in the future to set our story in? Because you don’t know how good you have it till it’s gone.
If this is what you know…
… but this is suddenly your reality in the story…
… it makes you take a second look at everything you have and have been taking for granted.
“Crapsack World” – in short, anything that CAN go wrong, HAS gone wrong.
There is a cathartic fun to crapsack worlds in storytelling. It puts your heroes in the absolute worst spot possible, and tells them to sink or swim. There is no question the hero has to dig deep and find reserves of strength, will, fortitude, and guts to survive in what should be an inhospitable landscape. But there is also a silver-lining: when your backdrop is this dark, and tiny speck of light stands out that much more. Something that would be a normal act of kindness, like sharing food, isn’t necessarily a heroic act in a perfect world where you can just hit the vending machine or walk to the fridge. But in story where most of the food is gone and everyone is starving, that same act of sharing food with another person comes at cost to the one sharing. That changes the act to being one of self-sacrifice!
Even if it’s not a total crapsack world, and is instead just your garden variety dystopia…
… it can still be very cathartic. No matter which dark setting you pick, the setting itself provides a warning to the audience of what letting our worst sins run rampant can lead to. The heroes existing in the dystopia might look a little braver for being in it and not succumbing to the same sins that the world around them has.
“Why the pessimism? Why are we so attracted to ‘dark future’ stories? Why don’t we have more happy, “Star Trek” type stories with optimistic futures?”
Well, life happens in cycles: we don’t know what the future holds, but we can look to the past and understand that from any one point in time, there are three possible outcomes: things stayed the same, things got better, or things got worse. Sometimes, much, much worse.
Generally speaking, we don’t know what future we’ll have past today; would it be the optimistic future of Star Trek, the dystopian future of Firefly, or the crapsack world of Warhammer 40k?
We don’t know.
Here’s what we do know: most people living today, (and I’m speaking in general terms here compared to all of human history), actually have it pretty good.
It’s not a perfect world we live in, but for many, it’s not the Zombie Apocalypse, the Terminator future, or the Mad Max madness that we see in those films, either. In fact, it’s a long way from those. For most people, (not all), most basic needs are met, and we can even indulge in our wants.
So if things are good right NOW, what makes the more contrasting story?
- Things being the same
- Things being better
- Things being worse
The answer is, “worse”.
When it comes to fantasizing about the future and wanting to tell a story that other people will read, you’re looking to have CONFLICT; there are internal conflicts and external conflicts, and one of the easiest ways to provide those is if something is wrong in the world.
“I am not Starfire” is a story where the central character, Mandy, is complaining that her parent is too rich, too famous, too powerful, and that being their kid is just too much to handle; she wants to be angry at Starfire for her success and walk of the SAT’s halfway through, yet still have the audience believe Mandy is the good guy here. It might entertain a few people, but overall is going to miss the boat with a wider audience. That conflict is very narrow, and to be frank, makes the protagonist seem extremely shallow and selfish. Even as she gets powers and saves the day at the end, most of the themes are about just accepting how awesome you already are, and during a good portion of the book the protagonist flat-out has zero appreciation for her talented, successful, hero mother who was a literal slave before coming to Earth and actually overcame an immense amount of trauma.
The drama here is that Mandy has to find her place in this world, but for many readers, her plight rings false; the real issue isn’t that the world doesn’t accept her, it’s that she doesn’t accept the world, and wants the world to change to accept her as she is right now. Most of the conflict is internal, the stakes are personal and fairly low, and to be frank, it’s a pretty lousy story and adaptation of DC’s characters like Starfire. But I’m using the example because the setting for the story is essentially what we all would wish for: at least one loving parent, fame, fortune, and having an open future with all possibilities available. Against that bright backdrop, any negativity really stands out and becomes even more negative.
On the other hand, stories like “Battle Royale”, where a class of kids are dropped onto an island and forced to fight to the death is a story with much higher stakes and conflicts.
Getting dropped into a game of death has been played with in, “The Hunger Games”, “No Escape”, and more, because the setting provides an instant high-stakes conflict that automatically is pushing on the characters and threatening them at the highest possible level.
The dystopian setting ups the ante: it’s live or die for the characters. Does being a hero help or hurt you in this scenario? Do you stand by your principles, or just try to live and call surviving a principle? The problems are a hell of a lot more serious than internal drama about, ‘why does everyone love my mommy so much!?’
With such an extreme backdrop, any noble quality really pops out. Did you give that kid some of your food and let yourself go hungry? That’s not a big deal in a world where you can just run to the vending machine and grab a snack, but it’s a huge deal in a world where everyone is dying of hunger. That can be a huge power of the setting when we talk about story telling.
Optimistic stories definitely have their place, too. It’s just that since we face the future with uncertainty, it’s usually already tinged with fear. A lot of these future stories tap into something we already feel about the future and runs with it.
I’m definitely a fan of optimistic stories and a future where everything works out. On the other hand, I also recognize the inherent drama and conflict futures-gone-wrong provide in story telling, and I can accept that for a lot of writers, it captures their imagination. It becomes an easy “in” for providing high stakes and high pressure to their characters, and becomes a dark backdrop where any dose of goodness or heroism really stands out.