Utopian stories are undeservedly far less popular than the closely related genre, dystopia. After all, most people assume that if there are no corrupt politicians, zombies, or mass environmental destruction in your speculative fiction, it just won’t be interesting. However, just because utopian stories don’t rely on cheap thrills and quick action scenes doesn’t mean they’re completely without conflict.
Utopian stories get a bad reputation for being challenging to write well, but like any other genre, once you understand the formula for creating a utopia, it’ll be just as easy as writing any other story!
What is a Utopia?
To put it simply, a utopia is a community that is perfect.
True utopias can only exist in fiction, though any community can have utopian elements. Commonly, the term is used to refer to political utopias, in which all the social problems of the community have been solved, such as poverty, homelessness, and inequality. A utopia is like a caricature of an idealized society.
A utopia can be a small neighborhood, a city, a country, or even a world. If you wanted to, the whole galaxy in which your fictional world resides could be part of a unified utopia.
What are Utopias Used for in Fiction?
There are two main types of utopias that often appear in fiction: true utopias, and false utopias.
True utopian stories are stories in which characters are not troubled by outside threats, and instead have to deal with their own internal struggles. In a world in which all their physical and financial needs are met, the only problems they will be left to deal with are their insecurities, relationships, personal goals, morality, religion, and so forth.
These stories tend to be character-centric, focusing not on the society itself but rather on the impacts it has on the characters. With that said, your worldbuilding for the utopian society still needs to be convincing. You just have to keep in mind that the setting is the backdrop for the story, not the main event—even in a genre named after the setting in which it is written.
In many ways, these stories explore the nature of humankind, while calling into question what it truly means for a society to be perfect.
False utopias are societies that appear perfect, but hide deep dark secrets and terrible flaws.
False utopian stories take a much more cynical approach, and operate more like a social commentary. These stories show that perfection is unattainable, and trying to achieve perfection in one regard will only come at the expense of something else.
False utopian stories often show a society that started with good intentions, but made morally objectionable choices to achieve its goals. For example, a society could strive to eradicate crime. The obvious choice is to increase funding to social services, ensure everyone makes a living wage, and ensure safe housing is available to all. However, crimes are still likely to happen even when all the needs of a community are met. Solutions like that don’t account for crimes of passion, after all. So, the utopia becomes a surveillance state, removes all privacy for civilians, and monitors everything and everyone at all times to prevent crime. Sure, it may keep the citizens safer, but at the cost of personal privacy and freedom.
These societies often utilize extensive propaganda campaigns to help achieve their goals and maintain their image of paradise.
A false utopia is different from a dystopia in the sense that, to outside observers, a false utopia would look and seem just like a utopia. Only once the dark secrets of the society are discovered is its true nature revealed.
How to Write a Utopia
Writing a utopian story can be challenging, but that doesn’t mean you should shy away from it. As with any challenge, breaking it up into manageable chunks can help get you on the right track.
The main things you will need to consider in order to write a utopian story are:
The foundation of a utopia is the ideal behind it. To create a perfect society, you have to first consider what the biggest problems in society are, and what can be done to remedy them.
Here are some examples of the kinds of problems a utopian society would want to address:
- Climate change
- Natural disasters
- Inaccessible healthcare
- Substance abuse
- Corruption in politics
- Inhumane prison systems
- Lack of infrastructure
- Poor schools
- And more
How do you want to tackle those problems? Do you want to tell a story that is cynical and sarcastic? Do you want to show an attempt at genuine goodwill and how it can fall apart? Do you have real ideas for how these problems can be addressed to build a perfect society? Regardless, the ideals themselves and the structure of the society will lay the groundwork for your entire story, so make sure you give it some thought.
As a side note, your utopia should not attempt to eliminate genetic differences—that’s eugenics, and certainly not a good basis for a perfect society. This of course does not apply if you’re writing a false utopia and that’s the entire point of your story: for something that seems beneficial to cause real harm in practice.
Controlling diversity is inherently dystopian.
Once you know which problems you want the society to address, you then have to consider how they solve those problems and what the society looks like as a result. You don’t want your story to be exactly like every other story, so try to be innovative with how you tackle each problem.
For a society to be truly perfect, you need to explain how they control crime, feed and house the homeless, provide all the services to meet the needs of its civilians, and much more. You may find that trying to solve one problem complicates a different problem. For example, how can you solve affordable transportation problems without causing more harm to the environment? How can technology be improved without trampling on the personal privacy and job security of individuals? How can crime be addressed without an industrialized prison system? All these problems need to be considered as part of one large network of interrelated issues, and altering any one problem is likely to impact many other areas of society.
More broadly, you’ll need to consider what society looks like, how the government is structured, and everything about the society that will differ from what readers expect. If your utopian world has robots that help people with their day-to-day lives, then you need to make sure you put serious thought into all the details of those robots, such as: What do they look like? Who manufactures these robots? How do they work? What are they programmed to do, and what are the limits of their abilities? And so on and so forth.
The world and the plot should be inextricably intertwined. You should have a setting that works with the plot of the story, to the point where you should not be able to tell the same story in a different context. All the details need to be well-thought-out and tailored specifically to the story you want to tell.
If you need some extra help figuring this part out, check out Creating a Fictional Culture: Step by Step.
Characters are the driving force behind all utopian stories. Since much of the plot of utopian stories centers around the human experience and the individual characters’ internal struggles, the characters themselves need to be worth reading about. The characters need to be complex, with distinct goals, flaws, and rich personalities. They need to be interesting, and they have to have a good reason for acting out in a society that claims to meet their every need.
Creating interesting characters is a neverending struggle for writers everywhere, so I have a few articles to help with this process as well.
Aside from the standard practice of creating great characters to begin with, you also need to consider what role they play within the utopian story. Are they skeptics? Do they agree with the way society is being run? Are they native to the utopia? What is their daily life like inside a perfect community? How do they manage breakups, school, work, mental health, social connection, human emotion, and everything else inherent to the human experience in this world?
Additionally, a utopian setting can be a great place to play with antiheroes and other characters who possess less-than-perfect qualities. Regardless of the state of the world, humans will continue to be imperfect creatures.
Your characters are the one thing that can make a static utopia host to the most interesting story in the world. The (not so secret) secret is conflict.
Conflict is key when it comes to writing any story, not just a utopia. The difference with this genre, of course, is the fact that conflict often comes from within the characters. For example, a character living in a utopia might still feel unsatisfied with their life. They may question why they can’t be happy even when everything is perfect, and they could embark on a quest to find fulfillment or excitement. Another character might be living the perfect life in this utopia until their spouse or partner decides to dump them, and then they have to deal with the heartbreak while everyone around them is all sunshine and rainbows. Yet another character could be unable to resist their vices of substance abuse or other illicit activity, leading not only to internal guilt but the external consequences of their crimes.
Another option for creating conflict in your utopian story is to create pressure from the outside. Maybe a different society is threatening the safety and security of the utopia, or some other threat is disrupting the perfect lifestyle people have. If you’re playing with artificial intelligence, you could have a robot uprising. If your story involves gods, then maybe they interfere to stop the society from competing with the realm of the gods.
If you need help generating ideas for conflict, checking out The 4 Main Types of Conflict in Stories (And Variations!) might help!
If nothing bad happens in the story, nothing happens at all. Storytelling is the process of creating and solving problems under many layers of creative liberty. Conflict moves a story, and without it, there simply isn’t a story.
No utopian story would be complete without a heavy dose of contrast. Whether you’re contrasting the utopia with other not-so-perfect communities around it, or you’re contrasting the utopia with its own past, all utopian stories rely on contrast to further emphasize the conditions of the society.
You can get really creative with how you play with contrast in your story. You can contrast the utopia with an alternate version of itself in which it’s a dystopia, or you could show disparities between the stated goals of a society and the actual actions taken by it. You could show how one society is only able to prosper by taking advantage of a different society. You could show how one single character dissents while the masses are content to live in the utopia. Even contrasting the perfection of the utopia with the inherent imperfection of humankind can be a fun angle to explore.
Any time you’re dealing with absolutes, you should take a moment to consider what the opposite condition looks like. Not only does contrast add interest to the overall setting, but it can also be a source of potential conflict and development.
Should You Write a Utopian Story?
The question of whether you should write a utopian story or not has a delightfully simple answer: of course you should! It’s not even a question people should be asking!
Utopian stories are not given the attention from writers that the genre truly deserves. If you want to write a story that includes a utopia, you shouldn’t be apprehensive about it. If the story you have to tell needs to exist within a society without flaws, then go for it! If you want to use a utopia to make a commentary about the world or human experience or anything at all, you shouldn’t let anyone stop you. Only you know how to write the story that’s in your head.
People will always try to tell you what you can and cannot write. But really though, there is no such thing as a canonized set of rules to follow when writing fiction. If there was, people wouldn’t be able to successfully break those rules all the time. Writing is a creative pursuit and ultimately, you’re the one in control of what you create, why you create it, and how you share it with the world. If you manage to pull off your true vision, there will be readers out there who appreciate what you’ve made.
So keep your heads up, writers! You got this!