What Is A Utopia? How Do I Write One?

What Is A Utopia? How Do I Write One?

We have all dreamed about a perfect place. How about writing your very own utopia? This post will help you create Utopian fiction.

What Is A Utopia? How Do I Write One?

Utopian fiction is about an idealized place, a perfect community, a paradise. These are well-crafted stories that need certain elements to be put into place. Let’s start by looking at what a utopia really is.

Defining ‘Utopia’

A utopia in fiction is a perfect community. Everything is in harmony. Everybody is happy. Society is fair and just, and people live without fear. It’s a place where everything is better than where we live today.

The word ‘utopia’ goes back to Sir Thomas More who coined the word as the title of his book in 1516.

According to Wikipedia, the word ‘utopia’ literally means ‘no place.’ It refers to any non-existent society. However, the English pronunciation of ‘utopia’ sounds like the Greek ‘eutopia,’ meaning ‘good place.’ Therefore, any utopia is a place inherently good for all humanity.

The opposite is a ‘dystopia,’ a place worse than our existing society. The world is chaotic, challenging, scary, and unfair in a dystopia.

Comparing the existing contemporary society to the envisioned community of a utopia (or dystopia) is essential to this genre. But there are more requirements. Here’s a list of the most important ones.

Elements Of A Utopia

While many stories contain Utopian elements, not every one of them is a utopia. The genre requirements are strict.

  1. Utopia is a secluded place. This can be an island (Thomas More, Utopia), or a remote place in the Himalayas (James Hilton, Lost Horizon). It could also exist in another time or galaxy. In William Morris’s News from Nowhere, the protagonist falls asleep and finds himself in another world.
  2. The journey is part of the story. The protagonist must take the reader along on his journey to the utopian community and back again to reality. The journey serves to distance the readers from their own society and make them focus on how society could be. As a possible journey, sailing across the ocean and being shipwrecked on an island has been used by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. James Hilton in Lost Horizon has chosen a perilous mountain climb. Should your utopia exist in another dimension, then taking a spaceship through a wormhole could work. Or how about time travel?
  3. Utopia is all about community. How is that perfect harmony achieved? How does the Utopian society deal with conflicts? What are people’s jobs and pastimes? Which human emotions are endorsed, and which are frowned upon? All these questions need to be answered. Utopias require a lot of world-building. This extends far beyond the creation of setting, characters, and conflicts. The fictional society must deal with big topics, such as the distribution of wealth, unemployment, inequality, healthcare, corruption, crime, infrastructure, and education. In these areas, a utopia has to offer a better alternative to the problems known to the readers.
  4. Utopias are stories with a mission. Lots of stories can have utopian elements, like fantasy or science fiction. The difference lies in the fact that utopias must have a clear mission. They aim to demask the shortcomings of our reality and show a way out. A utopia is a story that wants to make readers think. Some writers of Utopian fiction have written their stories as satires (here’s more on how to write a satire).
  5. Writing a utopia is incredibly challenging. Utopias aim at no less than giving answers to civilisation’s most urgent questions. It requires the writer to be aware of these problems and know enough about philosophy and science to envision a unique way of living. This genre also requires a lot of reading. So, find out about other writers’ ideas on how to remedy the great questions of their time (start with the utopias mentioned in this blog). Be bold in imagining how you could make the world a better place. For example, if your utopia has robots, then you must describe exactly what they look like, what they’re able to do, and what they’re allowed to do. How do humans make sure robots don’t become a menace?
  6. Characters and plot need extra attention. Don’t forget that a utopia is a philosophical treatise in the guise of a story. You need to make sure you create intriguing characters and memorable conflicts. The rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ is especially important here. All readers of utopias want to read a story. Otherwise, they would’ve bought a book on philosophy, right? Two types of characters come up in any utopia: The main character (MC) coming from our present day, travelling to utopia, and a utopian character that serves as a guide to the perfect society. There are some conflicts typical for this genre. Most MCs get in conflict with the utopian rules and ideals. Then, the MC must evaluate the utopian society and decide if it can be a solution to problems at home. In the end, the MC must decide if he (or she) would like to stay in the utopian community. Remember, travelling back home requires strong motivation.

A Very Short History Of Utopias

While Sir Thomas More coined the name of the genre, there are Utopian stories that are much older than that. The Bible, for example, contains descriptions of paradise and the ‘Land of Milk and Honey.’ They’re pitted against places like Sodom and Gomorrah.

Another precursor is Plato’s Republic which describes a utopian city-state.

Here are some more utopias:

  • Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (1626)
  • Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
  • Samuel Butler, Erewhon (1872)
  • William Morris, News From Nowhere (1890)
  • James Hilton, Lost Horizon (1933)
  • Gene Roddenberry, the original TV series Star Trek (1966)

Types Of Utopian Fiction

Utopian literature typically takes one prominent element of modern society that is in dire need of improvement. Then, the writer creates a perfect world around that. This has led to a few sub-genres in Utopian Fiction. For example:

  • Ecological Utopia: All about climate and natural resources
  • Feminist Utopia: where men and women are fully equal.
  • Technological Utopia: where unheard-of advances in technology have improved human life.

Of course, there are many more sub-genres possible. How about an educational utopia? Or a religious utopia? Or one where justice is the highest value?

Let’s Write A Utopia

Now that you know the theory, here’s your action plan on how to write a utopia. A word of warning before you sit down to write. Since you’re about to describe a perfect society, be prepared to do lots of plotting and little pantsing (here’s all about the difference).

  1. Decide which aspect of modern society aggravates you the most. Come up with a clever way to remedy this.
  2. Go through all aspects of society and decide how your clever idea will remedy all other evils.
  3. Decide on the remote location of your utopia.
  4. Devise a protagonist. Your MC must be in a position to know a lot about the evils of contemporary society to truly appreciate the wonders of your utopia.
  5. Decide how your protagonist will get there. Remember to include some obstacles.
  6. What’s the first impression your protagonist will get from your utopia?
  7. Decide on who the protagonist will meet in your utopia. Who will guide your MC through the perfect society?
  8. Let your protagonist learn about the perfect community step by step. How does perfection feel to the protagonist?
  9. Where does the protagonist get into conflict with the perfect society?
  10. What’s the protagonist’s motivation to come back home? Is it an extrinsic motivation (wife & family at home/ work left unfinished etc.) or an intrinsic motivation (desire to better society at home)?
  11. Devise the journey back home. Remember to include obstacles. How does the world back home react to the MC?

All set? Now you can have some fun. Write that utopia!

The Last Word

In the past years, writers seem to have written more dystopias. It is much easier to take the weak points of society today, and then amplify them to show us how bleak our future is. In this sense, dystopias serve as a wake-up call.

But we need utopias as well. We need writers who can conjure up a vision of how bright our future could be. We need dreamers to boldly imagine what is not possible today. Utopias help us shape our future.

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett. Susanne is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

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Posted on: 12th October 2023