Maybe you’ve already published a post-apocalyptic or dystopian book, and you’re selling like hotcakes? Then you must have dealt with some major tropes of the genre, congrats! You’ve probably hit the exact tropes of your reader niche. Yet, you did it with an original touch to offer a unique reading experience.
Let’s face it, readers expect to find familiar elements but they don’t fancy a rip-off. The latter leads to acidic one-star reviews and public shaming.
Who is Your Comp Author?
Tropes? That sounds like we authors just imitate the big names of the industry. No, the fans who pick up our books, crave zombies, nuclear war, oppressive government, and a handful of friends surviving against the impossible odds (or fighting each other to the death). But they also enjoy different plot styles, writer’s voice, and a novel approach to a trustworthy concept,
Check out the bestsellers in your genre; pick a sub-genre you love.
Then start wading through the reviews from five to one star to find what you have in common with that particular bestseller. Remember to choose an indie author who didn’t publish yesterday but manages to sell hundreds of copies a day after the feeding frenzy of a book launch has turned into grease calm.
What do your reviews have in common with the big indie names? If you haven’t written your story yet, it doesn’t matter. You have a reading history: what do you admire & love? Do you want to write like those authors? Then research why readers buy their books. It’s all spelled out in the reviews.
Science Fiction is a broad category. It encompasses Star Trek (Space Opera) and The Walking Dead (Zombie Apocalypse), and Military Science Fiction, not to mention aliens and colonization. In some areas, the books and movies close in on Fantasy or Romance. Some authors mix genres deliberately and manage to sell but I wouldn’t recommend that if this is your first book.
Not all post-apocalyptic fans look for zombies (who doesn’t love zombies?) Well, fans of The Hunger Games, for example. YA fighting arena is a separate field.
The level of fact-checking also varies from one sub-genre to another. If you write Military Science Fiction (or anything about the military) be sure to check your ammo, tactical terms, and ranks! Or you’ll be heading for those one-star reviews. Hard Science Fiction is another tough category. If your post-apocalyptic novel wants to attract the hard science nerds, double-check your A-bomb’s radiation particles and their half-life.
Common Post-apocalyptic Tropes
What caused the apocalypse? This question offers a thousand origin stories: nuclear war, deadly virus epidemic, drought, flood…
What happened before, during, and after the cataclysmic event. You can form ideologies, alternative history paths and legends told to those who weren’t around to see the event.
Characters: if you’re a fan, you’ve seen it all. Take TWD: what a diverse group of survivors! The main character must have an origin story and the end of the world offers beautiful ways to change a character (character arc, remember?). The people around you: your family/friends, colleagues: how would they change after a nuclear war? How would your granny react to zombies?
Rebuilding: who controls it? Shall the survivors get a society they dreamt of or is it another nightmare? Do your people just carry on, as usual, weathering the storm?
Here’s a list of great tropes & cliches to recycle:
Nothing stops you from starting a string in Quora, Facebook, or Reddit. Ask which cliches people love or hate. Goodreads has plenty of post-apocalyptic and sci-fi-related book groups. Everyone seems to hate a cliche but you might ask: “which dystopian tropes you like,” or “which author recycled the chosen one- cliche best?”
Sometimes finding inspiration to write yet another future world is difficult. Science fiction gives you creative freedom but the readers expect certain tropes. So many movies and books have enticed audiences, many of them with breathtaking views of famous cities which lie in ruin. Some writers trust what’s been written before. Why invent the wheel again? In addition to the setting, a writer must invent fashion, food, customs and decide how women and androids are treated in front of the law (among a thousand other details which make the world in question believable and rich).
Dystopia in popular culture
Some common visions rule our imagination about the not-so-distant future: the dusty wastelands of Mad Max and the uni-clothed people walking along the clean streets of cities (The Giver, 2014 and Equals, 2015). Popular culture might seem pulp, but sometimes a book or motion picture makes a lasting impression on our joint subconsciousness. Blade Runner’s (1982) dark & wet Asian metropolis is iconic. No one can dispute a setting like that. Ghost in the Shell (original 1995, and a beautiful remake with Scarlett Johansen playing the main role, 2017) recycled the technocratic nightmare city with heavenly imagery. The Matrix movies have warped our perception of reality since 1999 and inspired countless directors and writers.
Many creators believe that the future is a scrappy version of today’s world: take George Orwell’s 1984, or Snowpiercer (movie, 2014). There’s nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, reusing familiar items offers an author countless ways for novelty. What is precious in the future? Something the people of today discarded as worthless? Which vehicles create future mechanics because they are super easy to maintain?
How to dress for dystopia
If you write post-apocalyptic books like me, you’d empty the last hairspray bottle in the world to mold a gravity-defying punk hair-do and wrap your body into the leather (with plenty of spiked accessories). Every sensible nomadic scavenger wears sturdy boots and carries guns. On the other hand, every one of us recognizes the red hood from The Handmaid’s Tale. Wearing that is a feminist statement. Some future people value clean lines. Moviemakers love to dress evil into designer power suits.
Need more? Check Pinterest for character inspiration. Making mood boards there is beyond easy. Or watch what artists create on Deviant Art but mind copyright.
Nuclear war plunged them into perpetual winter. The survivors must rely on their wits and courage. Beware—you never know who wants to stab you in the back. If you’re a fan of Snowpiercer or the Mad Max movies, you’ll love this post-apocalyptic survival story with fierce females taking the lead. Plenty of action!
I love George Orwell’s 1984. Everyone had to read this dystopian nightmare at school and the teacher didn’t accept no for an answer. I was 14 when the jubilant year 1984 came around. I loved sports: reading was my least favorite pastime. I’m glad she forced me because the book blew my mind. I cried when I reached the ending (a masterful approach to spiritual death).
So you have that Finnish teacher of literature to thank for my books (and this blog). I’ve dreamt of writing like Orwell and my dystopian book, Unholy Warrior stemmed from that dream. I put my main character through some horrific ordeals but I think the rat cage in 1984 is far worse.
I’ve read Orwell’s classic dozens of times, and each reading reveals a new layer. His characters are living, breathing people, and the English language easy-flowing, hinging on perfect.
Everyone knows that book because George Orwell foresaw the use of audiovisual equipment to spy on citizens- a nightmare all too real after the digital revolution. For me, the book is memorable because of Winston Smith and his doomed love affair with Julia.
And here comes the character-related writing advice:
Whether you write thrillers or fantasy, you’ll engage your Main Character in battles for life and limb. Nothing beats experience when it comes to describing a sequence of near combat. Take classes in Jiu Jutsu or Krav Maga if your hero uses his body to stand up for himself. You don’t have to engage in a Mixed martial arts cage fight to know how it feels. The beginner’s course in any martial art will help you sort out a few basic questions. I watch clips of Michelle Waterson or Ronda Rousey to learn. The MMA and WWE sports are different from Hollywood fight scenes. The fighters bind each other, and the straight punches which reach the opponent with a thud/smack belong mostly to the movies.
Rebane Nordstrom- my MC in Unholy Warrior, fights dirty and my book features some iconic Russian Systema moves to evade an overpowering assailant. I asked my Defendo instructor to attack me- the things we go through to write! Don’t worry, he went easy on me, but I never forget to raise my hands to shield my chin after that. One hit to the jaw and: lights out. Only in Hollywood do people get hit in the head with a metal pipe and go on kicking. In real life, you’d earn a visit to the ER with a skull fracture and a brain injury.
There’s nothing wrong with creative freedom. If you have dragons and magic in your book, what stops you from inventing new fighting skills? Forget realism but remember a few basic rules which help your readers relate to your MC: the danger is an inherent part of raising the stakes. You must allow your hero to be weaker than the opponent at times.
Choose Your Weapons
A baton can do terrible damage at the hands of a skilled user, but when you get threatened with a knife, the stakes assume a different intensity.
One cut can bleed your hero out, or sever a tendon (which means your arm or leg becomes useless). Blocking someone wielding a blade isn’t simple. Books and videos offer help to a writer. I like to refer to Combat Knives and Knife Combat by Dietmar Pohl & Jim Wagner, but you can find great resources on Youtube as well. If you want to get the hang of sword fights, join a Kendo club or try some Medieval martial arts the European way.
At Arm’s Length
One trick I like to use when I write a battle is grabbing anything at arm’s length in the setting and throwing it at the opponent. This is an essential skill in writing action: you cannot omit the environment even if you don’t want to utilize foreign objects.
Consider these elements:
Are your opponents facing each other on an open field or in a tight space?
What dangers are present besides the assailant(s)? Can traffic or avalanche kill the hero?
What can the MC use to his advantage?
The season: darts of wind-hurled snow can stop you from seeing, and the wind will raise clouds of sand. It’s hard to escape in knee-deep snow, and a sweaty combatant is difficult to grab.
The time of day: will darkness provide cover or the sun blind you? The atmosphere of the fight is vital!
Escape is always an option: can the MC run without being hit in the back by a bullet or an arrow? Remember to zig-zag, which makes the bad guy miss.
Can the heroine speak her way out of a threatening situation? Both escape and avoiding the battle altogether are the wisest options if you listen to my Defendo instructor.
Use the element of surprise: a trained soldier will see the punch coming if you draw your arm back before you strike.
Every kick and punch must be backed up with the rotation of the torso and the weight of your body. There is the correct and the wrong way to do this.
Both clips have high energy, and I love the moment when Daniel Craig watches how the attacker dies.
The last clip is from the Kurt Russell movie Breakdown. A car chase evolves into a duel between a semi-trailer and pickup truck. The fighters wield multiple weapons and the use of the deadly bridge, in the end, is a stroke of genius: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ovVlk6jCBY
Don’t Overdo The Details and Mind The Players
Know the capabilities and weaknesses of your hero/heroine before you tap your fight scene. My MCs (so far) are women who get attacked by opponents with a larger mass. Evasive movements allow them to strike back and to go for the opponent’s sensitive parts. When it comes to the laws of physics, a force has both magnitude and direction. If your knight is a big guy, he’ll use his mass as a blunt force weapon. Wearing armor and yielding the long sword is hard work, especially if you’re trying to stay on top of a galloping horse at the same time.
In the receiving end of the blows, anatomy, and physiology come into play. If your book takes place in the Middle Ages, knowing the common battlefield injuries helps you understand the weapons of the era. Find out what a beating causes to the human body. The method isn’t used as torture for nothing! The physiological side becomes increasingly important if you write murder mysteries and the key leads come from the killer’s ammo and the ME’s autopsy report.
Letting the reader glimpse a hidden world is a standard trick in the thriller and mystery genres. For example, the usual “slitting of the throat” in Hollywood style isn’t the way to go if you’re a commando sneaking upon a German guard in WWII. I was quite proud of myself when I wrote the “correct” way. However, my training as a Radiographer caused me to overdo the anatomy lesson. No one wants to know if your MC cuts the external or internal carotid artery of the victim with her knife! When your knowledge broadens, the temptation to write detailed descriptions (which get in the way of action) increases.
Don’t Teach The Bird To Fly Or The Fish To Swim
If something comes naturally to your character, use it. Remember Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man (1976)? The movie shows him running from the start and in the climax, he outruns the Nazi’s henchman. The film is a classic thriller for a reason. I never looked at dentists the same way after Laurence Olivier’s excellent performance as the Villain Dr. Christian Szell. Dustin Hoffman excels as well, and the film has terrific control of tension build-ups and releases all the way through.
The fight-or-flight response is automated because it helped animals survive the challenges of evolution. The symptoms, which even the most battle-hardened hero experiences, offer a writer many ways to put the reader into the skin of the character:
Acceleration of heart and lung action; you breath faster and your heart gallops
Paling or flushing, or alternating between both
Digestion slows down or stops- long-term stress causes harm
General effect on the sphincters of the body (urinary tract and bowel)
Constriction of blood vessels
The liberation of metabolic energy for muscular action
Dilation of blood vessels for muscles- the blood gets directed to the places which you need for resistance or escape.
Inhibition of the lacrimal gland (responsible for tear production) and salivation- your mouth becomes dry, and you cannot release tears
Dilation of the pupil
Relaxation of the bladder- you need to pee, or you wet yourself
Loss of hearing- you don’t remember everything afterward!
Tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision)- anyone who has experienced this knows what I’m talking about
Overactive or overresponsive reflexes. Adrenaline or noradrenaline facilitate preparation for violent muscular action.
Uncontrollable shaking or shivering
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fight-or-flight_response The subjective experience of danger is unique. Don’t forget to describe the character’s emotions. Remember, the fight-flight reaction impairs some senses and enhances others. The emotional response is delayed in most cases. Allow your heroine to deal with a traumatic memory afterward as she heals from her wounds. The rule of action-reaction, remember?
The natural capabilities of the MC help him deal with a surprise attack. You can train your hero until basic moves flow from his muscle memory—this method is used by law enforcement and the military. But anyone who has experienced a traumatic situation knows the phenomenon of freezing. The same person can fight successfully on one occasion and freeze on the next.
“Fight flight freeze is a description of our responses to threat. In recent years, the fawn response has been added. To fight is to confront the threat aggressively. Flight means you run from the danger. When you freeze, you find yourself unable to move or act against the threat. With fight and flight both unavailable to you, you may find yourself hiding from the danger. Fawn is the response of complying with the attacker to save yourself.”
So, you have a theme in mind: justice, revenge, friendship- a theme can be anything. But a great idea has to be universal- it must play the heartstrings of your readers. It knots into the expectations of your audience. The central psychology of stories varies somewhat by the era. If you want your book to surface among the classics, you must have the longevity of a timeless theme. You have to touch upon the common sub-consciousness: story and character archetypes which have been passed on in literature, movies, and music.
What does your villain symbolize? What does he/she stand for? This is important.
Evil Dressed Up
Christianity has embedded the notions of good and evil into western writing. Great monotheistic religions have similar theories of hell and the devil. The antagonist, if he is a real villain in the classical sense, embodies the ancient idea of the dark one.
We love evil characters. I know I do. Some of the actors I admire have played iconic embodiments of darkness: like Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s list. What could be eviler than a man who shoots a small boy in the back, or tortures a defenseless woman daily?
The antagonist is a vessel for your book’s theme. He dresses up the devil. He is the opposite of your hero’s goal. But remember that evil must be proved through constant actions of vileness. If you litter the pages of your villain with murder and mutilation, one good deed gets more attention.
You want your readers to understand your antagonist, don’t you?
If he/she doesn’t have a tiny speck of goodness, how could people relate to his story? The nightmare embodied has to be understandable. Some of the best monsters show mercy or love to the heroine/hero: like Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter protecting the main character, Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.
Ways to show a bit of good inside bad
He/she doesn’t understand what he/she is doing
The villain thinks that he is right, that he has the proper moral grounds
Ends sanctify the means: world-domination is required to set history straight
He suffered from violence and abuse as a child
He is a psychopath- and this is really hard to relate to but makes him interesting if you do your research
He understands the meaning of his actions in the end
Love redeems him. I don’t believe in this one because we each love in our way. Evil loves with murder and violence loves with a punch in the eye. If you have serious writing skills, you can make this one float though.
He loves animals or his children. He can’t be totally evil, can he?
Of course, if your villain is simply seething with malevolence, you can kill him in the end. Justice is redeemed and you stand your moral ground.
In real life, the most ruthless violent bastard usually wins. I’m sorry.
Remember that some of the cruelest monsters in world history have believed in their own ideology. Whatever you can conjure from the depths of hell, can never compare to the good intentions which have paved the road to the real-life inferno of genocide.
A good villain can be a pain in the ass for your protagonist. But does he talk to you? If you’re like me, he/she bothers you when you should fall asleep or drive a car, or take the kids to daycare.
How is his/her voice? Raspy? Seducing? Deep? Beware of cliches. How about whiny, wiry, oppressing?
Describing hands or voice or movement is more fertile than the usual color of eyes and hair. What are his mannerisms and bad habits? How does he move? What does he do for a living? And the job is essential. It’s the first question which we ask when we make acquaintance.
If you want to twist the usual clichés, give him a job which conflicts with his evil.
Thinking about actors who could play your villain helps to visualize your monster. You can find animated gifs about almost every actor from the roles they’ve played. I use the gifs to describe different facial expressions and movements.
If your style is film noir, look up 40’s faces. If your princess of horror roams the distant future, try sci-fi movie actresses.
Searching the web with words like “greatest movie villains” will most likely offer you a library of wickedness which you can build from.
Each depiction is famous for a reason.
If you’re a history buff like me, you will find a catalog of despicable people on the pages of history books. I like to have a real-life equivalent for my villains.
Letting the antagonist answer your questions during a character interview is a great way to get to know your villain.
To avoid information indigestion, make your own list, which suits the novel you are writing at the moment.
And finally, check out your favorite books. Read the epic pages which:
introduce the villain and describe him
what happens to him in the end?
How does the writer show some admirable traits among the constant darkness of evil?
What’s his relationship with the hero/heroine?
What are his mannerisms, his bad habits, his job, his hobbies, etc.? President Snow tended to roses in his garden in The Hunger Games. And his role was played by one of the greatest character actors: Donald Sutherland.
What does he stand for?
How do you identify with the antagonist? Can you understand his motives? Why?
I keep a writer’s journal on my favorite villains. I have page after page of classic villainy from the authors I respect. There’s no way- ever- my villain can topple O’Brien in George Orwell’s 1984.