Dystopia Definition & Characteristics

By Rebecca Ray

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We all dream of perfection: the carefully honed physicality and skill of an olympic athlete; the perfect family meal, like a Norman Rockwell painting; the perfectly harmonious society, with everyone happily going about their lives. But perfection comes at a cost, and remains perpetually out of reach. This contradiction is just one of the reasons dystopias have captivated readers of all ages. The idea of a utopia, juxtaposed with the stark reality that it can never exist, makes a compelling setting for social commentary and critique.

As we expose our students to reading multiple genres, it's essential for them to understand the patterns and nuances an author uses. What makes dystopian fiction different from an epic or a play? In this lesson plan, you will find the elements of a dystopia, characteristics of dystopian literature, and ways to teach the terminology while getting students to create fun storyboards about the concept.

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Utopia vs. Dystopia

The word “utopia” was coined by Sir Thomas More for his book about an ideally organized society. It is from the Greek topos meaning “place”. The prefix is intentionally ambiguous; in Greek the prefix ou- means “not”, while the prefix eu- means “good”. So a u-topia could either be a “good-place”, or a “not-place”; an imaginary place.

One of the oldest recorded and most widely known utopias is the Garden of Eden. A utopia is a perfect society, where everything is ideally organized, and residents go about their lives happily.

Define dystopia as the opposite of a utopia, using the prefix dys-, from the Greek for “bad”. It is a flawed society, dys-functional and undesirable. In literature, these two terms often coincide. Many dystopias look idyllic to begin with, but over the course of the story reveal their true nature: sinister and flawed.

Common Elements of a Dystopia

Some dystopias are savage desert wastelands, empty of plants and filled with lawless bandits and warlords. That kind of dystopia isn’t often confused with a utopia though; the really dangerous dystopias are the ones that appear to be perfect on the surface, but are secretly horrible.

Here are so common elements of these “totalitarian” dystopias:

The people are restricted from independent thought and action People are not free to make their own choices in life, the government chooses for them.
The government in control is often oppressive An oppressive government is often overbearing, has constant surveillance on its people, creates curfews, has military control, and suppresses its people.
The setting is often futuristic or in a fictional universe The setting is often in the future, or in a fictional universe, after a massive war or catastrophe. This helps explain the different structure of society, and justify the the power of government.
Contains elements of conformity, or extreme equality People are forced to be very similar and conform to the rules and expectations that the government has set forth.
The government portrays their society as a utopia They use propaganda and subtle manipulation to trick their people into believing things are perfect.
The protagonist wishes to restore the people to conventional life The main character has a moment of clarity and realizes the problems in the society. They try to make a change to 'free the people'.

Show the Elements of Dystopia  

Show the Elements of Dystopia  

Grade Level: 6-12


Although this lesson can be used for many grade levels, below are the Common Core State Standards for grade 8. Please see your Common Core State Standards for the correct grade-appropriate strands.

Lesson-Specific Essential Questions

  1. Why is it necessary to look at different forms of society?
  2. What would life be like if we were all the same?
  3. Why can’t we live in a perfect world? Would you want to?


Students will be able to define dystopia and utopia. They will also understand how this genre differs from other genres of literature.

Before Reading

Before reading a novel with a dystopian world, go over the definition and the common elements of this genre with your students. It is helpful to have students compare and contrast the meaning of utopia and dystopia. Have students think of movies with elements of dystopias and utopias, and have a class discussion about them. Coming up with a list is a great activator to get them started. They could also create a storyboard comparing and contrasting two movies, or a dystopia and utopia.

During or After Reading

While students are reading, or after they have completed the reading, ask them to create a storyboard showing the major elements of a dystopia. They can include, characters, settings, direct quotes, and explanations of each element.

Create a Storyboard

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•   (English) Elements of Dystopia   •   (Español) Elementos de Distopia   •   (Français) Éléments de Dystopia   •   (Deutsch) Elemente der Dystopie   •   (Italiana) Elementi di Dystopia   •   (Nederlands) Elementen van Dystopia   •   (Português) Elementos de Distopia   •   (עברית) אלמנטים של דיסטופיה   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) عناصر من الواقع المرير   •   (हिन्दी) तबाह देश के तत्वों   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Элементы Dystopia   •   (Dansk) Elementer af Dystopia   •   (Svenska) Element av Dystopia   •   (Suomi) Elementtejä Dystopia   •   (Norsk) Elementer av Dystopia   •   (Türkçe) Distroptinin Elemanları   •   (Polski) Elementy Tętnicy Piersiowej   •   (Româna) Elemente de Distopia   •   (Ceština) Prvky Dystopia   •   (Slovenský) Prvky Dystopie   •   (Magyar) Elemei Dystopia   •   (Hrvatski) Elementi Distopije   •   (български) Елементи на Дистопията   •   (Lietuvos) Elementai Distopijos   •   (Slovenščina) Elementi Distopije   •   (Latvijas) Elementi Sīmors   •   (eesti) Elemendid Dystopia