YA dystopian: a genre with endless possibilities. It can have wildly different societal rules, amazing technologies, intricate government systems, strong characters, cool histories, and great messages.
And yet, most YA dystopian novels settle for the same old thing: crumbling villages for the poor and gleaming white cities for the rich, histories involving nuclear wars, randomly evil governments, and angry and cynical characters.
I don’t know about you, but I feel like YA dystopia is a genre full of wasted potential.
When I first started reading modern YA dystopian novels, I was at a complete loss. I couldn’t help feeling that there was something important missing from these books, but couldn’t place my finger on it. My initial response was to throw up my hands, pull a Scott Lang, and say: “I think we should call the Avengers.” Because I couldn’t think of a solution.
But after studying a few books, I finally discovered some of the main problems in dystopian novels that always make them feel a bit off. And, what’s better, I found out that this problem is actually fixable without the help of the Avengers. Not that I wouldn’t love to meet Captain America, but that’s not the point.
Anyway, I am not writing this post to rat out or make fun of dystopian novels…I like dystopian novels. I’m just pointing out some common issues within the YA dystopian genre so that we can fix some of its problems. Like with everything in writing, these are not all hard and fast rules. Use your own judgement when deciding whether these clichés actually fit in your novel or not.
Now, with that explained, let’s get started:
|Yes, I know there's a typo. I'm going to fix it. I promise.|
I asked people on Facebook what their largest pet-peeves were for dystopian novels and got some great responses. Unfortunately, I can’t include all of them because this post will run too long, but you can read them here. A few of the below are some that several of us agreed on and the top three are ones that I consider most problematic:
1. Almost all humans are bad. Modern YA dystopian books show the world as a dismal place where humanity is dying and some government-like system is committing atrocious crimes. There tends to be a lack of morality and a skewed view of life. Most of the population of the world is evil or apathetic, except for the handful of main and secondary characters. Because when the world collapses, people are just going to turn bad, right? And most of mankind is so corrupt that they’re not really worth saving, right? Sure.
Wait, what? No. NO. Dystopian novels often depict worlds that are full of completely corrupt human beings with only a few good guys. This is not how it works. Nobody is completely bad or completely good. I know it’s easier to write a story where the good guys are up against masses of mindlessly evil (or amoral) people, but that’s sloppy and overdone. Also, portraying humans as animalistic and basically evil is a very depressing view that isn't necessarily correct.
2. Humanity is not worth saving. Honestly, I find this cliché very alarming. It ties in with point 1. Most humans are evil and corrupt and have somehow had a hand in ruining things for the main character, so that character usually decides that she is no longer one of them. She takes off, trying to save herself and a handful of people she loves, not caring whether the others live or die. Because they’re so screwed up that, even if saved, they’ll just blow each other up in another few years. It would seem that helping them isn’t worth the risk. Not only do the main characters hate most of the world, but it become a “Main Character vs World” rather than “Main Character vs Evil.” Frankly, this is annoying. Rather than throwing their hands up in disgust and declaring the human race a hopeless mess, the book characters should keep going. Keep working to help and rebuild and genuinely care for their own people. Because that’s what heroes do. They restore hope and fight for what’s right.
3. Pointless darkness. The world is so ruined and dystopia-y and we’re all going to die and there’s nothing we can do but kill some zombies, or talking mutant lizards, or evil government dudes. There is no hope in success, and, even once we win, we’re not going to feel even the slightest bit accomplished about it.
Guys. Stop. Just stop. I understand that dystopian novels are supposed to present a dark and depressing world. I have no problem with that. However, dystopian novels are also supposed to show people fighting to fix this depressing world. I'm not saying everything has to be perfect in the end. But there does need to be some hope and at least a bit of joy, even if it's bittersweet. Dystopian is meant to be the whole, “when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer” concept. But now it’s the “There’s no throne. There is no version of this where humans come out on top” concept.
Stories need purpose. Many dystopian novels have none other than showing humans as animalistic and fallen. And that is helping no one.
We’re getting so caught up in making the story entertaining that we’re not making the story mean anything. Sure, having an entertaining novel is important. But it’s not everything. It is possible to be entertaining and inspiring and uplifting at the same time. I think dystopian writers often forget that. So go ahead and make your story dark. But make it dark for a reason.
4. The main character is the only person who can save the world. This is sometimes because he is somehow the only person who notices something wrong with the society. Which just doesn’t fly unless everyone else in the world is blind or incredibly stupid. Another common reason for the “MC Savior Complex” is because she joined a rebellion and suddenly became invaluable because…er…we’re not really sure. Just because he’s the main character doesn’t mean he has to be the key to saving the world. It can be a group effort…and your character doesn’t even have to be the leader of said group.
5. The big bad government. There’s usually not a specific bad guy, just an overall, vague idea of a corrupt system with hosts of nameless henchmen. While there is nothing technically wrong with this (it is, after all, the trademark of the dystopian genre), there is something very wrong with your government looking exactly like the government in other novels. The one that takes kids and puts them in violent situations (Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Divergent), the one that keeps people from being with their true loves (Matched, Delirium), the one that orders the suppression of emotions (The Giver, The Program). If you are going to create a new society and an evil government, then go for it. And if it ends up looking similar to other people’s, that’s okay. Just don’t follow the same path as everyone else because it’s easier and less risky. And don’t settle for a vaguely bad “system” that has no face....Unless you're George Orwell.
6. The not-so-subtle agenda. The dystopian novel where the author is clearly and obnoxiously pushing an agenda. You know, the dominantly gay world where straight people are abused or a story set in a matriarchal society or a depiction of extreme social Darwinism. Now, I have no problem with a book being written to expose problems in our society. In fact, that’s exactly what’s needed. However, it’s possible to overdo it. It’s like opening a Christian novel, expecting a good story, and then being whacked over the head with the Bible. Nobody likes that. Likewise, nobody likes it when you start hitting them with your views. Don’t write a propaganda pamphlet and try to pass it off as a book. Novels are supposed to be stories and themes and messages all evenly mixed together in a beautiful tapestry, not a glob of anger.
7. Unexplained events. Usually, it’s not enough to just create a dystopian world. You have to explain how it got to be that way. A lot of novels are developing the lazy habit of plopping a reader in the middle of a ruined world, shouting “Nuclear war!” and expecting that to miraculously explain everything. This is just not going to cut it. You don’t have to reveal the world's history all at once, but, at some point, you have to let the readers in on at least a bit of what happened that made the earth go so wrong. Share. Be nice like that.
8. Female protagonists galore. Look, not all dystopian novels have to feature women characters. Most of them do, and, honestly, it’s getting kind of annoying. There’s nothing wrong with a male protagonist, so don’t immediately rule them out. I'm not saying that you can't have a female main character. Just make sure you aren't deciding to do that because that's what all the other cool kids are doing.
Okay, end of analysis. *deep breaths*
What do you think? Are there any points I missed? Or were there points that you simply disagree with? Leave your thoughts below! I love connecting ideas with fellow readers and writers.
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