Friday, September 4, 2015

8 Stereotypes in YA Dystopian Novels


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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40 comments:

  1. Couldn't agree more with #4 I've never understood why main characters have to be the key to saving the world.

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    1. Yep. I always think that one kind of reflects our egocentric society.

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    2. I don't know about this one. The main character doesn't need to be the only one who COULD save the world, but they do need to be the one who actually does it. Otherwise, why write the story about them?

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    3. Good point, Molly. However, maybe the MC can be part of a group who helps save the world rather than being the sole savior. Or the MC is a friend of the savior. Or even somebody who doesn't believe in saving the world, but changes his/her mind after seeing somebody they love fight to do so. Many possibilities, and it would help people see that they don't have to save the world in order to be special.

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  2. Great post!! As I'm currently writing a YA Christian dystopian, I need to keep these in mind!

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    1. Awesome! I'm glad you enjoyed it! I'm writing a Christian dystopian short story right now. Didn't realize how much fun this genre is. =)

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  3. Funny, I've heard this idea a lot lately, that girls are taking over the protagonist-segment in YA novels of any sub-genre. I suppose I can't argue with that :) I don't necessarily mind though, because most of the time, the characters make sense. But, yes, sometimes, I like reading about a guy doing stuff, lol :) Great list, Hannah!

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    1. Yeah, it's pretty funny. That's one of the reasons I started reading The Maze Runner: male protagonist. But you're right, many times the women characters do totally fit. It's just those instances when they don't that is starts to get irritating. =)

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  4. Great post. Actually, you might have touched on something with your mention of Captain America. He's the antithesis of many of the stereotypes you've listed. In "The Avengers", one of the characters said that with all that's going on, people could use a little "old-fashioned." A story that ends in victory should have somebody we can root for, no matter how flawed they are, or hopeless the situation they are in. If it's all negative there's nothing to care about.

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    1. Oh my goodness. You rock. I was actually going to draw that connection, but ran out of room, so I didn't. I'm cracking up that you came up with it. You are so right: People need old-fashioned, though most of them just don't know it yet. =) Thanks for the insightful comment. Made my day.

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  5. I've noticed for some time that most dystopia novels seem to follow the same formula, and even the ones that deviated from the pattern were vaguely depressing. I couldn't quite figure out what was wrong with them though. Thank you for thinking that through for me and laying it all out clearly.

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    1. Happy to be of service. =) I hate the vaguely depressing novels. They pester me until I can find a concrete reason for why I feel saddened by them.

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  6. These are true. Thanks for writing this post! Helps to know what to avoid when writing a dystopian...or what to change.
    Also, I've nominated you for the Liebster Award! :D
    Find it here: http://waterandpen.blogspot.com/2015/09/liebster-award-nomination.html

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Rachel! And thanks so much for the nomination! Unfortunately, I've already been nominated and done a post for one. =( You're questions are brilliant, though.

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  7. I tend to agree with most of this, but I think that's the widely accepted definition of dystopian. I think we need to broaden the term so that other novels that might be considered speculative or even scifi could be captured under the dystopian umbrella. I think there is plenty of futuristic books with a broken society that doesn't subscribe to the stereotypes you've listed above, but isn't necessary considered dystopian for that reason.

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    1. Excellent point, Theresa! We need to stop having such a narrow view of what constitutes a dystopian novel.

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  8. As the mother of three grown sons, I thank you for the last item. A writer might even - GASP - let the male hero rescue a female character!! We've swung so far into a feminist mindset that the strong female heroine who saves the day (and especially the clueless men) that it's become a stale stereotype. It would be nice to see some gender equality. Break free and write about a strong man!! (and it would be easier to find books that will appeal to my grandsons, too!)

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    1. Exactly. We over-corrected to the point where man has become boring or unrecognizable as a male character. Funny you should mention that about your grandsons. I've run into the same problem when it comes to trying to find books for my younger brother. Hopefully authors will get back on track soon. =) Thanks for the insightful comment!

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  9. On the last item:

    As a young lady who knows how to stand on her own two feet, thank you very much, I must say that it is very gratifying that my boys will take the measures that they do to protect my physical and emotional health. I'm writing a story with a brother/sister relationship like mine, because it's balanced. I think that's what is missing in a lot of stories right now is balance. Several books I've read recently have either the girl as a doormat, or the guy as an idiot. It is possible for both to be reasonable, 3-D characters and still have conflict; still need one or the other to be rescued; still have them need each other. I've lived in that situation my ENTIRE life. After 18 years I give myself the qualification of being a bit of an expert in that field. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself, but my boys make it so that I don't have to all the time. They'll happily frighten off the creepy guy who's staring at me and making me nervous. I could deal with it myself but they actually enjoy it. :/

    On undeveloped characters (at all):

    Not only is it hard for me to read a shallow, undeveloped character, I've met people who are just like those undeveloped characters in real life and there is something horribly wrong somewhere deep in their core, a hole, an emptiness - they look fine on the surface but they have no foundation inside - and stories don't capture it. If you're going to write a shallow character, write it intently. Shallow people are horrific. They don't operate on the same levels that we do. I think a shallow villain would honestly be the most terrifying, because he's doing things this way because he wants to. Not because something in his past makes him see the world this way, but simply because he wants to. I find that the most horrifying of all.

    Also, I've known some shallow people who were shallow simply because they hadn't been given the chance to put down roots of any kind. They were shallow because they didn't know how to be anything else. That's a different matter. Those characters should be allowed to grow, mature.


    I don't know, just my thoughts. I'm very much enjoying your blog, Hannah. You have a lot of helpful resources!

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    1. Love your thoughts on shallow characters, Annie! That's brilliant. I agree: a shallow villain could be one of the most horrific things ever written.
      Also, great point on how it is possible to write both male and female characters well without degrading one to build up the other. This is something I've mentioned several times. And I liked what you said about standing up for ourselves: Girls are capable of doing that, but there's nothing wrong with a guy stepping in and fending for her, too. Balance is key. I love reading your comments. Thanks for stopping by!

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    2. There's a great quote from "Gone with the Wind" that perfectly sums up that exact point. I can't remember it word for word, but Rhett says to Scarlett something about how a woman should never tell a man she can take care of herself because he might just let her. I do not consider myself the damsel in distress type. I have served in the military, and I am capable of making any guy who messes with me eat his own teeth, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy watching my man stand up for me instead. It doesn't mean that I am weak or subservient. It just means that I am loved. And it makes him feel like my hero, so everyone wins.

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    3. I know exactly what quote you're talking about. It always struck me as funny, but also a very good point. =)
      I like your description of letting your man stand up for you. You feel loved, he feels like a hero, and everyone wins. Except, you know, whoever was stupid enough to mess with an awesome military lady and her awesome man. =D

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  10. I love this post so much. And I learned a lot more reading the comments. Thank you for this :)

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! And yes, I've been lucky to have so many great people leaving helpful comments. =)

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  11. 1 & 2. All humanity is bad & not worth saving.
    All Districts are fed up with the way things are. Even the richest Districts realize the problems (Cato from book one realizing he has only been bred to 'bring honor', Cinna, the Second Game Maker...). Cato is an example of a person with both good and bad inside He kills because he is trained to do so, but he realizes he has been used; he has regret. Katniss uses Peta and hurts both Peta and Gale. But her motivations are good.
    The factions were created to SAVE HUMANITY. Many people recognize this problem--hence the Divergent and even the Factionless. Both of these groups wish to save humanity. Even Jeanine is not purely evil. Her motivations are science and fear. Fear is powerful enough to turn good people bad.
    In The Maze Runner series, the reader is never sure if WCKD is good or bad or a mixture of both. The same is true of Thomas and Teresa. Even they aren't sure if they are good or bad.
    3. Pointless darkness.There is a point o the darkness especially when offered in juxtaposition to the brightness of the 'other half'. And, the worlds are not often dark.
    District 12 is surrounded by a beautiful forest that Katniss actually prefers to the gaudy brightness of the Capitol.
    Amity's beauty is obvious. Candor finds beauty in truth. Erudite finds beauty in knowledge. Abnegation finds beauty in helping others (humanity worth saving). And Dauntless find beauty in courage, adrenaline, and facing their fears.
    Jonas' world is beautiful but only he and The Giver can see it.
    In the Maze Runner, the Glade is beautiful. A literal albeit temporary oasis inside a desert.
    4. The main character is the only person who can save the world. The main character is the symbol of hope the world needs to change. They are not the change, they are the spark.
    Katniss has Gale, Peta, Cinna, Haymitch, even crazy Effie. She has District 13 and people from the Capitol who want a change.
    Tris has Four. They also have the help of other Divergents, the Dauntless, Abnegation, Amity, the Factionaless, and even some Erudite. In later books, the 'outside' helps them as well.
    The Giver is as much a part of the change as Jonas. Without him, Jonas would not have known the problems, because in their society, everyone else IS blind to reality.
    Thomas doesn't change things alone. All of the Gladers work to help. WCKD plays a huge role as well (again, neither good nor evil). They get help from the Resistance and others along the way.
    5. The big bad government.
    President Snow. President Coin.
    Jeanine. Evelyn. Marcus. David.
    The Chief Elder.
    Ava Paige. Teresa. Janson/The Rat Man. (Even Thomas at times).
    6. The not so subtle agenda. I agree with you on some dystopian novels. The Uglies. The Barcode Tattoo.
    7. Unexplained events. They are almost always explained...slowly over the course of the series.
    The Uprising 74 years prior to The Hunger Games novel.
    The Faction system was a result of the Purity Wars which were alluded to at the end of Divergent and not fully explained until Allegiant.
    In The Maze Runner, the before story slowly unwraps as Thomas 'remembers'. The flare, the scorch, the attempt at a cure.
    8. Female protagonists galore.
    Katniss has Peta and Gale.
    Tris has Four. Roth even rewrote the story with Four at its center.
    Thomas.
    Jonas.
    Ender.

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    1. .....she didn't accuse any of these books for having these stereotypes. She didn't say all dystopian novels have these stereotypes she just said that they occur a lot in this genre. Its ok to have some of these stereotypes, it doesn't make it a bad book.

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  12. This is so accurate! The Maze Runner is probably my favourite dystopian series despite being guilty of pretty much all of these cliches. Although, I really do wish they fleshed out the female characters more.

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  13. Thank you so much for writing this! I think you are spot on and these are many of the issues that I have with this genre of fiction as of late. In addition to what you discussed, another issue that I think is a real problem with this genre is that people mistake darkness for depth. They make the story dark and then write it off as therefore complex or thoughtful. For example, this is why I found it hard for me to get into The Hunger Games. Yes, it's dark and violent, the protagonist's life sucks, and rich people are jerks, but there isn't much more to it from there. People tend to fixate on the violence and injustice, but fail to address much past that. I also think the idea of violent revolution is also over used. There is more than one way to achieve revolution than just through violent overthrow. I think people perceive revolution with a very narrow perspective, because they don't actually know much about revolution other than how society remembers the American Revolution, French Revolution, Bolshevik Revolution, etc. Revolution can be very diverse and it is a process not an event. Studying the many revolutions of Central and South America during the 20th century makes this abundantly clear.
    Sorry for the long rant. I have always loved this genre of fiction and that is why I criticize it so much :)

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    1. You are so right. And these problems aren't limited to dystopia stories. Many fantasy novels try to pass off morbidity as depth. Looking at you, George R.R. Martin.
      Also "The Hunger Games" seemed a little too simplistic in its approach to the rich/poor conflict. Having money does not automatically turn people into heartless monsters. Just as the underground was made up of some likable people and some mildly annoying people and some downright jerks, there should have been more than one or two people in the Capitol who acknowledged the corruption of the system.

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    2. Anonymous and Tamara, you guys are both brilliant and completely correct. =) It seems like many books nowadays are trying to pass darkness off as depth, and, unfortunately, many people are buying it. Darkness only makes depth if you can shine a light when the blackness starts to overwhelm. If you introduce a problem into a novel, it's important that you show a solution.
      Also, spot on comments about The Hunger Games. I had a difficult time with the series for the exact same reasons. It seemed to brush over all solutions or virtues just to raise the stakes. Anyway, thanks you two for the thoughtful comments! I love it when people look at books closely. Go you!

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  14. Am I the only one who doesn't actually know what a Dystopian novel truly means? I'm told Hunger Games, Maze Runner etc. are dystopian, so I just assumed that's all they were, all they contained. That they are about our broken, future worlds...

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    1. Naw, it's kind of a confusing term. Dystopian is the opposite of "utopian." So it's the opposite of a perfect society. A dystopian novel usually revolves around a world that strove for perfection, but then somehow collapsed into disrepair or corruption. It doesn't necessarily have to be set in our future world, but that's often how it's depicted.

      Dystopians were originally written to help expose social issues, show people a better way, or get them to think. Some great classic, true dystopians are: Fahrenheit 451, 1984, The Giver, and many H.G. Wells novels.

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  15. Thanks for the great post! Couldn't agree more. Though some good Dystopian books are the Books of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. They were written in the early 2000's before the huge Dystopian cliches came around, so they're pretty unique.

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    1. I really enjoyed Ember, too. I never finished the series, but I plan to someday. Thanks!

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    2. They are really worth the finish :)
      You're welcome!

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  16. Definitely agree with the last one. Everyone is trying to switch the stereotypical roles of female and male and break the stereotypical female in distress story. I do like a female protagonist and don't like being left as the damsel in distress but writing about a strong male character doesn't make you sexist. I do it all the time, because Im a female I think I need to write about a strong indepent female leader to show that I don't believe we need men to rescue us. And its fun to write about but once its been done few too many times and their personalities are always the same (independent, strong, can fire a gun, pretty but kicks guys butt when they flirt with her, tomboy), it gets annoying. Loved your article, I made a list of all the stereotypes that I realised I'd put into my story just because its cool. Helped me a lot, thanks!

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    1. I'm so glad it helped you, Jennah! It's fun to be able to identify stereotypes that accidentally slipped into your writing. There's something awesome about going back and being able to make it more original...Or going back and keeping the stereotypes but make them more awesome. :) Thanks for the comment!

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  17. I think with female protagonist its mostly written by women who think they can't put their mind in the state of a guy, which isn't necessarily true. Since a lot of the YA ends up cliche romance with the guy the woman writing sets up his emotions to fit the romance role. But I have written countless novel's but haven't published because I'm my own worse critic. Yet I'm taking on the task of writing another novel and sticking to publishing it.

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  18. I think with female protagonist its mostly written by women who think they can't put their mind in the state of a guy, which isn't necessarily true. Since a lot of the YA ends up cliche romance with the guy the woman writing sets up his emotions to fit the romance role. But I have written countless novel's but haven't published because I'm my own worse critic. Yet I'm taking on the task of writing another novel and sticking to publishing it.

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  19. Number 8 is a big problem.
    Not only in Dystopian novels
    But in every. Stinking. Genre
    I know it's easier for women to write in the same gender, but couldn't the writing world at least try to contribute some awesome male Main Characters? It just seems like authors are trying to say, "Hey, look, females can do everything males can. They can be strong and masculine, and beat guys at everything.'
    Just. No. Please
    If I'm wrong, just tell me so

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