As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy a good piece of dystopian fiction. At its best, it challenges people to think about the future and what they think humanity’s biggest priorities will be one hundred, five hundred, or a thousand years from now. Will racism be eradicated by then? What about sexism? Will we have corrected our contributions to climate change? Will we have reached out peacefully to other life forms?
But towards the less thoughtful end of the scale, there’s a lot of stories driven mainly by emotion, not by circumstances. I’ve read story after story where the external scenario (a war, an oppressive regime, a natural disaster) consistently fades into the background, and the internal struggle (forbidden/unrequited love, family dynamics, self-discovery) takes center stage. I’m all for internal struggles. I love how they add a third dimension to a story and really make characters pop. But I’ve found those struggles most poignant and engaging when they’re a foil to whatever else is going on — not the other way around.
Earlier this quarter, I picked up a new YA dystopian novel from the library, just for something to read on the bus. On page 199, I came across this line, and I had to stop and grimace — it was such a perfect summation of so many protagonists I’ve come across:
“It’s so frustrating to have logic thrown at me now. It’s making all my plans seem so hopeless.”
That’s it, that’s the state of modern teenage female protagonists in a nutshell. Go away, Hermione Granger. Move over, Sally Lockhart. It’s time for narrators characterized mainly by high emotion and indecision.
This latest foray into dystopias started me thinking about the patterns and tropes that many of them include. Below, I present for your amusement a metric for modern YA dystopian fiction.
Instructions: Measure the book against the following questions. For every question you answer in the affirmative, give yourself one point.
- Is civilization physically divided into separate groups or clans, with strict injunctions against mixing?
BONUS POINT: Does the protagonist below to one of the lower-class groups?
SUPER BONUS POINT: Is the protagonist initially in the lowest-class group, but then there turns out to be a hidden group that’s even lower?
- Is the protagonist at least half an orphan?
- Has the protagonist always felt different and/or misunderstood?
BONUS POINT: Is this because the protagonist is really from another class but was swapped/smuggled in at birth?
- Does the protagonist eventually fall in with a different band of people?
BONUS POINT: Is the protagonist then dazzled by the food and/or clothing they offer her?
SUPER BONUS POINT: Is this new band kind of evil but the protagonist decides to cut them some slack based on said food/clothes?
- Is the Internet mysteriously missing from this civilization?
BONUS POINT: … but does medicine border on the miraculous?
- Is access to books extremely limited?
- Does the protagonist encounter some long-lost technology (which is conveniently very well known to us, thus sparing the author from having to come up with something new)?
BONUS POINT: Does this technology play a role in Saving the Day later on?
- Is there a Secret Rebel Alliance that has been operating behind the scenes this whole time?
BONUS POINT: Do they, for reasons we can’t fathom based on our knowledge of the protagonist, choose to reveal themselves to the protagonist?
SUPER BONUS POINT: Has the protagonist been The Chosen One all along, the rebel alliance’s only hope at pulling this whole rebellion thing together?
EXTRA BONUS POINT: Is this because of the protagonist’s true parentage, which has been kept from her all along?
WILDLY EXTRA BONUS POINT: In the end, does the rebel alliance actually turn out to be evil/infiltrated, forcing the protagonist to form a splinter group?
- Is there an irritatingly handsome, inexplicably single young man floating around making things difficult for the protagonist?
BONUS POINT: Does he actually turn out to be a member of the Secret Rebel Alliance, making it A-OK for the protagonist to fall in love with him because Nobody Else Understands?
- Does the protagonist save the day by Listening to Her Heart instead of basing a plan on logic or following the advice of older, more seasoned superiors?
- Are there two separate moments when the protagonist realizes that Everything She Knows Is a Lie, the first good because it confirms all her suspicions of society, the second terrible because she has to go back to square one and discover what’s really going on?
BONUS POINT: Is the irritatingly handsome young rebel a major part of this second reveal?
- Is the person who guides the protagonist to the truth ultimately killed?
0–8 points: Well done, that’s an original piece of modern YA dystopian fiction you’ve selected. (Shout it out in the comments — I’d love to hear what it is.)
9–16 points: Sounds like you’re getting to know modern YA dystopian tropes pretty well. Would you like to branch out into other plots and devices? Try Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, which scared my socks off and forever changed how I feel about grocery stores.
17–25 points: So maybe Mark Twain was right:
For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.
But that shouldn’t stop you from trying to find some new material. Have you considered reading some old-school dystopias that laid the groundwork for today’s works? Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” and “The Sound of Thunder” are classics; for something more recent, try Lois Lowry’s The Giver.
What devices are you tired of seeing in books? What device do you keep hoping a writer will use, but you haven’t seen it yet?