I can’t be the only one despairing at the lack of imagination in the countless numbers of YA dystopian novels. They have become so generic and formulaic a computer could easily write one. While I have enjoyed my fair share of YA dysfic, with The Hunger Games being my favourite, I’m becoming increasingly exasperated by the constant regurgitation of what we have seen before.
What’s worse, these new novels are hyped beyond belief. We’re told how brilliant they are, how many paperbacks they’ve shifted, how they were optioned for films before they were even published… I naively have hope. Maybe this one will be different. They never are. Most recently, I purchased Red Rising by Pierce Brown after hearing about it almost constantly since its publication. I’d seen rave review after rave review, so it had to be good, right?! Wrong! It was exactly the same as every other YA dystopian novel I’ve read recently. I’m glad I only spent 99p on it!
It is bad enough that writers are being so lazy as to simply copy what has already been and deliver the same stories over and over, but to have the reading public lap it up without so much as a discerning raised eyebrow is utterly depressing. The genre has great potential for interesting stories and characters but instead we are left with a dystopian genre – a publishing system that pushes generic, formulaic trash because it is easier to sell than anything new and original.
So here is what I have learned of the YA dystopian fiction formula from my reading in the genre. You must have the following ingredients:
A strict and unfair class system
Whenever we take a pessimistic of the future (or an alternate, fictional world), you can bet there will be some kind of authoritarian, evil government. And what would such a government immediately do? Why, break up society into an arbitrary and unfair class system, of course! The nature of the split isn’t important – it can be based on superpowers (The Reckoners), jobs/economic position (Red Rising, The Giver, and The Hunger Games), disabilities (The Fire Sermon), colours you can see (Shades of Grey), personality types (Insurgent)… Most importantly, this system must remove the idea of free will from the majority of the populous, something that really irks our protagonist.
The gimmick plot
This element doesn’t necessarily appear in all YA dysfic but it is a popular trope. You might say it is really an aspect of the chosen setting, but some premises are certainly more gimmicky than others. Take The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner series, for instance. The authors have devised extraordinary gimmicks – in these examples, sadistic game-show style trials – to propel the plot. They are immediately attention grabbing and so obviously wrong it makes the author’s job of setting up our protagonist’s position within the world beyond easy.
The obvious problem to this kind of set-up arrives when the author attempts to turn a one-book gimmick into a series. Suzanne Collins succeeded by repeating the formula but upping the stakes in Catching Fire but misfired with Mockingjay when the gimmick became a burden for her storytelling, something she had to try to force into a different story. Dashner’s The Maze Runner series is simply straight up bat-shit crazy – he has zero regard for ensuring his world makes sense or to have it be remotely believable. But hey, people read it so why should he bother with all that crap?
An exceptional but alienated protagonist
What makes our protagonist special? It is important that they are ordinary for the most part, while also having a life mired by tragedy and suffering at the hands of the evil class system. The only piece that makes them exceptional is that they take action. They will do something out of the ordinary and push boundaries. And they will do it in a way that almost anyone in that fictional world could have done, they are only brave (or stupid) enough to try. The protagonist sees the possibility for escape and takes it.
Who is the bigger fool, after all? The fool, or the fool who follows him? Every good hero needs a mentor, but these are not mentors you would seek out in real life. No, these mentors are usually hermits or recluses, have bizarre ideologies, and often extremely flawed in one way or another (you will notice they often have an obvious vice such as drinking). The mentor will also have been through a similar experience to the protagonist, thus best place to help them along their way. While you can have mentors that stick with the characters for the duration of the story, using pep talks and the like to encourage the protagonist, it is also common to have the mentor killed in the third act, propelling the protagonist towards the final climax of the story.
The spark of revolution
Where there is an evil authoritarian government, no society can sit idly by forever. The protagonist’s actions, at first powerful on a micro/personal level, provide the spark for a greater rebellion. I’ve always loved a good personal story but YA dysfic writers seem to think that a story on that micro level will never be as powerful as one that becomes a wider social change. I suppose it is inevitable when these books are always part of a series, starting as personal triumphs they need to increase the tension and stakes with each new installment. And what good is a hero whose actions save them but let the injustice of their world continue in the long term?
If you read through this list and felt you knew a YA dystopian novel that did not fit in with these tropes, I’m impressed. More than that, please tell me what it is so I can find renewed enjoyment in a genre that has been squandered in formula.
This comes at an interesting time for me as just last night I was chatting to someone who recommended Red Rising in a big way. You know my thoughts on The Fire Sermon- I believe I completely agreed with your review. I did just read Red Queen and Glass Sword and enjoyed them but even they fit your tropes quite perfectly. Modern dystopias just seem to build on the foundations of 1984 and Brave New World. It makes me wonder whether these tropes are a natural result of dystopian narrative in the way that fantasy tropes emerge archetypally from fantasy fiction.
I think there’s definitely an argument for saying these tropes do develop for a good reason while still hoping for innovation within a genre. I do think there is room for new ideas and different stories, so I’m going to hold out hope for something wonderful to come along and blow me away!