YA Common Clichés series: Dystopian

| Friday, May 13, 2011
Today's Tune: Daisy Bell

One of the best bits of advice you will hear as a writer is to read, and to read a lot. Particularly within your genre to familiarize yourself with its tropes, clichés, and what's currently selling/being published. So, I read a lot of young adult literature, which is kind of its own beast. It's a specific genre, but within that genre are any number of subjects. I'm hoping to break them down and highlight some of the more common clichés (read: stuff that is so overdone it's boring and predictable) within each area.

The goal with this series is not to ridicule, but to inform and inspire a break from the usual in today's literature. Also, clichés do not automatically make a manuscript or novel junk. If used sparingly and mindfully, they can work.

Subject #2: YA Dystopian

Dystopian novels are “the big thing” in YA right now. We’ve just come down from our Hunger Games high and are finding more and more dystopias lining the shelves every day. There’s a timeless appeal to this genre, based mostly on societal commentary and the future of humanity steeped in layers of human struggle and triumph. However, as quickly as they’re being churned out these days, there are bound to be some clichés to watch out for.

The “dystopian” setting isn’t really dystopian at all. When writing a dystopia, it’s important to understand what a dystopia is and where the idea comes from. It’s a foil to a utopia, or ideal society. A dystopia, or anti-utopia, is a broken, dysfunctional society. It can be obvious, as in the starved, war-torn districts of The Hunger Games, or it can be couched in a false-utopia; a society that seems perfect on the outside but is oppressive and flawed beneath the surface, as in Ally Condie’s Matched. The key to dystopia is some element of larger societal commentary. It’s not simply a ruined futuristic world. Some people miss this key point while writing what they believe to be a dystopia. What is your dystopian world trying to say?

Totalitarian government. ‘Nuff said. You will find the presence of an oppressive, totalitarian government in nearly every dystopia you come across. This naturally makes sense, as a dystopia portrays a society we would fear, and totalitarianism is certainly something most people fear. This makes it a common trope, but not necessarily cliché. It becomes cliché when the government is a one-dimensional bad guy that just likes to torture its people. As with any villain, it should be more nuanced than that – the government leaders should genuinely believe they are doing what’s best for their people. They may believe it in an incredibly twisted way, but they believe it. There’s also the option of going against the grain and creating a dystopia based on something other than an evil, overreaching government. There are other social avenues to explore.

The protagonist is the leader of a revolution. Again, this is a trope that makes sense for the genre. Naturally things need to change, and big change often means revolution. However, writers risk stretching believability a little thin if the teenage protagonist is “overpowered.” A brilliant speaker, a skilled fighter, an intelligent tactician, and enough charisma to lead a revolution as a teen? Unlikely. Katniss of The Hunger Games was certainly a strong fighter and reasonably clever, but she was crap at public speaking and charisma. This kept her character believable, even as she became the figurehead of the rebellion. The protagonist can also work on a smaller scale – a powerful personal victory rather than bringing down an entire regime.

The society is focused around One (and only one) Very Important Point. War is bad. Choice is good. Love conquers all. Women aren’t just baby machines. Guns kill people. Drugs will destroy society. Kicking puppies is mean. Whatever. Sometimes dystopian stories get a very narrow focus and end up putting too much emphasis on hammering the author’s pet issue home. Be careful not to make the “message” too blatant or one-dimensional. It’s a novel, not an after school special.

Free will is bad, m’kay. Our leaders will make your decisions for you. Another very common dystopian trope: the leaders of the society make all decisions pertaining to a person’s career, living situation, life partner, how many children they’ll have, etc. Usually pitched in a “we know what’s best for you because we know everything” sort of way. Everyone is compliant except for the protagonist and a small band of friends. Bucking the system ensues. It’s an overdone trope, but it can still be played with to try and find a new angle.

MIND CONTROL DUN DUN DUN. Citizens are kept compliant via hypnosis, drugs, brainwashing, or some other method that renders them docile or makes them forget what they’ve seen. Very common. Treat with care and see if you can think of a new way to spin it (what’s up, Tracker Jacker venom?).

Love doesn’t exist anymore. When you’re living in a society where emotions are quashed and mates are paired via lottery/selection/assignment/whatever, there’s no more romance. Enter the protagonist, full of passion and brimming with love. Now enter Love Interest, who either sparks these feelings or responds to the protagonist’s Overpowering Love. They make out in the metaphorical bushes and are torn away from each other only to fight back FOR LOVE. Common in dystopian romance.

History is dangerous! Anything from the past is strictly controlled or destroyed entirely. There’s something about the past that the government/leaders want to stay hidden because they feel it could be dangerous to them. Alternatively, they think their people are too delicate to handle the information overload and they’re trying to “protect” them.

Genetic manipulation. People or beasts are genetically engineered for practical or nefarious purposes. This can be a method of controlling the public. Or just control in general. Also often used to serve the message that “natural” biology or “children of love” (thanks Gattaca) are better than genetically superior but “soulless” creations.

What other common tropes and clichés have you noticed in YA dystopias?


{ Justine Dell } at: May 13, 2011 at 11:58 AM said...

Whoa. I always wondered what the genre was. Now I'm in intrigued and want to know more!!


{ Jenna Cooper } at: May 13, 2011 at 12:30 PM said...

Love triangle anyone?
Oh wait, that's YA in general.
In lines with history being bad, literature and other art forms are also destroyed or limited to the population of what the government wants them to know.

{ Margo Lerwill } at: May 13, 2011 at 12:33 PM said...

Nice! Many more points than would have occured to me. I'm planning a post-apocalyptic at some point, and the One Very Important Point and History is Dangerous both apply to that extremely well.

{ cookie } at: May 13, 2011 at 1:16 PM said...

I was never really convinced of the love doesn't exist anymore, the protagonist is the only one to feel it, plot. But that's just me. Or maybe it's because they always have to throw a love triangle in there and I want throw the book across the room.

I too have a post-apocalyptic planned, but its not really dystopian...

{ kittens not kids } at: May 16, 2011 at 10:01 AM said...

The NAMES of characters in YA dystopias have been getting on my nerves. It seems like authors are throwing in a bunch of Ks, Ys, and rearranging vowels (a good example is Peeta - what's with the "ee"? Is this the hokey british pronunciation of Peter - Petah? Or a reference to the fact that he's a baker's son - Pita?)? I understand that names do change over time, but there's a strange sameness to the dystopian YA names that I find irritating. [also, found this blog via Jonathan Auxier's twitter - looking forward to reading more here!]

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: May 16, 2011 at 10:50 AM said...

@Justine - Dystopian can be a fun one, you should check it out!

@Margo - Cool! I'd be excited to read one from you :D

@cookie - Yeah, that's a hard one to make stick. I'm with you on love triangles, bleh.

@kittens not kids - Interesting observation! I'll have to pay closer attention to names going forward. Thanks for stopping by, I look forward to hearing from you!

{ Sam @ Parenthetical } at: May 24, 2011 at 2:03 PM said...

Great post! I'm thinking of using it to create Dystopian Bingo. :)

{ Lenore Appelhans } at: June 13, 2011 at 11:09 PM said...

Great post! I am now a follower :)

{ Sherri Hunt Smith } at: July 13, 2011 at 3:59 PM said...

I had a whole summer of distopian reading. 1984, Brave New World, Animal Farm, Farenhight 451.... when done well, dystopian can blow your ever loving mind!

{ linda } at: December 19, 2012 at 9:56 PM said...

Hahahaha this is so spot on. There's always a lot of "Conformity! Everyone has lost free will except for the plucky protagonist and the love interest! Science = control and sameness = cold heartless technology = evil! Long live art and history and literature because emotions and souls and feelings and individuality!" It tends to be pretty one-sided. And hard to swallow, because I find it difficult to believe that people would suddenly be in favor of getting rid of emotions and love, even if they could. It ends up feeling like a gimmick to show how special and soulful the protagonist and love interest are for BEING DIFFERENT and having THE POWER OF LOVE (and to put more obstacles in their romance). Like you said, the message can end up being very simplistic and one-dimensional. And on top of that, the worldbuilding often makes no sense! Sigh.

{ Gene Moore } at: September 5, 2017 at 7:03 PM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
{ Gene Moore } at: September 5, 2017 at 7:08 PM said...

If dystopia seems tired, read the letter below from Huxley to Orwell.


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