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?