Grumpy teenager with issues who’s somehow the chosen one, a totalitarian government, a society divided into factions based on the stupidest of factors, an all-out rebellion, and amidst it all, an impossibly unnecessary love triangle which looks more like the structural formula of H2O than a triangle. I guess it’s time to end this article right here as we’ve summed up all of modern YA Dystopian literature already, right?
Kidding. Now that I’ve mentioned this genre already, no way am I leaving before bashing Divergent a little for not being so divergent (down the Hunger Games route we go, fellows).
PROtagonist, but with an absent character arc
Truth be told, the centre character in a book who keeps smashing through all obstacles that stand in their way and saves the day while everybody stands around and watches, is a little boring, especially when it’s a teenager.
In a lot of YA dystopian novels, either the protagonist has next to no character growth as they’ve been the chosen one from the very beginning for a vague reason — the explanation for which is provided later on, often in a dissatisfactory manner — or, they suddenly discover that despite being the weird, outcast kid, they have a special power or skill set; that’s it, no more arcs.
For instance, in The Host by Stephenie Meyer, a book which can be summed up simply as “Twilight but with aliens”, the central character is a completely blank slate (I don’t even remember her name), who’s special only because she retained consciousness even when her body was taken as a host by an alien. Oh, and then comes the rebellion but well, the book ends anyway with her deciding that the aliens aren’t all that bad. What on earth?
Worldbuilding: World = USA
In a sense, dystopian novels really are the hardest to pull off, considering the fact that the writers not only have to create a whole new world with complex elements, but also have to make sure that it delivers a message in accordance with the issues prevailing in the present reality.
Unfortunately, when it comes down to the YA subsection of the genre, things start going downhill very quickly in regards to worldbuilding. For instance, in many cases, no world exists at all beyond the borders of America. Though personally I love The Hunger Games, there are no clues as to what actually is beyond North America (where Panem is located), and that really bothers me. On top of that, in Divergent, nothing but wastelands stretch out forever beyond the borders of Chicago.
The fact that mankind really went extinct everywhere except for that one specific location isn’t exactly convincing, not to mention the fact that even though that might not be entirely true, no hints whatsoever were dropped in regards to it. Also, I’m now getting flashbacks from 2016, when England was a city. Geez.
The Evil Government Dilemma
Sure, a totalitarian government or authority that, in simple words, puts restrictions where fundamental human rights are concerned and practises an oppressive societal reign is an integral and essential part of dystopian novels.
Through this very depiction, stuff like the loss of individualism and freedom of speech, economical and political repression, etc. are explored, from which emerges the plot. But the things that the government restricts, bans, or decides in a number of YA dystopian books really leave readers wondering exactly why the authors mistakenly published a stupid Wattpad fiction as a book.
For example, in Matched (2010), the evil government’s only function is to match 16-year-old teenagers with their lifelong partners from the opposite gender. Man, is it a government or a matchmaking app? In another supposedly dystopian book named Delirium, LOVE is outlawed. Guess I don’t have to explain the rest to you.
In short, it’s a lot of hormonal teens and their forbidden romance drama. How exactly these books were marketed as dystopian novels, I have no idea. At least give the government a feasible villainous role, how much work does that even take?
Caste and Factions: What’s even the basis?
The YA dystopian society structure is almost always based on castes or factions which indirectly work as a motivation for the rebel wars that take place later on, but sometimes, the basis of the division is completely ridiculous. Either the explanations provided for the cause is obscure or they’re just plain confusing.
For instance, in The Hunger Games (sorry for bringing this up a second time, but since it’s a well-known trilogy, it makes the comparisons and examples easily understandable) the division between the people was based on their occupations. Though there are some confusions as to what the Capitol itself contributed to the economy to keep the other districts — some that even had the potential to overtake them — under their authority for so long, the division is somewhat practical.
But in many cases, that’s not how it works. In The Selection series by Kiera Cass, for example, the first line that shows up in the fandom wiki regarding the caste system is: “Not much is known of how the caste system in Illea [the premise of the book] started” — not even joking. By the way, it’s a series with 5 books and not ONE clear clue about this fundamental element.
Though there are many dystopian books hailing from the YA genre that are actually good, such as the Red Rising series by Pierce Brown (it’s excellent, truly), a lot of the recent ones, despite the fame, are nothing but either watered-down versions of the same story (starts with The, ends with Games), or a compilation of overused tropes.
However, hopefully, a phenomenal author will come through one day to drag YA dystopias out of the bowels of Tartarus. Meanwhile, let’s go back and have intellectual discussions about 1984 by George Orwell, half of which I’m too dumb to understand.
The writer is part of the TDA Editorial Team.