My first novel was a YA Dystopian novel, and I think it’s safe to say that the genre is still close to my heart. I can’t get enough of the stories that warn us about the evils of power, corrupt governments, and societies where right and wrong are skewed beyond recognition.
And what do I do when I love something?
Make fun of it, obviously.
I’m a huge believer in the importance of dystopian stories. It’s the writer’s job to warn us of what our lives could be like if our society travels down the wrong path.
At the same time, though, there are a ton of cliches in this genre that are overused and need to stop.
Dystopian writers and screenwriters everywhere, this one’s for you.
1. The Government is Bad
In our modern world, it seems like everyone who is a functioning member of society hates at least one thing about their country’s government. However, does that really have to spill over into our books as well?
We get it, the government can be bad. But what about a story where the government is good and the rebels are bad? What if you wrote a story where the government was right all along?
It would be a refreshing change, honestly.
I’m not a huge fan of governments in YA fiction, because they tend to be caricatures of how the writer views the government. At this point, the evil government is totally predictable. Doesn’t care about people, wants to make money, wants control. The rebels will probably kill them by the end of the story.
And if the bad government officials wear white, just… no.
2. Teens Must Die
Of course, it’s easy to see that the main characters in a young adult book should be teenagers. Most teens won’t read a book about a four year old kid or a seventy year old man.
If I remember correctly, most of the dystopian books that I’ve read involve teenagers killing each other. Put the teens through a bunch of trials and see who’s the strongest. The author’s probably looking at their characters and saying:
I understand, the threat of death is one of the best things to write about. It offers immediate suspense, and it makes the story interesting.
However, why do teenagers have to die? Why not babies? If the government wants to kill people, why take out the young people with potential? Five or ten years down the road, when all they have is babies and old people, their country will fall apart.
It doesn’t seem like the government/bad guys/whoever would care that much about teenagers.
What if the senior citizens had to die instead? What if the teenagers had to join the fight in order to rescue a different age group?
3. Love Interests
Can we all agree that a forced love interest is worse than no love interest at all?
No disrespect to the love interest characters. Just… do they really need to be there?
Most of the time, the main character will fall in love with the newcomer, who probably has blue or green eyes. They’ll flirt for a few minutes, and almost immediately start kissing. The reader is left to wonder what the heck just happened.
In order to make the love interest work, they shouldn’t be acting on their feelings right away. Slow burn! Tension!! pLeAsE
In the Maze Runner Honest Trailer video by Screen Junkies, they point out that Teresa (the love interest) could be replaced by a houseplant, and it wouldn’t make any difference to the plot.
Don’t believe that teens need a love interest in every story. We don’t. In fact, you could just leave all love interests out, and we’ll have fun shipping the characters on our own.
4. Diversity for No Reason
Is it right to include a character in the story just because she’s black?
Is it okay to resort to using stereotypes in order to fit in a character with special needs?
I’ll talk about this in more detail in a separate post, because it’s such a hot button topic. But for this post, I’ll just say that a character, above all, needs to be human.
Develop their backstory, their personality, their style. Make them influence the plot. Then if you want to, you can talk about their looks.
A character should never been in the story just because they’re racially diverse. That’s insulting and could be seen as racist. Focus on making a well-rounded character first, then talk about what they look like.
5. Taking Down The System
This ties back into my first point, about how governments are usually evil.
Let’s say the government or some other group of adults is evil, and the teenagers decide to rebel. They plan their escape route, and everything turns out okay. In most stories, they manage to escape.
Of course, my first advice would be to make the teenagers lose to the government. But who would read that book?
A lot of times, the adults get beat too easily. Think about it. These are the police, FBI, CIA, national guard… and 100 years in the future, these people would only get better at what they do. Technology’s been improving too, which means better surveillance systems.
How do a bunch of high schoolers beat the system?
My first thought would be that they need to do some serious bribery and get one of the adults to shut down the surveillance technology, before they try to break out. Play around with it, but remember, the story shouldn’t be over after a couple of fistfights.
And if they have to topple a regime, expect it to take a lot longer than a couple of chapters.
If your story happens to have a lot of these cliches, don’t despair! A couple of good brainstorming sessions should get you some fresh ideas and plot twists.