Divining Dystopias


October is an exciting month for any YA lit fan, because it includes Teen Read Week! In honor of this annual celebration of young adult literature, YALSA invited book-loving teens all over the world to apply to share their enthusiasm for reading in a guest post for The Hub. Thirty-one talented young writers were chosen, and we’ll be featuring posts from these unique voices all month long. Here’s Rashika Rao, age 14.


Ever since The Hunger Games, the craze for teen dystopias has escalated exponentially- are the novels going past the point of no return? This teen certainly thinks so. As more and more YA dystopian novels are written and published, the authors all seem to be forgetting the difference between writing in the same genre and writing with the same outline.

Recently, I’ve started to realize just how cliché dystopian novels are: it’s getting to the point where, if you just give me the first couple pages and a couple of character names, I can often predict an entire series’ main plot line.

Here is a list of what I think are the top 10 clichés in modern dystopian novels (in no particular order):
1. Dysfunctional government: there is always something wrong with the governmental system.

Some people like to argue that that’s the point of a dystopian novel. But if you look up the definition of a dystopia, it qualifies as a “an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad.” (verbatim from Google).

Maybe it’s just me, but I’d like something worse to happen than corrupt government every now and then.

Another quick point: why are these officials always so violent? Torture, secret kidnappings, you name it, they’ve got it. The excuse is always that no one will stand up to them. But, quoting my AP U.S. History teacher here, “when you keep pushing people into a corner, eventually they’re going to push back.” Well, you defenders will say, that’s the point of the rebellion/rising/see #7! Okay. Fine. But how does our main character oh so conveniently get tangled up with them? And why is she/he (mostly she) always the key to their success?

Something everyone always forgets: These characters are just children. Since when have adults trusted children this much?

2. The age “16” for the main character:

Okay, this is a HUGE one. Remember that time when all middle-grade book characters were thirteen? This is heading in the same direction. Actually, it’s already there! YA fiction is read by teens, ages 13 through 18. If you keep giving all those adventures to the 16 year olds, what 17 year old is still going to believe in a storybook ending? The younger kids look even more forward to their 16th birthday than they already do. And people wonder why kids grow up too fast….

16. Sweet sixteens, the legal driving age, the square number of a square number. I can see why society might want it as the perfect age. But when every character is pretty much the same age, I might start thinking that either there was a mass giveaway of courage and intellect two years before I was born or that 16 is the only year worth living. And since neither of those is true, I suggest a large shift in how we pick our characters’ ages.

3. Strange society initiations and/or rituals- many times they have to do with bloodshed:

So basically what they’re saying here is that I have to pass some crazy (usually scary or painful) test in order to be accepted. Huh. Sounds like high school.

I don’t think anyone wants real life to be like high school.

4. Love triangles: My #1 problem with dystopian novels. And, more recently, all novels.

Let’s be honest for a second here, the main character ALWAYS chooses the second guy/girl in the triangle.

*I’ll pause while you all try to yell exceptions at the computer screen*

Yes, I know, there are exceptions. But the ratio? About 1….. in a billion.

One other vitally important point here: We’ve already clarified that our main character is sixteen, right? So why on earth does she/he have to pick out their true love right away? Can’t she/he wait, get her/his job done, and then turn to their love life? Or, even better, get an education, and then think about it? I mean, if the guy (or girl) won’t wait for you, they’re not worth it anyways. An easy way of weeding out potentials. Dystopian heroes, you should all thank me.

5. The mysterious ability for key characters (usually adults) to believe the main character and in what they are doing:

I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I tried to convince even my parents that
a) the world was ending
b) the government was secretly controlling our lives
c) there was a rebellion and we should join it
d) we should fight to the death for a cause we barely believe in
e) everything they knew was a lie
then the most probable response would be a good fit of laughter, and then a temperature check to make sure I wasn’t delirious and running a fever.

So how can our dystopian heroes convince total strangers so quickly?

– It can’t be their charm, because it’s constantly repeated about how they have little to no social skills
– It can’t be their family, because they’ve got to be all alone in this “brave new world”
– Oh, I know! It must be love interest #2 a.k.a. “the winner”! So that’s why main characters keep them along. I understand now!<note my sarcasm>.

But, taking this a little more seriously, there can’t be that many willing-to-trust-on-the-spot people out there, especially adults. Actually, that would make a great novel, one where everyone trusts the main character, who’s secretly part of an evil plot against what they pretended to believe in.

6. Main character’s convenient possession of the one “key trait” that either overshadows all the rest, or is the key to their survival (and sometimes even both):

The Testing by Joelle CharbonneauTo clarify what I’m talking about, here are some examples:
Katniss Everdeen’s archery (The Hunger Games)
Malencia Vale’s metalworking skills (The Testing)
West Grayer’s knife skills (Dualed)

Basically, the one skill that just happens to be useful, to be the skill that keeps them alive. I don’t know. You could put up a reasonably decent argument against it, I suppose, but it really does annoy me. It would be interesting to see a ‘jack-of-all-trades, master of none,’ character. Or a character whose strengths lie entirely in the mind. I don’t mean they’re smart so they can build stuff, but smart as in they know things, things that could help them get out of sticky situations simply through wit of the word.

7. Major secret rebellion/rising that always exists and is joined (even temporarily) by the main character:

This in a way wraps back to the ‘dysfunctional government’ theme, but now onto the rebels’ side. Why does there even need to be rebels? And if there is such an oppressing need, why doesn’t the main character start the rebellion instead of just showing up and playing hero? You could also tie this up with the ‘trusting’ adults thing. Many times the main character gets recruited because they are either

a) saved by the rebels
b) ‘they’ve been watching’.

And why do these rebellions never really get anywhere without enlisting the help of our sixteen year old M.C.?
^^ If someone can answer that I will give you an internet hug *laughs* but I don’t think anyone can….

8. That one family member that’s secretly allied with the rebels the entire time:

Okay, I don’t know about you, but I would be super annoyed if I found out that my parents or my sister were secretly part of a plan to bring down the (hypothetically controlling) government/start a new society. I don’t know if this would be because I’d be shocked they’d think of something like that, or mad that they didn’t invite me.

On the other hand, if I was the main character in a dystopian novel, then I guess that this could be useful, since we’ve already established that I join this thing too. Someone on the inside on my side is definitely a thing I could use.

‘Course, I wouldn’t want to be them, because 9 times out of 10 that character dies.

9. The parent problem- what happened to regular old wonderful parents?:

Dead parents, abusive parents, runaway parents, secret parents, lying parents, disappearing parents, parents you never knew you had with your siblings you never knew you had….. WHAT happened to regular old amazing loving parents? I love my parents, and I don’t think that their existence would impact a dystopian novel all that much. It would probably actually be helpful. But no author wants parents hanging around their fictional world. They’d interfere with everything (As they should- that’s their job). So why not just get rid of them in some new ‘creative’ way?

And (to relate to #8) it’s a bit hard to believe that our main character’s mom/dad/both were secretly involved in the same challenge their kid is facing now. Because the chances of that are less than the chances of of having a dystopian novel without a love triangle.

Bring back real parents!

10. The “ONLY solution” is always to kill the “corrupt” leader(s):

Well, this ranks number one for violence.

Okay, how many different ways are there to remove a person from office without killing them? (You can think Student Council elections, if you want, it might make it easier.)

There is one glaringly easier way: #gossip.

Gossip. Lies. Slander. All of these could be used to get rid of so-and-so from government. It just needs to be spread in the right way. ‘But there isn’t enough time. There isn’t enough people to do all that!’ my favorite rebuker might say.

Wait. Go back 3 topics ago. Yeah. That major rebellion/rising? Lots of people willing to take down a government, and all conveniently in one place as well. And there’s more than enough time considering how much of it’s been wasted while they sit around ‘training’ and waiting for the main character to show up.

‘Okay, fine. But gossip? Lies? Isn’t that too low?’ they might say.

And killing someone isn’t?

This generation. (Oh wait, that includes me. And I suppose I made up my dystopian defender too…..).

Coming back to the main point, in reality, this list could go on and on (it took me a while to narrow it down), but I doubt anyone would actually be interested in reading it all. Nor I the patience to type it all out.

So, is it just me that’s noticed this? I wrote an entire poem about it in class last year (while supposed to be watching a movie, but still….) and when I showed it to my friends, they seemed to agree with me, so I don’t think I’m just being paranoid.

Now, for every “copy and paste” cliché out there, there are some great counterexamples. (Dystopian defender, I will make you proud.) Some of my favorites, and how they rank on the RAO SIMULATE SCALE (which measures cliché-ness from Outline [1] to Original [10]):

knife of never letting go patrick ness coverThe Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness
dysfunctional government: NO (+1)
age 16: NO (+1)
society initiation: YES (+0)
love triangle: NO (+1)
mysterious ability of key adults to believe in main character: SORT OF (+0.5)
convenient possesion of key trait that overshadows all others: NO (+1)
major secret rebellion/rising: NO (+1)
that one family member secretly allied with the rebels: NO (+1)
parent problem: YES (+0)
only solution = kill corrupt leader: YES (+0)
Final Score: 6.5

for darknessFor Darkness Shows the Stars – Diana Peterfreund
*quick note- this book is a dystopian adaptation of Persuasion by Jane Austen. But I love it and it’s dystopian, so it’s mentioned here. Just a heads up :)
dysfunctional government: NO (+1)
age 16: NO (+1)
society initiation: NO (+1)
love triangle: NO (+1)
mysterious ability of key adults to believe in main character: SORT OF (+0.5)
convenient possesion of key trait that overshadows all others: NO (+1)
major secret rebellion/rising: NO (+1)
that one family member secretly allied with the rebels: NO (+1)
parent problem: YES (+0)
only solution = kill corrupt leader: NO (+1)
Final Score: 8.5

Mysterious Benedict Society - whitewashingThe Mysterious Benedict Society – Trenton Lee Stewart
Honestly, I have been reading this book since second grade and I didn’t realize it was dystopian until this year.
dysfunctional government: SORT OF (+0.5)
age 16: NO (+1)
society initiation: NO (+1)
love triangle: NO (+1)
mysterious ability of key adults to believe in main character: SORT OF (+0.5)
convenient possession of key trait that overshadows all others: SORT OF (+0.5)
major secret rebellion/rising: NO (+1)
that one family member secretly allied with the rebels: NO (+1)
parent problem: YES (+0)
only solution = kill corrupt leader: NO (+1)
Final Score: 7.5

Hunger_gamesThe Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
I highly doubt this book will get a very high rating on the RAO SIMULATE SCALE but one thing to consider is that of all dystopian novels, THG was pretty much the first. And best. And one of the best.
dysfunctional government: YES (+0)
age 16: YES (+0)
society initiation: YES (+0)
love triangle: YES (+0)
mysterious ability of key adults to believe in main character: SORT OF (+0.5)
convenient possesion of key trait that overshadows all others: YES (+0)
major secret rebellion/rising: YES (+0)
that one family member secretly allied with the rebels: NO (+1)
parent problem: YES (+0)
only solution = kill corrupt leader: YES (+0)
Final Score: 1.5

I think I should quickly point out here that all of the above books are dystopian novels that I read and really enjoyed. Just because THG got a rating of 1.5 doesn’t mean the actual book is any worse than For Darkness Shows the Stars with a rating of 8.5. The ratings are purely the result of testing a book against my ten observations. So if you decide to test a book on my scale and it gets a low grade, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad book. (Just a very cliché one.)

– Rashika Rao is a fourteen year old Sagittarian sophomore who loves making videos, playing tennis, the study of space, and the number four. (And, obviously, reading.) She learned to read at a ridiculously young age – and thanks her mother heavily for that gift.

8 thoughts on “Divining Dystopias”

  1. I enjoyed reading your post. Glad that even though The Hunger Games does not meet your originality test, you still liked the book! I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  2. Wow such vocab rashika… Much impress

    But in all seriousness, this was extremely interesting. Just wondering, what is that ridiculously early age which you learned to read?

    And also, you’re very much welcome for introducing tkonlg to you 😉

    1. Jenny this is I actually how I write :3 I write VERY differently from how I talk. Well, I used to talk like that in elementary school…. kind of….

      (Remind me to show you some of ANTIBODY)

      And yes, thank you very much for bugging me to read THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO. It was an amazing book that I would not have ever otherwise read. (Maybe.)

  3. It’s great to hear another teen who’s not in love with dystopian fiction. I’m a fellow teen blogger and I just want to say great job!

  4. Rashika, this is brilliant! It was hilarious and wonderfully written. :D I totally agree- cliché-ness is why I get so annoyed with dystopian novels sometimes, and I think there are so many more that you haven’t mentioned but still prove your point (ex. sorting into categories/divisions among the population- the Districts, factions, etc.)

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