If you’d asked me a year ago, I would have predicted that the dystopian “bubble” in YA fiction would have burst by now–but I would have been wrong. It looks like there’s still a strong market for it, though my guess is that editors and agents would say that, if you’re writing a dystopian young adult now, it must have something “extra special” to stand out in the marketplace.
Scott Westerfeld recently posted an interesting blog about dystopians and why they appeal to teens so much (you can read it here). I think it’s spot-on, and it really helps illustrate how dystopian societies have been a part of our literary/cinematic culture for a very long time, from George Orwell’s classic 1984 (written in 1949) to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to Lois Lowry’s The Giver, from Planet of the Apes to Mad Max to Blade Runner. So while the dystopian novel might be a “new” trend in young adult novels, it’s certainly nothing new in the overall landscape of literature and film.
Maybe this is why the trend in young adult fiction hasn’t yet run its course–and why it maybe never will (especially in light of recent dystopian mega-hits like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy).
To fully understand what “dystopia” means, let’s first look at “utopia”. The term comes from the novel Utopia by Thomas More, and describes a society which is considered “perfect”–where there is equality, social harmony, economic prosperity, and political stability. Dystopia is the opposite–society is completely imperfect. There are often similarities between a utopian and dystopian society, like the element of control, both social and political. Only in a dystopian society, the control is taken to a horrific extreme.
Dystopian novels, like utopian ones, often have a prescriptive element, offering some kind of warning–a “this is what might happen if we continue on this social/political/environment route” type message to them.
And what a perfect situation to put teen character into! After all, teens are known to rebel against control, to fight against social constraints. Dystopian novels provide the perfect opportunity for an author to put his or her characters into a dangerous time and place and set them on a meaningful journey fighting injustices–sometimes a life-or-death journey. The stakes are naturally higher, the conflict immediate and significant.
So…what elements make up a really good YA dystopian? I think the most important element is excellent world-building. Readers need a vividly described world, and they need to know how it came to be that way. We need to understand the structure of society and government, and we need to see how the protagonist fits into that world–how they were shaped by that world.
And that world? It should be a place that we, the readers, do not want to live in.
It’s also very important that the protagonist is a true product of that world, not a contemporary character with a contemporary mind-set dumped into that world. While a good dystopian protagonist will have characteristics that modern readers can identify with–family loyalty, for instance, or insecurity–these characteristics must be developed through the lens of the protagonist’s experiences, not the author’s.
And lastly, a good dystopian novel should make readers feel just how dire the circumstances are for the protagonist, and how much is at stake. Not every protagonist has to be like the Hunger Game‘s Katniss, on the front lines of the fight to take down the government, but they should certainly be facing some sort of significant personal risk.
Your challenge is–as it is with all young adult fiction these days–to make it somehow fresh and distinctive, with compelling characters that readers care about.[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://howtowriteshop.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/KristiColumn.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Kristi’s YA debut, HAVEN, was released by Simon Pulse in Feb. 2011. She also writes adult fiction (historical romance) as Kristina Cook and Kristi Astor. Visit her online at www.kristi-cook.com. [/author_info] [/author]