Dystopian YA worlds: Show us why they’re wrong

Posted on September 22nd, 2013 @ 11:00
Filed Under Characters, World building | 1 Comment

What follows is worth for any dystopian story, but I’ve noticed this phenomenon in YA dystopias, more specifically. It all arose from a discussion I was having on Goodreads, regarding a book I finished a few days ago, and I’ve been thinking it might be worth addressing in a blog post.

(Please note that I’m going to use a few existing books as examples, but that it doesn’t mean in any way that I’m attacking those. It’s just my opinion, and/or using them to illustrate my point, whether they actually fall into the issue or not. Also, I haven’t read every dystopian YA book here, so by all means, if you know of a counter-example, tell me about it, so that I can check it. I like this genre, after all, and I, masochistic creature that I am, am never against seeing my to-read pile grow.)

I’ve come to realise that one specific shortcoming in a lot of those novels (well, among the ones I’ve read so far) is the lack of a solid world-building, and the logical consequence of the author having to tell rather than show the reader why society in his/her book is bad. It’s Young Adult, so perhaps teenagers don’t really care about that, and I, on the other hand, am only paying attention because I’m trying to improve my own writing. Nevertheless, it tends to make it harder to enjoy those stories, which is too bad, since a lot of the ideas behind them are actually quite good, and could live up to high expectancies if only things were a little more developed in the beginning.

The format usually goes as this: one (or several) teenager(s) living in a dystopian society start as well-integrated citizens, at least on the outside, but soon come to questioning their world, and end up finding out that everything they know is wrong/being on the run/joining La Resistance/all of that. This is a gross simplification, but it’s still the traditional basis in most stories in that genre.

The problem, in my opinion, is that all too often, the world-building tends to be rushed from the beginning, in order to get more quickly to the “let’s escape”/rebellion part, and we as readers don’t get that much of a feeling for what existed before—and thus, no well-defined society against which to pitch the characters’ upcoming new life. Those dystopian societies are “bad” and we know it, of course, because we can compare them to our own. For instance, most readers would think “how horrible” when presented with the mandatory match-making in Matched by Ally Condie: young people are introduced to their match and expected to start planning their lives with him/her, when they don’t even know that person, have never met him/her, and the whole process is based on criteria entered into computers from the day those people are born. It leaves no room to free will, to spontaneously falling in love, to having a say in who you’re going to grow old with. Everybody, or almost, would normally find all of this wrong from the start, without having to be explained why it’s wrong.

However, this is all preliminary knowledge, and as both a reader and a writer, I think that we need to be shown in what ways exactly such societies are bad for the characters. Are the latter physically threatened? Repressed in what they really want? Are they living in fear, and how is that fear being spread by the authorities in charge? Are there regular descents into “dissident homes”, and “rebels” being paraded in front of everyone so that the “good people” won’t be tempted to follow suit? Do the powers that be stage terrorist acts and pin them down on so-called rebels to keep everyone else in line? Is the hero/ine suffering from the life s/he’s leading, or is s/he perfectly integrated? If integrated, what gets to shatter their core beliefs, then, and how exactly does it happen?

There are many more questions to ask and answer to here, but basically, my point is that the characters have to be placed in more than just one “wrong” situation, forced to react to those, for us to actually find their rebellion logical, even though we, as people, are already aware that their world is totally flawed. It’s not about what makes dystopian societies bad for us, but what makes them so for the characters.

And this is, unfortunately, where some novels fail, because they rely mostly on our knowledge as readers, on what our modern socities consider as right or wrong. In turn, this makes it harder, I think, to view the characters as human beings, as real people. Since we already know what makes their fight “righteous”, we’re told that they’re brave (or not), wilful (or not), hot-headed (or not), instead of being shown through more than one scene how exactly they’re all that, and what made them, or is making them become, that way. We’re told that X realises he’s a coward as he just stands there while his friends are fighting, when simply showing him doing exactly that would carry the point across just as well, and better (provided said scene is well-described and pulled the right way, evidently). We may be shown that the police, government, psi corps, military… is bad, because they do this and that bad thing, but this is usually in the beginning, and afterwards the story seems to wander away from this, and the feeling gets lost somewhere in the middle.

As said, not every YA dystopian story suffers from this. However, the problem arises in more than just one book now and then. Besides, for those among us who want to write such novels, it’s worth keeping in mind, in order to avoid falling in the same trap pit.

So, what novels did you read, that did or did not fit that description? And why do you feel the way you do about them?

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One Response to “Dystopian YA worlds: Show us why they’re wrong”

  1. Mikhaeyla Kopievsky on September 30th, 2013 2:43 pm

    Interesting post! I think the world building in dystopian fiction needs to be something that permeates all stages of the story. For me, the dystopian world is much more than just a backdrop – it can become a central character that shapes and is shaped by other characters in the piece. My favourite dystopian worlds are those that mirror the social flaws and character rebellion. Usually it is in the form of a unique and detailed landscape but I’ve started to consider how fashion also has a big role to play. This is obviously more clearly seen in the movie/television adaptations, but maybe there is an opportunity for dystopian literature to also explore this characterisation – a new way of showing and not telling?

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