What Makes a Good Dystopian Novel?
I was visiting my parents house after a few grueling midterms back in 2008 when I first picked up The Hunger Games. My mother, an avid reader, had just finished it and was preparing to take it back to the library. She began to talk about the plot a bit and,intrigued, I picked it up. The next day I finished The Hunger Games and went to consult the internet about when the sequel would be published. I was in love. I bought my own copy within the week. Working at a public library I found myself recommending it to friends and patrons alike, never knowing it was only the beginning of the Hunger Games phenomenon. I, like most fans, was pleased with the books growing popularity. I’m still happy at its success, even loving the movie adaptation. However, there is always something bad to go along with the good. In this case it’s teen dystopian novels flooding the market.
I love a good dystopian, always have and always will. Unfortunately in the wake of The Hunger Games success publishers are picking up dystopians left and right. The race to be the next big book franchise has left us wading in a sea of subpar characters, poor world building, nonsensical plot lines, or in the worst case all three. Now some of these novels have interesting premises and are somewhat enjoyable reads, but with a few tweaks they could’ve been great. Publishers are rushing to get books to the shelves and there seems to be a distinct lack of editing. Perhaps I’m a bit picky, but is it really unreasonable to ask for quality dystopians?
So what makes a good dystopian novel? Well, your typical dystopian novel is often characterized by a repressed society, controlled by a governing body, while masquerading as being some form of utopia. The extremes of this government vary by and large, but they generally involve humanities abuse of technology or the government control of it (hello, The Capitol). In most teen dystopians the author either sets the novel far into the future, having the world suffer an event in their past which drastically changed society and how humanity lives. The Hunger Games is set in this type of world, making a small mention of humanity’s past mistakes causing the development of the Capitol and the 13 districts. In another popular scenario the novel will take a current social issue and stretch it to the most extreme solution. In Unwind, Neal Shusterman created a horrifying world which having a child unwound “solved” the issue of abortion. This is a standard jumping off point, leading to many interesting pitches for books. The problem seems to happen when we get to believable world building and characters.
World building is a lot more important than people think. Sure the circumstances you’re putting your characters in are extreme and perhaps unbelievable in today’s world, however it does have to be believable in the world they live in. In the Hunger Games the world of Panem is in a totalitarian regime. The world is so far in the future and has suffered many wars, making it merely shadow of the current world. However, it’s not so far fetched when we look back in human history (Holocaust, slavery, Soviet Union, KKK). The main character of these dystopians are usually the victim of an unjust world, but that world, even its dysfunction or cruelty needs to make sense. If we can’t believe in a world how can we expect to believe in the circumstances the characters are experiencing? A story cannot stand on premise alone, the reader needs to be absorbed into this new world. How can we empathize with the characters if we’re not invested in their circumstances?
Characters are one the most important factors to creating any successful story, whether dystopian or otherwise. You can have the most interesting premise in the world, but if I don’t care about the character then I’m surely not going to spend an entire novel with them. I want to be emotionally invested in my protagonists, feeling their heartbreak as my own. That said, what makes a good character?
A good character is going to be flawed, because our flaws make us human and they make us interesting. If you look at Katniss Everdeen she’s more anti-hero than hero. She can be emotionally closed off, unforgiving, and even cruel. She kills people, and though she has no joy in it, her survival trumps her moral qualms and is even violent towards her allies (shoving Peeta before the games, attacking Haymitch, you get the picture). In contrast she is loyal, clever, good at heart, and self sacrificing for those she loves. She’s not classically beautiful and she makes tons of mistakes throughout the trilogy, but we love her. Katniss is a female icon, not because she’s perfect, but because she’s realistic. My favorite dystopians always have flawed, but amazingly written characters. Unwind’s Conner Lassiter makes some reckless and stupid decisions, allowing desperation and anger to control his actions. His bad qualities are accompanied by his generally being a good guy, despite being somewhat of a screw up. Tally Youngblood from Uglies makes some huge mistakes, causing many of the issues that plague her character, but we are still on her side the whole way through. What do all these characters have in common besides being the leads in a dystopian novel? They’re the protagonists, they’re the heroes of our stories, but they aren’t heroes at all. They’re just a couple of teens thrust into a horrible world, where doing the right thing often just coincides with trying to survive. A believable hero, with all their flaws, trumps the perfect hero every time.
My final note of advice to those writing a dystopian novel. Have it make sense! I don’t mean that you can’t have a crazy futuristic world, but make it believable. I recently read a dystopian where the military was creating chemical weapons and an earthquake destroyed the base and a mysterious gas was let loose. This gas causes some people to break out into boils, others to have paranoid hallucinations, some turn into psychotic rage monsters, and finally are seemingly unaffected except they’re now sterile. Why did it vary? According to the author it was based on bloodtype. The dystopian was set in a world very similar to our own time and I had trouble swallowing this. It turns out the author was merely using this as a plot device for later. My skepticism forced me out of the story, it just seemed silly. When you have end of the world situations you don’t want your audience to think what you’re doing is silly.
Despite the flood of subpar dystopians, a few good ones are still making it through. On top of that there are still some pre-Hunger Games dystopians out there. I know I’ve given lists before but here’s my list of favorite dystopians in no particular order.
1.The Giver by Lois Lowry
2. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
3. Unwind by Neal Shusterman
4. Uglies Trilogy by Scott Westerfeld
5. The Declaration by Gemma Malley
6. Cinder by Marissa Meyer
7. The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
8. Legend by Marie Lu
9. Partials by Dan Wells
Do you have a favorite dystopian that’s not on this list? What do you look for in a dystopian novel?
Wrote this for my library’s teen tumblr. Which you should all go follow so I get to continue tumbling for the library!