Let me paint you a picture. The year is 2020. Earth, once a hubbub of commotion, is now a barren wasteland thanks to perpetual war. Living in the middle of it all is a poverty-stricken teenager ready for change.
There are a million ways this story can go. Maybe the teenager will uncover an evil government plot. Maybe they’ll discover they have to lead a secret, covert organization rebelling against the said government. Or maybe they’ll break free from the following tropes that plague dystopian literature. Who knows?
Trope #1: The Evil Government or Organization
What is It? The Hunger Games had one. So did 1984. Even Marie Lu’s far more recent novel, Legend, is not immune to the-government-is-evil-itis. In what has become a trademark characteristic of dystopian literature, the government is either blatantly cruel and uncaring towards the general population, or has a secret plot that their citizens do not know of – which will probably be revealed by the main protagonist. The government can also impose order in the form of everyone-must-act-the-same-way by screwing with genetics, taking away color from their world, and basically restricting diversity.
Why do we do it? As worn-out as this trope is, there is a very good reason for its prevalence. For one, government corruption is not merely fictional; it does exist in our world, so it is, in truth, an extremely relevant topic. Add that to the to the rapidly changing political climate of the 21st century and suddenly an untrustworthy government or organization does not seem so ridiculous.
Trope #2: The Teenager Must Lead a Rebellion
What is it? So you’ve just unmasked something devious, something the public must be made aware of. You’ve discovered a threat that needs to be disposed of for once and for all. All you have to do now is start a riot…and who better to lead it than the teenage protagonist who is most likely smack in the middle of an all-consuming love triangle and haunted by PTSD? Better hope they’re mature and act like an adult…wait…
Why do we do it? Recent dystopian books have been mainly geared toward a young adult (teenage) audience, so it makes sense that the protagonist would be well within their teenage years, too. And who wants to be stuck in the head of someone on the sidelines, warming the bench while other characters get to shoot guns? When your characters hold positions of power – regardless of what age they are – remember to give reasoning as to why they deserve it.
Trope #3: The Big Bad Caste/Faction/Sorting System
What is it? Dystopian authors just love sorting their characters into groups, and though it might seem bizarre, so do people in the real world. Just look at the world around you. Books using this trope are also fond of having their main character come from the lowest caste, subjecting them to disrespect, mistrust, and resentment from their peers. You’re an Abnegation? Psh. Must be a chicken. Are you from District 12? Throw your hopes and dreams of winning the Games away.
Why do we do it? Let’s face it. We, as a society, love to read stories where the underdog succeeds or comes in first. It’s uplifting, inspiring, and the embodiment of what dystopian literature is supposed to give us: hope. Hope that no matter how hard the path is, the destination is attainable. Hope that no matter how screwed the world may be, you can survive it. Caste systems also provide useful analogies for real-life societal prejudice and the judgmental nature of us humans.
Trope #4: The Coming-of-Age Trial/Game/Test
What is it? Are you a teenager? Do you live in a dystopian world? If so, you’d better get your test-taking skills down because you’re going to take a lot of tests. As in, a test to determine your job. As in, a test that determines who you live with. As in, a test studying your enzymes so you can hopefully develop a cure to save half the world. No one likes taking tests, unless they’re of the virtual reality, escape-the-maze, kill-everyone-in-the-arena variety, dystopian literature seems to think. One of the many quirks of living under a corrupt government.
Why do we do it? No matter how clever your dystopian plot is, it can be spiced up with a suspense-filled test sequence or two. Besides, it’s teens that are going to be reading your book, after all – teens that are most likely thinking about how nerdy it is that they have to stay inside to read* while their friends are playing soccer or going to the mall, whatever teens do in their spare time. In that case, having your main character face perilous trials and impossible tests is the surest way to keep your reader hooked.
Of course, tropes are not always a bad thing, and a story built from the fumes of cliché is not always a bad one. But tropes do make your story predictable, and bombarding your readers with one trope after the other can make your story blend in with every other piece of dystopian literature out there. And that is the utmost fear for writers.
*Yes, I am a teenager, but I’m a nerdy teenager. Nerdy teenagers don’t shop at malls.