Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Writing YA Dystopia: Two different thoughts

In a couple months I have to teach a class about writing dystopian fiction, so I'm reading as much as I can on the subject. The question that everyone seems to be asking is: why do teenagers love it so much?

While I don't think that there's a single answer, and I don't mean to claim that all readers have the same motivations, some answers seem much more likely to me than others, and one answer in particular bugs me.

Before I start pulling out the quotes from other stuff I've been reading, let me tell you my theory (which, admittedly, isn't terribly original):

Dystopian fiction is almost always about oppression and control, and there is no group of Americans who views themselves as more oppressed and controlled than teenagers. They're at an age where they are becoming more and more capable--physically, mentally, etc--and yet they're still not allowed to make many choices about their lives. They are in a very structured environment, moving every hour at the ring of a bell to a different room where they learn things they're required to learn, whether they want to or not. Depending on their school, they might not be able to wear what they want, sit where they want, or even set foot off campus during a certain period of time. After school they may work at a job which gives them responsibility, but still no real choices--they can use their minimum wage salary to buy some consumer goods or some fast food, but they can't use that small amount of money to change their situation in life. At home they have to follow their parents' rules, continue studying things they don't appreciate, and do chores--forced labor--for a system they have little or no say in (kind of a taxation-without-representation scenario).

I'm not saying high school or parents or homework are bad. I'm just saying that it's easy to see how teenagers view themselves as oppressed and controlled.

I remember when I was in high school we'd protest everything. The school was less than a mile from the state capitol building, and there was more than one occasion when students would walk out and march up the hill shouting something or other. And it seemed like I was school board meetings every couple of months, joining my friends in the only way we could make our displeasure known. And lest you get the wrong impression, I wasn't much of a hooligan--half the time I was protesting in favor of the status quo, protesting against other protesting teenagers. But the point is: teenagers want to fight for something. They want choices, and they want a voice.

Consequently, it's not at all surprising that teens suck up books like Matched and The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games as though they were the last drops of water in the desert. These books are metaphors of the teenage condition, yet they all have heroic teens who break free from their oppressor's controls.

So, that's my theory about why teens love dystopia. Here's the theory that bugs me:

As author Paolo Bacigalupi put it in a recent New York Times article: "I suspect that young adults crave stories of broken futures because they themselves are uneasily aware that their world is falling apart."

As my brother, Dan Wells, put it on his blog: "Dystopia is huge right now, especially in YA. This is probably due to the fact that we live in one–or, more correctly, this is due to the fact that YA readers are finally paying close enough attention to realize that we live in one."

I have no quibble with either Bacigalupi's assertion that the world is falling apart, or Dan's claim that we live in a dystopia. Both of those claims are subjective, but I'd tend to agree with both, to some extent. No, my complaint is with the idea that our political and cultural climate is what's turning teens on to dystopian fiction--and I especially worry that if you write a story with that mindset it could easily lead to pedantic, plot-driven fiction.

Teens may be paying more attention to world events, with knowledge more readily available at the click of a button, I think they're also more media savvy, and if there's anything that teens DON'T want, it's to be preached to. I have many friends who read James Patterson's Maximum Ride series with pleasure, until it became clear that the book's underlying message was about the dangers of global warming, at which point they quit reading (and some of these friends are environmentalists themselves).

It's not that this second theory about dystopia (from Dan and Bacigalupi and others) is wrong--it's that it's a dangerous mindset for authors to have as they approach their writing, because it implies the most important aspect of the book is the plot: that teens want to read dystopia because they want "What If?" scenarios and extrapolated futures. And I think that's just plain not true. Above all else, most readers want (and teens especially) to be able to relate. They want an emotional connection to characters and situations. They want to say "This character is like me!" not "This corrupt government is like my corrupt government!" If that's lacking, then no amount of frightening, not-too-distant-future dystopia will make the book worth reading.

Disclaimer: both Paolo Bacigalupi and Dan Wells are both fantastic, award-winning authors who write great books with great characters, and I'm sure they'd agree with me that emotional connection is extremely important. I'm merely saying that, as advice to authors, I don't think you should approach YA dystopia with that kind of top-down look.


At 1/11/2011 5:09 PM, Blogger Steve Westover said...

Even if your theory isn't original, I think it's spot on. Adults fear Big Brother, but to YA mom and dad, teachers, or a boss fill that role. To YA it seems everyone wants to control them. In many ways they're right.

Emotional connection is important but it won't keep me reading unless the plot drives the characters into situations that help me relate or empathize.

A reader needs a compelling story and interesting characters to care about.

At 1/11/2011 5:56 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

I think people dig Dystopian fantasy, because they are like Bonnie Tyler, Holding Out for a Hero. =)

Personally, I find it hard to make an emotional connection with Katniss (probably why I couldn't read past the 1st book)

I would have to disagree that young adults are "uneasily aware" of the world falling apart. Most of the ones I know are pretty egocentric. The ones who aren't are very giving and optimistic. (And I can think of examples of both who liked Hunger Games.)

At 1/11/2011 6:34 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

For me, it's not that profound. I've always enjoyed dystopian fiction, but I didn't consider myself oppressed as a teenager, and don't consider myself oppressed now. I think I just enjoy stories about scary, fascinating new societies where courageous people fight for freedom on some level--not bug-eyed alien worlds, but OUR world, only different. Good vs. evil and freedom vs. oppression are classic, compelling themes, and setting them in an interesting new world adds a fun level of interest and excitement.

At 1/11/2011 8:13 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

I’m sure to some extent, both you and Dan are right. But I hear this kind of question all the time and it always makes me smile a little. Five years ago teens loved vampire books. Was it because they had an inner yearning to be loved by pale males? Or because innately they know our world sucks? Five years before that, they loved Harry Potter. Was it because their schools didn’t have moving stairs? Or because our world is nothing more than a bunch of witches? Why do some people love horror? Why do some people love romance? Do Dan’s readers all recognize the serial killer inside of them?

Maybe I'm just a cynic. But I don’t believe you can read how teens “really” feel by what is hot at the moment any more than you can view the current state of our world. As one of the oldest authors on this blog, I’ve spent years hearing about why horror books and movies were so big when I was a teen. And interestingly enough, it sounded a lot like what we are hearing about dystopians now. Except then it was about the coming ice age instead of global warming. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that we live in a dystopia. And anyone who thinks we do should go spend a couple of months in Haiti. Now there are some teens that should be eating up Hunger Games. (No pun intended.)

I think that Hunger games was a great book that appealed to a lot of readers and they went looking for more of the same, the same way they went looking for more paranormal romances after Twilight.

At 1/11/2011 11:45 PM, Blogger Shanda said...

I understand where you're coming from with this, Rob, and I can agree with it for the most part. As a teen I had a physically and emotionally abusive father. While most of my friends were worried about boyfriends and going to the mall, I worried about survival, sometimes literally.

I was a protective older sister, and believer that what was wrong was wrong, I fought back, both verbally & physically, and it got me into a lot of trouble with my father.

Stories like The Hunger Games reverberate with me on a pretty personal level, and I'm coming to understand that this is why I was disappointed in the last half of Mockingjay. I NEEDED Katniss to be a major player in the downfall of the Capitol. Yet, like I often was, she was used and manipulated. She had fought so hard, and while The Capitol WAS brought down, I felt like Katniss was cheated her major role in it. Until the very end, when she did exactly what I hoped she would do.

I read a lot as a teen (total escapism :) ) usually scifi/fantasy and romance. I don't think dystopian would have appealed to me then. But now, as an adult who has triumphed over those childhood evils, I do enjoy most dystopian novels.

The Lord of the Rings is another story that I love for the same reasons. Frodo & Sam have to go through a lot of horrible to do what they know they must and end up losing that precious thing called innocence. In the end, good wins. That's what I count on and hope for in life. Lots of horrible things happen every day, but at the end of it all, I know good will win.

While I don't think we live in a dystopia, we are struggling, and seeing the protagonist(s) fight against the odds and win (usually) even if it's not pretty gives us the hope we need to keep fighting, too.

Just my way-too-long-and-personal opinion.

Shanda :)

At 1/11/2011 11:57 PM, Blogger Kristine N said...

Except then it was about the coming ice age instead of global warming.

Um, except that it wasn't. You're confusing current climate denier anti-lefty sentiment with past dystopian fiction. As a reader of dystopian fiction from my teen years (fun, fun times, right, Rob?) the plots used to be about nuclear holocaust or epidemic disease.

I liked apocalyptic fiction mostly because I liked to imagine myself in the situation and wonder if I would respond with strength or weakness. I don't know that I had any personal feelings of oppression, at least not from parents and teachers, but I may also have been an atypical teenager--I was pretty geeky and bookish, and definitely not into things that were cool. If anything the social structure of high school was what I found oppressive. Imagining a dystopia where the social structure is completely destroyed by some calamity, and where people like me (or like I imagined myself to be) were rewarded for the very skills that set them apart as weird--that would be far closer to a "why dystopian fiction" for me.

At 1/12/2011 12:06 AM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...


I wasn't saying that the novels were about the coming ice age. But that the world we lived in was supposedly heading into the next ice age, giving us a reason to fear for our lives and read dystopian (or horror) novels. I specifically remember a teacher in High School explaining that our fears about the coming ice age and/or a nuclear holocaust was why we were all reading horror novels.

At 1/13/2011 2:59 PM, Blogger Tom the Younger said...

FWIW I was forced to read quite a lot of dysopian stories in school in the 70s and 80s. I loathed them with a passion and still do, though I will admit that some of them may be good reading.

I don't mind stories set in an apocalyptic environment. It's fun thinking about what I would do in such a situation. I like to cheer on characters who are trying to improve their circumstances, help others, and improve the world.

I strongly believe in the "fortunate Fall" wherein trials and challenges are a blessing to us. I hated stories that left you with a feeling of helplessness or despair, that there was no light at the end of the tunnel. (I love the writings of JRR Tolkien in general, but I still dislike The Children of Hurin.)

At 1/13/2011 5:34 PM, Anonymous VeritasLiberat said...

"You're confusing current climate denier anti-lefty sentiment with past dystopian fiction. As a reader of dystopian fiction from my teen years (fun, fun times, right, Rob?) the plots used to be about nuclear holocaust or epidemic disease."

I think we're about the same age, and I remember that there WERE future Ice Age dystopias, in addition to the nuclear holocaust ones. Some examples:

Time of the Great Freeze by Robert Silverberg (1964). I think Silverberg had more than one Ice Age future story, actually, though I can't remember the title.

The Ice Schooner by Michael Moorcock (1969)

Ring-rise, Ring-set by Monica Hughes (1982)

At 1/13/2011 5:54 PM, Anonymous VeritasLiberat said...

And here are more:

We Who Survived (The Fifth Ice Age) by Sterling Noel, 1959.

Winter of Magic's Return by Pamela Service (1985) -- admittedly, the ice age was the result of a nuclear holocaust/nuclear winter.

At 1/19/2011 4:34 PM, Blogger Kristine N said...

Yes, I know, a conversation shouldn't stretch out over days and days. And yes, thank you for pointing out that ice-age apocalyptic fiction exists. The point is, the majority of dystopian or apocalyptic fiction don't include ice ages (which is what J S Savage said, even if it's not what he meant). The worries of the day (overpopulation, plague, totalitarianism, environmental catastrophies of all sorts, and a bunch of other stuff I'm too lazy to type) are what tend to populate dystopian and apocalyptic fiction.

FWIW, Wikipedia has a list of apocalyptic fiction broken down by category, including environmental catastrophe. Ice age is the environmental catastrophe in novels from 1965, 1976, 1991, 2004, 2005, and two in 2006. Since I pretty much stopped reading when I started college in 1996, that means there were all of three ice-age based apocalypses out there, two of which probably would have been hard to come by since they were also older than me. There are 23 novels featuring plagues, according to the probably not exhaustive list on Wikipedia, though probably only 9 or 10 that I would have been likely to come across. I know I read four of those 9 or 10.

I realize I should choose my words more carefully when commenting on a blog about writing and not imply that ice-ages are never used in apocalyptic fiction, but at the same time, if you're going to comment on a genre of literature, it's probably best to pull out an example that's common to the genre instead of mocking of the current political climate.

At 1/19/2011 4:42 PM, Blogger Steve Westover said...

I had no idea that talk of a coming ice age in fiction was such a political statement.

I say this as I stare at the mini-blizzard outside my window.

At 1/19/2011 4:42 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...


I'm really not looking to make this a debate on Global Climate Change or lack thereof. What I was clarifying for you was that in my original comment, I was not commenting what catastrophes were used in dystopian fiction, but rather on what was blamed for teen readers liking the genre--which was what Rob's post was about.

In other words, I was not saying that Alas Babylon was about an ice-age, but that people believed an impending ice-age, along with the threat of nuclear war, etc was a cause for us wanting to read it.

Sorry you misunderstood my original point. But thanks for the list of apocalyptic fiction. Fun stuff to see it broken down.

At 1/20/2011 5:43 PM, Blogger Kristine N said...

Okay, I understand now what you were saying. Probably took it the way I did because usually I hear that comment in the context of, "why can't you scientists stick to a story." That said, I'm still not sure I agree with you. I think blaming horror on worries of the coming ice age is dumb (I don't see the connection at all there), but I do think what we worry about shows up in the plots of at least some, though obviously not all, dystopian fiction.

I think people read horror/apocalyptic fiction/dystopian fiction to explore (or read someone else's exploration of) some genuinely worrying situation in a safe way, with characters we can relate to and like. If you look at the lists of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction by date, there are definite patterns that reflect the worries of the society at large. Nuclear holocaust was a much more common theme in the 70's and 80's than it is today. Plagues are pretty consistent through time, which is unsurprising given disease is pretty consistent through time. Ice ages (interestingly enough) are actually clustered toward more recent publication dates. I don't quite know what to make of that, having not read any of the books in question, so I don't know if they are "global warming is bunk" or the somewhat more scientifically sound "we're heading into an ice age in a few thousand years--what will humans do then!?" but I do find it interesting.

Dystopian fiction (to distinguish it from the predominantly apocalyptic fiction above) tackles somewhat different themes, but again, they tend to reflect worries of the times. Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" (written in the 1950's) tackles censorship. "Make Room! Make Room!" (which was later turned into the movie "Soylent Green") addressed overpopulation. William Gibson's books Sprawl trilogy, from the 80's, imagines a world in which multinational corporations have basically taken over and control everyone's lives. Last year's "The Wind-up Girl" took a different tack on multinational corporations, imagining them using genetically modified crops and diseases to accomplish global take-over.

Good fiction *does* tap into our underlying, perhaps unrealized worries, whether they be about ecological collapse, or disease, or social acceptance, losing your virginity (which I would argue is the draw of a lot of horror). Rob makes a great point that readers of dystopian fiction want characters they can relate to. I think his point about teens feeling controlled and pushed around, and reading fiction in which characters overcome those controlling them, is another good one, and possibly a better explanation than the idea that we live in a dystopia. People are *always* claiming calamity is imminent, or the world is falling apart, or whatnot, so I'm skeptical that's really the reason we read apocalyptic fiction, though I do think the way we imagine the world to be going informs the ways authors destroy our comfortable lives in their novels.

At 2/23/2012 5:49 PM, Anonymous Tyler said...

Here are a few more interesting Dystopian novels:


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