How To: Write a YA Dystopian Novel

You will need:

  1. Female protagonist

That’s not to say that you can’t have a male protagonist who’s equally as amazing – The Maze Runner, for example, has a male protagonist (in fact 99% of the characters are male) – but kick-ass female protagonists seem to be the most popular in YA fiction. Look at Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior! Celebrated as literary heroes! The gender of your main character shouldn’t really change its reception, but undoubtedly there has been a trend of braid-wearing K-A females, and they definitely act as strong, independent role-models.

  1. Contain the area

You know, with some kind of fence, steel wall, ocean perhaps? It’s tension building, and means you can explore the characters in a limited space. Also, it means there’s always going to be the question – and therefore motivation for your protagonist – of ‘what’s out there?’

  1. Answer the question

Is it an organisation of people that have built this society as part of a genetic experiment? Okay, so this one is turning into a big cliché, and you can see why. It perfectly answers the question, and means that the series can progress from focusing on the baddies inside the contained area, to the baddies on this outside. Maybe it’s a baron waste-land, or maybe it’s magic! Maybe it’s aliens or maybe it’s a drop-off that leads to an entirely new world? What about a portal to another dimension? The possibilities are endless as long as you have some imagination. Just be aware that the ‘your life is a lie because it’s all been an experiment’ thing is starting to loose impact.

  1. Categorise the society

By wealth, or personality, skill set or generation. Again, pretty much everything has been done, but nothing says dystopian society more than societal boundaries!

  1. Take down the Government/ the equivalent system

Girl vs. Government is becoming its own strand of dystopian fiction and its popularity in YA has sky-rocketed. Surely the logical step after getting out of the contained area is trying to break down the boundaries established in step 4. You didn’t spend all that time creating a complex government system with an awesome acronym to not have your protagonist tear it to shreds! I feel this is mostly done to show that the voiceless have an incredible amount of power when they come together, and it reassures everyone that tyrannical overlords are always destroyed. What I always wonder is: what happens next, after the government is taken down? Maybe that’s something you could explore in book three.

Extras that you might want to consider:

  • Why not add a love triangle, everyone’s favourite relationship dynamic (!) Although your setting may be futuristic, it’s important to have grounded characters that go through human experiences that readers can relate too. Now, the love triangle is pretty difficult to relate to, but there are plenty of other contemporary tropes that you could explore in your dystopian setting.
  • Adult figures! So teens are the ones that destroy the government, but you’ll need a lot of complex adult characters to make this a successful series. And, wait for it, your character will have parents, maybe include them!
  • Communication is key. I think readers are pretty fed up with communication barriers, so good communication skills should be necessary.

Disclaimer: I have not (yet) written a best-selling dystopian series, and not all of my points are to be taken seriously – *cough* satire *cough* – but I’ve read a lot of YA dystopian fiction, so I’ve picked out some of the key features that have varying success rates. If you have any other suggestions of dystopian clichés/tropes, feel free to leave them in the comments!

Other How Tos:
How To: Write a John Green Novel

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How To: Write a John Green Novel

You will need:

1. a male protagonist with a quirk.
2. a manic-pixie-dream-girl love interest who is ‘damaged’ and that the protagonist can use to find/fix himself.
3. one polar-opposite best friend and, optionally, one obnoxious best friend.
4. a setting that is based in reality, but somehow feels ethereal.
5. one hella good road trip.
Optionally you can add a missing girl (see 2.) into the equation.

It’s to be expected that any author is going to have some patterns in their writing style, and it’s particularly easy to spot them when their collected works so far and just the one genre. As a disclaimer, I am in no way trying to dissuade any one to not read or not enjoy John Green’s novels! They’re pretty wonderful, and Paper Towns is even on my favourites list, but just because I like the author doesn’t mean their writing is perfect. Despite whatever I say in this post I will not stop reading and enjoying Green’s works, and I look forward to whatever he publishes in the future. So be warned.

John Green is such a prominent author on any book shelf, be it library, supermarket or personal, that it’s become hard to criticise his work. This is partly due to the fact that he is also such a prominent member of the internet community, which makes him feel like a friend, or at least someone that we know a little more than the average author, and you wouldn’t criticise a friend, would you?

There’s no disputing the fact that ‘The John Green Formula’ (I will hereby refer to it as the TJGF) is a bestselling formula. The TJGF gives readers carefully developed characters and intricate love stories, not to mention they’re fun to read – I can not stress this enough. As much as a I enjoy the TJGF (which, I guess, technically makes it The The John Green Formula, but ‘The TJGF’ sounds better, so we’ll roll with it) I also find it a little frustrating.

I’m writing about the TJGF in my EPQ project about the way in which the first love is presented in YA and how it relates to character development, and it got me thinking more about the frequently occurring tropes in YA. The Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl being one of them, I’m not entirely sure where this came from, and it would be ignorant to say it must have started with the TJGF, but that seems to be where it’s most commonly recognised. Lauren DeStefano, author of the Chemical Garden trilogy, wrote a piece on the MPDG (I’m really going for the initialisms) and you can read it here. Her main point is that the MPDG trope objectifies women, and I can totally see where she’s coming from. (See 2.)

The MPDG trope is just as problematic as the ‘damsel in distress, need a boy to save me’ trope (the DIDNABTSM?) and this leads to questioning the representation of women in YA – and you can see how this controversy has spiralled out of just talking about the patterns in bestselling John Green novels. It brings on a whole feminist debate and issues about consent in YA literature – and let me tell you, they definitely should be discussed. I could go on and write a dissertation on the problematic tropes of the YA genre, but I’ll leave you with what I’ve got, slightly abruptly if anything, so that we can take some time to think about this stuff.

It’s almost strange to look at YA in such a critical light, as I normally think about YA as something I can read to take a break from the books on my English Literature course. But they’re so much more than that, the content and issues are just as serious as the ones in what are regarded as ‘the classics’.

Thanks for reading! It’s been a wild ride, and all I can say is ‘that escalated quickly.’