You will need:
- 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.
- 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?’
- 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.
- 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!
- 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