Writing About Real People

7:00 AM




This week's genre was going to be dystopia because I have many feelings about dystopia, especially of the YA variety. But that got me thinking about what exactly I was going to ramble about when it came to YA dystopia, which led me to the many issues I have with YA dystopia, and one of them became a blog post all in itself so here it is. I'm nothing but a rulebreaker around here, really. 

Okay, so if you've read YA dystopia at all, you know the pattern, I'm sure. Personality-less teenage girl. Some kind of ceremony that marks their 16th birthday and gives them an important decision to make. A glittering society that calls itself perfect but actually has too many issues to count. A vapid nice-guy type, probably the blond childhood friend. A dark and brooding stranger. Cue love triangle. Girl can save this world. Angst, making out at odd times, the Rebels, drama, and so on. First person present.

A thrilling dystopia. 



There are a lot of problems with this (seriously, a LOT). It's old, it's boring, it's full of cliches, there are almost always a thousand plot holes. Not cool, man. 

But here's the issue I'm going to ramble on about today: they're not real people. 

The teenage girl who is the only person in her society who sees the problem and the only one who can save the world and who wanders around and wails about a guy. The blond childhood friend love interest. The dark mysterious stranger guy. These are stereotypes. Cliches. These aren't real, living, breathing people. They exist for plot and romance. They're not original. You can spin them to be that way, but in most cases they're really just...not. 

Ignoring the fact that most YA dystopia isn't actually dystopia, this is one of the hugest problems I have with the genre, and why it's hard for me to pick up a YA dystopia now without being disappointed. 

Allow me to rant about The Hunger Games for a moment. 

I don't know if you've realized my love for The Hunger Games. It's far-reaching and pretty much endless and I'll write about it forever and ever because seriously, guys, Suzanne Collins is my writing hero. Especially when it comes to characters. Do the three characters I've described sound kind of like Katniss, Peeta, and Gale? Well, yes, and honestly I'm pretty sure that's what a lot of these books are trying to imitate. 


Katniss is one of my favorite YA characters for about a thousand reasons, and it all boils down to the fact that she's real. She doesn't wander aimlessly trying to find one guy or another, or ask stupid questions. Katniss gets things done. Until she's traumatized and turned into a shell of herself, which is realistic and important too. She has a family. She has likes, and dislikes. Come on, guys, she's really into food. What about that isn't endearing? She doesn't get distracted by this guy or the other when she's trying to keep them all alive. She puts that aside until she has time to deal with it (which, unfortunately, is almost never, but that's not her fault). She has a personality. She reacts to things, and is actually affected by them in ways that matter. The events of the story shape her in very realistic ways. I just really really like Katniss. 

Peeta does not exist for the sake of a love triangle, or even just to be a love interest or a childhood friend. He's not the generic "nice guy next door" type. Peeta always reacts to and is changed in important ways by the story. He cares for people, is loyal but also flawed and complex. He saves Katniss. He's frustrated by her occasionally. He, too, has a family. Goals. Motivations. (But lets face it, I ship him with Katniss like crazy.)

And just look at their adorable little faces guys.
You could argue this, I guess, but Gale is definitely not just the dark and brooding love interest. He's a childhood friend, too. He has a family to take care of, and he's loyal and devoted to them. He's devoted to Katniss, too, yes, and cares for her, but his whole life and story doesn't revolve around being the love interest. He has flaws and makes mistakes. He has a cause, and genuine reasons to dedicate himself to this cause. Maybe we don't like the way the story ends for him, but it's realistic. 

These characters aren't stereotpes. They weren't created to fulfill a certain role. They feel real, through their personalities and reactions and interactions with the world. I could go in-depth about the rest of Collins' characters -- they're all that deep and developed, and I could talk about it for ages -- but for now, we'll leave it there. 

It would have been easy to fall into the usual dystopia stereotypes here. But because the characters were developed, and human, they reacted to the events and shaped the plot rather than being hit in the face with the events and dragged along by the plot, kicking and screaming and making out the whole way. 

I think we ought to try to write real people more often. Because real people aren't a stereotype or made to fill a plot. (Hey, look, I got to the point!) Real people react, shape the story, live lives, have personalities, have quirks, and so on. Real people are awesome -- I'm not always the best at writing them myself, but that's something I'm getting better at. 

So there you have it: a rant instead of a helpful genre post. But hey, I do what I want. 

How do you feel about YA dystopia? Do you have a favorite? Why? 

15 comments

  1. Hey, Aimee! You may or may not have won something over on my blog and should check it out. Y'know. Cuz.
    (Also - smashing article. All the yes.)

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  2. I love the dystopian genre. But I hate almost all of the books I've read that are classified as dystopian. Not only are half of them not technically 'dystopian', but they're all basically that cliche stereotype that you said. It really is a great genre, if it was done properly, weren't all basically exactly the same, and the characters were real. (Which is why I adore the Hunger Games. It's so great.) I think it's a genre that needs to be refreshed, really, for lack of a better word in my head right now. I think authors need to realize that 'dystopian' really is, and branch away from the cliche cutout of dystopian novels nowadays.

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    1. Ughhhhh SAME. It's my favorite genre, but YA just loves to screw it up and fill it with cliches which is a shame. I wish there were more like Hunger Games that really were thoughtful and attacked issues.

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  3. I don't read a whole lot of dystopian. After Maze Runner (which I liked), Hunger Games (which I did not like), and Divergent (which I positively hated), I pretty much gave up. That to say, I don't have enough background knowledge to say I agree or disagree with this post. But it /sounds/ accurate.

    As I (kinda) said Maze Runner is probably my favourite dystopian, and it has to be because of the characters. (Though I still didn't like it enough to read the next two books, which says something about my relationship with dystopian.) They were so adorable and messed up. Alby's character arc, especially, was so real and raw and relatable. (And it made me cry inside, which is always a plus.) The only character I can think of right now who didn't feel real and seemed only there to fill a role was Teresa, and she was also the one character I hated.

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    1. Hmmm, if you hated Teresa then it's probably a good thing you didn't read the rest of the series...

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    2. That's fair...I enjoyed Hunger Games a lot and found Maze Runner fun, and dystopia is one of my favorites when it's done properly. I'm wishing I could find more good ones that wouldn't turn people away. :(

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  4. Dystopia is actually one of my favorite genres, but you're right about the cliches you mentioned. I'm working on a dystopian novel right now, and it's definitely challenged me to be creative and try to do something that hasn't already been done. My protagonist is a guy (as I feel like every dystopian has a female MC), and rather than starting out poor in the beginning of the novel, the protagonist lives at the top of society. I've also decided to write in third person from multiple POVs instead of it just being the MC in first person, and while there is romance in the novel, there's not a love triangle.

    One thing that bothers me about a lot of dystopians is the lack of hope. The last book of The Hunger Games just felt so dreary to me, and I didn't like some of the unnecessary character deaths and how Katniss wanted to start another Hunger Games using the children of those living in the Capitol. It just destroys the purpose of what they were fighting for in the first place.

    And is it just me, or are most dystopians nearly always trilogies? It's possible to write a stand alone or even developing a series longer than three books if the plot is well thought out.

    Sorry I got off on a rant, but I'm very curious to know what some other elements are that people would like to start seeing more in the Dystopia genre!

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    1. Yessss thank you. I really appreciate people who attempt to write actual thoughtful dystopia, because that means so much more and let's face it: it's pretty dang awesome when it's done well. I'd love to read something like that. :D

      Hmmmm. For me, dystopia is actually about that? All the original classic dystopias aren't to show hope; they're to make you THINK. For me true dystopia has always been a way to shock you back into reality and make you think about the government, the world around you, and where it's headed. So I guess I appreciate a lack of hope there? Hunger Games was realistic and I kind of adored Mockingjay for that. *shrugs*

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  5. I agree... Characters need to be REAL!

    I started reading K.M. Weiland's book Crafting Unforgettable Characters, & she has a huge list of insane details authors should know about each of their characters. (Down to the way they get on so-and-so's nerves & what clubs they joined in school!) She explains that not all of the details will come into the story, but it makes the characters REAL & their reactions BELIEVABLE.

    I actually have a little dystopia-ish plot-bunny that just popped up this week, so this was a helpful reminder to not follow the normal, boring cliche's... :)

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    1. Ooooh I still need to read that! It's on my list.

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  6. Wow, you just pinpointed about every problem I have with most YA dystopias. I think it's so sad that so many people are trying to imitate The Hunger Games (because so many of these stories sound suspiciously similar) when they could write amazing, original stories of their own. I'm all for being influenced by good books, but a lot of the stories in this genre seem very cookie-cutter to me. Especially the whole first-person-present-tense deal. Not that I don't like it (in fact, I love it) but it seems to be the only acceptable voice for dystopias anymore, which is kind of ridiculous.

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    1. Me too. Hunger Games was amazing, and most of the rip-offs just...aren't. So I wish people would write more original dystopia with some thought put into it.

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  7. *round of applause* Your post is so true! Not just for the YA dystopia genre but for YA fantasy as well. I've seen so many Katniss lookalike that felt like cardboard copy. At times, I wonder if authors craft some characters because they want to or if it's because they think it will make it easier to sell their book. Or maybe their publisher pressured them into writing specific types of characters.

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  8. The only dystopia I actually really like is The Giver, and I feel like that's mostly just because it is one of the first YA dystopias out there, and so while many people find it dissatisfying in the midst of the height of YA dystopia, I find it kind of beautiful just because it is so innocent and you can contemplate the effect it had in retrospect. Plus all four books deal with four different kinds of governmental styles and ideas and so it gives you a way to think about a bunch of different things and it is the best. But, unfortunately, I disliked The Hunger Games as well as most of the other dystopias I've stumbled onto, and I think it just isn't my genre. I love the small-group-attacks-government, and maybe it's because, like you said, the characters just aren't realistic. I guess I haven't studied them enough to say why! I should think about that...

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