I can’t help it. I analyze books.
It may have started out as an intentional thing, but these days, I can’t help but pick stories apart. I used to think such a habit would ruin the pleasure of reading, yet I’ve found that, for me, it only adds to the experience. With most books I sink into, I automatically look for what works, what doesn’t work, why something does what it does. Why do I love this character? Why does this other one fall flat? Why does the pacing feel off? What made that plot twist so incredibly surprising?
Not only do I find myself studying books, I find myself studying genres, too. What makes me love fantasy so much? Why is dystopian so popular? I look at the categories from my own personal viewpoint as a reader, and also try to see it from the perspective of a wide audience.
I don’t know—maybe it’s the writer in me.
I was thinking about dystopias the other day. I’d just finished Allegiant (OH MY GOODNESS I HAVE NO WORDS) and thoughts on the ending led me down a broken concrete trail to the idea of dystopias in general. I don’t know if it’s coming or going, that trend, but it has produced some insanely popular stuff. The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, etc.
So what’s the appeal?
I’m sure that answer is as multi-faceted as the genre’s readers. But a whole lot of the fans are teens. And maybe all those teens identify with Katniss, who’s forced into something she never wanted. Who can’t trust those in authority, or even the friends around her. Maybe we readers see Tris, struggling with identity and a choice that will determine her entire future, and we feel, “Yeah, that’s me too.” We watch Thomas try desperately to figure out where the blazes he is, and who put him there, and what he’s supposed to do . . . and those questions resonate.
Because those are our questions.
“What am I going to do with my life?”
“What will I choose?”
“Who can I trust?”
“Why am I here?”
We reach for independence, sometimes too quickly, and strain against the bonds of childhood. The fictional cast of characters strives to break the bonds of a despotic government.
We see myriad choices—big ones—looming in our futures, and we wonder, doubt, panic, analyze, dream. The characters’ big choices mirror our own, but in a warped mirror that expands and extrapolates those decisions. A city rests on the choice; lives depend on the action taken.
We look around at our world, the dimensions of which have suddenly exploded, and we feel increasingly small. The characters peel back layers of story and discover all is not as they once thought.
This relevance can be true of any story, any genre. These tales echo in the chambers of our hearts because on a certain plane, they are real. They are our very own stories, played out with different names, different locations, different circumstances . . . yet with all too familiar themes.
And so when Katniss fires a well-aimed arrow, we cheer. When Tris faces her deepest fears, we pump our fists. The victories of these characters help us realize, “I can too.”
In a progressively secluded society, where we can so easily hide behind screens, it is even easier to feel that we are alone in our struggles. That we must be the only ones going through this. In books we find companions with whom we empathize. A poor substitute for real friendship, I suppose, but nonetheless encouraging. Somebody else out there feels the way I feel. They are facing worse, and yet they still get up in the morning, they still press on. They lose and fail and shatter into a million pieces, but they put themselves back together . . . and they make it.
I can too.
Herein lies one of the mysterious powers of story—to use an untruth to reveal truth. To use fiction to shed light on reality. Through fabricated hardships, a story comforts us in our trials, and inspires us with the courage to walk through to the other side as a stronger person.
Yes, dystopias feed on the fears of today and paint grim pictures of tomorrow; of a fallen race, a broken planet, a corrupted government. Yes, dystopian authors sometimes write with a societal or environmental critique in mind.
But under the agendas, we might find sparks to feed our own dying flames. In the bleak landscapes, we can rediscover hope. And that, I think, is the reason we are so enraptured with these fractured tales.