Saturday, June 27, 2015

On Dystopias

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.


  1. I'm a book analyst too. I've taken to buying classics and jotting down notes in the margins.

    I see what you mean. I do identify with and enjoy reading about characters dealing with questions and overcoming obstacles...although theirs are usually on a much larger scale than mine.
    But I don't read a lot of dystopian. Is it just me, or does dystopian written from a non-christian viewpoint seem a little held back or flat? As if the books want to talk about hope in the end...but are too afraid to delve into it? Perhaps that is just me over-analyzing.

    1. That sounds so scholarly! I admire those who delve into the classics. I'm...trying, in that area. XD

      Sometimes that larger scale is exactly what we need--to blow it up to a big size so we can see it more clearly. And it's sneaky, too. WE'RE not responsible with saving the world, exactly, so on the surface, we don't immediately 'identify with' the questions/obstacles until we realize that the themes do actually mean something to us. :)

      I don't know what counts for a lot or not a lot, but I...*cough* haven't read THAT much either. :P The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, The Cantral Chronicles (by Amanda L. Davis), The Giver, and probably a few other scattered novels. That's about it so far.

      But I totally see what you mean! Sometimes the secular dystopian stuff doesn't quite fully delve into that hope. But then again, hope outside of Jesus only goes so far, right? It doesn't ring quite as deeply as it can, at times--you're right.

  2. Oh this post! *huggles it and never lets go* I. LOVED. THIS. Your words, Tracey! You sum everything up in such a beautiful, clear way. While I just sit over here flailing with like...only ten words in my whole vocabulary. XD

    I totally analyze books, too. I think it is something about us writers. Used to I didn't, but once I got serious about writing and really studying the craft, I found myself unconsciously analyzing everything I read. Now it's more conscious. I think it's the best way to study the writing craft. If we learn what we love and hate about books and what makes them click, we can apply the knowledge to our own writing.

    This post really, really rung with me. Especially when you talked about Thomas wondering what he's supposed to do. Because I ask myself that everyday. Why am I where I am? What should I be DOING with my life? Books do help so much to show us we're not alone with these feelings, and also spur us on to get out there and be brave and do what we need to do, even if it's hard and scary. Books are such powerful things.

    "Herein lies one of the mysterious powers of story—to use an untruth to reveal truth." YES. Now THAT is powerful.

    Thank you for this post! It was gorgeous and really resonated with me. Keep being amazing, girl! <3

    1. Ack, how do you so consistently make my day?? ^_^ And excuse me, but you have like ten thousand words in your vocabulary. Or else some other magic that you sprinkle into your stories. XD

      It's totally a writer thing. Or a generally story-loving thing. And yes, it's a GREAT way to learn the craft! How-to books are awesome, but there's something irreplaceable about just sitting back and watching a master weave a tale.

      See? It does that to me, too! And oh my, yes, books DO spur us on! So much. I don't care that the heroes are fictional; they can be so incredibly inspiring. They at least get me thinking along the lines of being brave and doing what I need to do, and thinking about it is the first step.

      *blushes* (I think I may have unconsciously paraphrased someone else's line. C.S. Lewis or something.)

      You're welcome, and thank *you*! :D Having something I write actually mean something to another human being is an amazing feeling.

  3. An interesting post! You have some great thoughts! ^_^ Personally I can't stand dystopians because they just feel lacking in hope or something... But I can see why a lot of people connect with them. :) Beautiful post! ^_^

    1. Yeeeah, I know you're not particularly fond of dystopian books. XD (You did actually cross my mind as I was writing this.) But a lot of the connections/relevance can translate to, say, fantasy too. We love watching the heroes battle dragons and go on epic quests because we all have our own "dragons" to fight, and we all long to be part of something significant.

      But yes, one of my biggest problems with certain dystopias is the hopelessness. Any hope they do offer tends to wait until the end to show up, and even then, like Blue and I were talking about, it doesn't always shine quite as brilliantly as it can.

      But thank you, dearie! ^_^

    2. Really?? o.o Aww, I'm flattered! ;) Heehee. And I guess that's true, too! Lots of things can be true all across the different genres. :) And even the dystopians I've read that were Christian didn't seem very hopeful even, so that gets me down even more. o.o But hey, as long as people enjoy them! ;) I'll just stick to my fantasy if I can. XD

  4. I totally agree with you here. This is why I love dystopians. I love watching the characters face incredible odds, mess up, get pushed to the very edge of their sanity... and pull through. Like you said, it's inspiring to *see* people pulling through difficult times (even if they're just fictional characters).
    Reading through some of the comments above, I also agree that sometimes dystopians can be very hopeless (1984, anyone?). But for me personally, even if I didn't enjoy the book because of the lack of a happy, hopeful ending, afterwards it makes me think about how much hope I have in Christ, and any book that brings to reflect on myself, my life, my faith, the world... has done its job in my opinion.

    1. Exactly! The first paragraph of your comment makes me think of Tris. ;)
      I've never read 1984. Isn't that kind of a 'classic' dystopian? And you're right--even hopeless stories can inspire hopeful thought. (Just like a poorly written book can inspire one to examine the craft more.) If it makes you think, it's done something for you. Thanks for your perspective! :)