Having teenagers nearly die through the complicated machinations of adults is a tried and tested storyline. For a while, it felt like every book, movie, and TV show was based on this idea. And you’ve seen and read them all. So the question is: Am I living in a young adult dystopia? We’re here to help you figure that out.
Let’s start with the very basic setting. There are one of two things that may make you think you’re in a young adult dystopia. First of all, are you a teen or preteen? If so, then you’ve got the “young adult” part nailed. Second of all, is life not necessarily great but okay? You’re either just scraping by or comfortable, even though the world outside your enclave is a mess? That’s good, then the chances are that there’s something very wrong with your society that constitutes a dystopia. Now, let’s do some other checks.
Look at your name and the name of everyone around you. Is there some special meaning to them? In a YA dystopia, no one is simply given a name because their parents liked it. Or even something as pedestrian as being named after a friend or family member. No, names are thematic. Names for things (There’s a group in The Maze Runner that goes by WICKED, which isn’t even trying to hide anything.) Are you a baker with a type of a bread for a name? Or perhaps no one in your group can remember anything about their lives except for their names? I bet those names will turn out to be significant. Did you or anyone else in your life choose a nickname that no one has ever given themselves before in the history of ever? Can you even remember why you did that?
Did something bad happen in the past, something devastating yet weirdly nonspecific? A war, possibly nuclear? Some generic disease? A financial collapse? It is vitally important that something happened, something vague.
It has to be big enough that it justifies any action the people in charge take, but vague enough that it might be something they’ve made up. Or something that didn’t happen the way it’s presented. If the authorities aren’t doing something horrible and everything really is awful, then you’re just in a post-apocalyptic world, not a dystopian one.
Dystopias hate children. Just hate them. I don’t know why that is, but it’s true. And the way they show their disdain is by coming up with baroque ways of using children. Wipe their memories and dump them in a hellish maze where they could all die? Sure. Send 100 kids down to the planet that was razed in a nuclear apocalypse? Why not. Cow the poor into submission by forcing their children to kill each other in a nationally televised hunger game? I guess!
It’s not that the government hates you personally—although it might come to, eventually—it’s that everything has more resonance when it happens to children. Parents are more compliant when they know that their kids can be targets. And experimenting on adults is useless, they’re too set in their ways. Plus, the ones that survive will be the best ones, and the society will be better as a result.
You better. You better be in possession of some arcane skill that, even decades earlier, would have been seen as a weird. It will be inexplicably handy when you try to survive. Archery, horseback riding, an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient mythology—something that makes you useful when presented with the need to kill or solve a puzzle.
Or maybe you have special powers—telepathy and the like. Or you just don’t fit into one of the boxes the powers that be want to put you in. There must be something that makes you different, stand out. Of course, those differences are what gets you targeted in the first place. But they are also what makes you the protagonist and makes it much less likely that you will die.
You are definitely the protagonist and the punishment for almost certainly getting to survive is the hell that is the love triangle.