Relating to the characterization is often part of the discovery

Love it or hate it, dystopian fiction has skyrocketed in popularity within the past few decades with bestsellers such as The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Battle Royale (1999), and The Road (2006) flying off the shelves.

According to literary scholar George Claeys, the popularisation of dystopia in media occurred in the 20th century after the First World War. It served to be a stark contrast to utopian fiction – the depiction of idealised and perfect societies – that was prevalent throughout history, ranging from works such as Plato’s The Republic (ca. 370-360 BC) to Thomas More’s famed Utopia (1516). Instead, dystopian fiction aims to portray repressive societies that typically satirize utopian ideals through propaganda and totalitarianism.

Originally, this genre of literature was written for adults, yet in recent years, it has been adapted for the young adult audience – 12-18 years old – with tremendous success. For example, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010) dominated pop culture in recent years with its film adaptations becoming the 21st highest-grossing franchise of all time. What is it about these harrowing tales of human suffering that have managed to captivate millions of teenagers across the globe?

A drawing of monsters for an article by Mandy Wan, for The Mackayan.

One possible answer to this question lies in the maturing minds of adolescents. As they approach adulthood, their brains gradually learn to comprehend more abstract concepts such as moral standards and social norms. Additionally, they employ advanced critical thinking techniques where they regard a scenario objectively and evaluate based on related evidence to form an educated judgement. In terms of morality, adolescents stray from the simplistic view of children and instead begin to adopt the complex moral reasoning of adults. In other words, they learn to develop their own set of ethic values by questioning their identities and the society they live in.

Flying Saucer picture above Mandy Wan Literature Columnist Intro

The same could be said about the protagonists in dystopian fiction as they likewise must determine their place in a flawed community and establish their own moral principles less they become one of the corrupted. These characters are often under enormous pressure to make the “right” decisions as their actions can carry irreversible consequences, even to the extent of reforming the world they live in. Likewise, in reality, teenagers can relate to these protagonists as they are similarly burdened with the responsibility of life-changing developments although the repercussions are typically less severe.

Another possible component of the appeal of dystopian fiction is the protagonists’ discovery of the truth of their society’s inhumanity and how this mentality ostracises them. In essence, they are horrified by the cruel attitudes of their community and sickened by their complacency to those in power. However, as a result of this new outlook on their world, they are emotionally isolated from family and friends who not share the same realisations – often due to propaganda or fear of being punished for opposing the regime. Therefore, the protagonists must decide who they can trust with their knowledge of their society’s flaws and their plans to correct it.

Social Peers

On a similar note, teenagers today can relate to these characters’ feelings of isolation and being undervalued. Due to numerous hormonal and biological factors, adolescence is a disorientating period of change that allows children to differentiate themselves from their parents to establish their independence. Unsurprisingly, social relationships play a crucial role in defining one’s identity. Research suggests that teenagers are more motivated by peer acceptance than adults which can lead to self-esteem issues as they strive to be accepted and liked by friends. Additionally, even if they are connected to others through social media, they may find this less fulfilling than face-to-face relationships. Hence, they find comfort in reading about protagonists who also feel alienated by those around them by virtue of their growing awareness of society.

As mentioned above, relationships are essential to a teenager’s psychological development and perhaps one of the reasons why dystopian fiction has attained worldwide success. The bonds depicted in these novels between the protagonists and their friends are honest in the way that they acknowledge growing close to someone shapes the way you perceive the world, how you act, and who you become. Therefore, this encourages readers to look past the superficial benefits of friendships, such as being perceived as popular, and also a purely physical attraction in regards to romantic relationships. Instead, the focus is on how companionship can aid in self-improvement on both ends and better society as a whole.