From The Hunger Games to Divergent, 5 tropes in every YA dystopian series: sad backstories, war, romance and more

Anya Saha
  • Have you ever noticed that many popular young adult books about apocalyptic scenarios and unjust futures share common themes?
  • We outline the basic formula of three hit series in this genre and explain what these elements add to the story
Anya Saha |

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Young adult dystopian series also make for popular film adaptations. Photos: Murray Close; SCMPOST

Young adult stories come in all shapes and sizes, but one of its most popular forms is the dystopian novel. Of course, if you’ve ever read or watched The Hunger Games, Chaos Walking or Divergent series, you already know what we’re talking about.

While the best of these books still have unique storylines and compelling characters, you will still find a few tropes in every teen dystopian series.

It probably goes without saying, but there will be spoilers ahead.

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First, we have a protagonist with a sad backstory

Divergent is set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, where society is divided into different factions that classify people based on their skills and values. In this world, it is believed the factions remove the threat of anyone exercising independent will or threatening the population’s safety by war or another human-created catastrophe.

The main character, Tris, is shunned for being Divergent, meaning she doesn’t fit clearly into any one faction. Divergents are considered dangerous in society, as they have the capacity for independent thought. They are even hunted and killed by the leader of another faction.

In the Divergent films, Shailene Woodley (left) plays Tris, and Theo James is Four. Photo: MCT

Meanwhile, in The Hunger Games series, Katniss lives in the poorest district in the nation of Panem, meaning that the Games – an annual event in which teens are randomly chosen to fight each other to the death – are rigged against her, since the other districts have more access to training and weapons. She also supports her mother and her sister Prim after her father’s untimely death, hunting to put food on the table. All this makes her quite the underdog.

In Chaos Walking, set in a world where all living things can hear each other’s thoughts, the main character Todd is an orphan being raised by his parents’ friends. He is also the only boy in town, which alienates him from others.

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Then, we add a crazy, megalomaniac leader

All dystopian YA novels have a leader who revels in being as evil as possible. Jeanine Matthews is the bloodthirsty human computer from Divergent who controls the minds of the people in the brave Dauntless faction with serums to achieve her totalitarian goals. Mayor Prentiss, the sexist tyrant from Chaos Walking, believes that the only way to become a man is to commit murder.

President Snow, the ruthless dictator in The Hunger Games, mutilates and mentally controls anyone he wants. Even The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – the prequel to the series, which focuses on the early life of President Snow – fails to present him in a good light.

Donald Sutherland plays President Snow, the ruthless dictator of Panem, in The Hunger Games films. Photo: Murray Close/Lionsgate/MCT

An epic revolution or a war needs to happen

Bonus points if the protagonist has to go against their lover to achieve their goals! Every dystopian story has to have a war, and the protagonist will initially get involved simply for survival but will soon become the most important person in the war.

In the first book of The Hunger Games, only Katniss and Peeta – the male contestant from her district, who proclaimed his love for her at the beginning of the novel – remain at the end of the Games.

With neither of them willing to kill the other, Katniss suggests they commit suicide using poisonous berries, so the authorities who run the Games won’t get what they want – a victor. This forces the government to decide they have both won, but they are angry at being made into fools.

Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence (left), and Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta Mellark are surprise victors in a deadly game. Photo: AP/Lionsgate/Murray Close

Meanwhile, the other districts of Panem see her move as an act of rebellion, leading to unrest, riots, and, eventually, a revolt. Since Katniss was the spark that led to the revolution, she becomes the symbol of the fight in the second novel, Mockingjay, and is used in propaganda to promote the rebellion.

In the second novel of the Divergent series, Insurgent, a war breaks out between the factions, who all hold different ideologies. Tris, who takes a prominent position in the rebellion, works to reveal the secret of the factions.

By the third novel, it is revealed that everyone in the city of Chicago is walled off from the rest of the world and that they are part of an experiment sanctioned by the US government.

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A romantic entanglement

To be fair, this tends to apply only to series with female protagonists – maybe there is a push for romance because the target audience for female-led books is teenage girls and romance is a convention of teen dramas.

In the Divergent series, Tris forms a relationship with her instructor, Four, but they initially need to keep it a secret, so others won’t think he is showing her favouritism. While they do officially get together in the second book, there is a lot of tension, as they must lie to each other for the sake of their cause.

Katniss’ love triangle between Peeta and Gale, her hunting partner, is her biggest dilemma, even above the revolution. In fact, she needs to pretend to be in love with Peeta to satisfy President Snow, who wants her to convince the districts that the reason for her stunt with the berries was not an attempt at rebellion, but because she couldn’t stand to live without Peeta. However, this creates complications with Gale; while they weren’t explicitly dating, it is heavily implied that they have feelings for each other.

Katniss Everdeen (left) and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) are in a love triangle. Photo: AP/Lionsgate/Murray Close

The demise of a great character

Don’t get too attached to a character in a young adult dystopian novel; there’s a good chance they’ll die. Unfortunately, this seems to be a staple that brings all these books together.

Tris’ parents sacrifice themselves for her in Divergent, and pretty much anyone with a heart dies in The Hunger Games. Manchee, Todd’s dog, dies in Chaos Walking, and we still haven’t recovered from it.

Sometimes the character’s death is necessary because it motivates the protagonist to complete their mission, and quite often, it is someone who always inspired them. Still, after following their story and getting so invested, it always hurts.

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