My Goodreads Quotes

Allison’s quotes

"Don't you think it's rather nice to think that we're in a book that God's writing? If I were writing a book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right--in the way that's best for us."
Do you really believe that, Mother?" Peter asked quietly.
Yes," she said, "I do believe it--almost always--except when I'm so sad that I can't believe anything. But even when I don't believe it, I know it's true--and I try to believe it."— E. Nesbit

Thursday, June 16, 2016

YA Tropes I Hate: Caste Systems

Earlier this year, I simultaneously read Red Rising, by Pierce Brown (which I did not finish) and Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard (which, spoilers, I did finish but did not enjoy.  At all.)  It was a surreal experience.  Both heroes are scrappy, low-in-the-caste system spitfires.  They both, through strange twists of fate, are forced to join the upper class, which they hate.  (Sound familiar?)  I admit, however, that although in both the lower classes are called Red, the upper classes are called Silver in Red Queen and Gold in Red Rising, so they're obviously totally different.  And, if you observe, 50% of the titles are different, which obviously invalidates my point that they're the same book with different character names.

Suffice it to say it was a surreal experience.  I was only able to finish one of them but felt like I've gotten the full experience of each.

Tons of books use the caste system these days.  It accomplishes two purposes.  First: it adds a lovely Asian influence, which has become quite popular in YA literature, without all that pesky research required for, you know, actual Asian influence.

Secondly, and more importantly, formulaic books are just more fun.

Understand that when I say formulaic, I don't mean it derogatively.  Perhaps 'highly structured' would be a better phrase.  It's not a bad thing at all.  Lots of books that I love are highly structured.

J. K. Rowling, for example, brilliantly utilizes the school system and school year to plot her novels.  This always seemed to me a terrific idea because, if she ever ran out of plot, she could go ahead and make it Christmas, then start again with a fresh semester.  In addition, the regularity of the school year, classes, and homework provide the perfect contrast to the magical curriculum, keeping the fantastic from becoming utterly strange.  Shannon Messenger uses this trick as well in her Keeper of the Lost Cities books.

Formulaic plotting accomplishes another feat by adding a time limit, which immediately adds urgency to the plot.  Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series does this marvelously.  Every book has an expressed time limit, as well as the series' overarching deadline: sooner or later, Percy will turn sixteen, and all the prophecies at his birth will come true.  It gives the books awesome pacing.

As awesome as these formulaic approaches are, however, at the end of the day, they are just that: formulaic.  After approximately a thousand books formatted the same way, I have really grown tired of Rick Riordan's plotting.  J. K. Rowling used the same system for seven books, but she chose to depart from it when expanding the franchise into a movie spin-off, and I don't think that is a mistake.

So there, readers, are a few examples of highly structured plotting: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Where do you stand on the matter?  How formulaic is too formulaic?


Jenelle said...

I enjoy these posts so much.

I don't mind a little bit of formula... especially in books meant for younger readers a la Harry Potter or various other YA and definitely MG books (Series of Unfortunate Events, much?)

In books geared for older audiences it doesn't work as well and can get boring or tiresome and I definitely "check out," unless it's done really well and with some measure of subtlety. I like surprises, and it's harder to offer those as much when following a formula... however, if you can manage it, the surprise sometimes seems the more brilliant for its difficulty. If that makes sense.

Sarah said...

I like this post; you make some good points. And I'd agree that formulaic books have their good and bad points- whether or not it works depends on the series, I think, and the author, and also how many other books we've read with the same formula.

Out of curiosity, though . . . is there any particular reason you dislike the caste system tendency other than a lot of books use it? You seemed to spend more time talking about formulaic books than the actual caste systems.

Jemma Tainsh said...

Great post! I like your 'YA tropes' posts.

I think that the first few books I read that had the structured plotting I quite enjoyed, but after that they were much slower reads and I didn't enjoy them as much.
I think that's why I'm getting tired of John Flanagan's works, even though I loved his earlier books, they're becoming less enjoyable

Allison Ruvidich said...

@Jenelle- Excellent point! A big tell for me if a "for-adults" book is formulaic is if it's book 25 or something in a series. I'm sure they're entertaining and many people like them, bla bla bla, but I don't see how you can retain any originality after that much output.

@Sarah- Shoot! I was hoping no one would catch that! Yes, I did get quite side-tracked in my quest to describe why I dislike the use of caste systems in literature. Mostly, it boils down to three reasons: 1. Everyone and their brother is doing it right now when it's been done very little in the past, especially in YA. 2. Almost everyone who's doing it right now uses the same color-based system, making it impossibly less original. And 3. I think we keep skipping over the fact that the caste system originated in Asia. How on earth has it gotten to a post-apocalyptic western world, with nary a hint of transition? Wizards going to school make sense to me; I can see how they would have to learn. But the caste system seems like formula for formula's sake.

@Jemma- Thank you! : ) And I entirely agree about John Flanagan. He wrote the most charming books for a while, but now I've stopped reading them entirely. Dare I say, it's possible that you and I are both aging out of his target audience. But that's still no excuse for writing less than exemplary books.