Scott Westerfeld is probably best known now for his Leviathan illustrated/"light" novel series about a young boy and girl falling in love while simultaneously fighting in an alternate Steampunk history version of WWI. In the middle of the last decade, his first novel in the Uglies series followed closely the steps of those who would take the dystopian genre into the stratosphere - three years before Susanne Collins published the first Hunger Games novel. Read more about this groundbreaking and underrated novel in this entry originally published to Observation Deck:
The very least that can be said about Susan Collins' Hunger Games trilogy is that it has become a force, if not the force, in both genre fiction and young adult literature. The two (out of four) movies so far have been akin to giving the studios a license to print money while the books have sparked bar fights as to whether or not Mockingjay was actually good (well, not really, but I'll defend Mockingjay's honor!) Much like how Doom swept the video game landscape of the mid-90s, the "Hunger Games Clone" was probably an inevitable phenomenon. Whether or not these books were independently influenced or just successful cash-ins is a debate for another time, but audiences and Hollywood analysts are already gearing up for the Divergent movie coming in a few months as a barometer of YAL's true permanence as a theater mainstay.
Divergent is hardly the only other series in the genre - Uglies by Scott Westerfeld seems to have a large fanbase but nowhere near the popularity or near-universal knowledge that Hunger Games has. Compared to both Hunger Games and Divergent, Uglies has many of the same traits but I feel a more personal and perhaps even higher-quality story behind it. Whatever you may think of Uglies, do not call it a Hunger Games clone - as Westerfeld's series predates Collins' by nearly three years.
Published in 2005, the plot of Uglies will certainly feel familiar to today's audience - after an unspecified disaster, civilization has reformed itself around a Big Brother-esque centralized government enacting tight culture and population controls, namely through one particular control mechanism. Whereas Hunger Games has the eponymous tournaments and Divergent has personality castes, Uglies takes a page straight out of The Twilight Zone (actually, more than one page) and portrays a society where plastic surgery and personal beautification becomes not just mandatory, but a birthright. For one 16-year-old girl named Tally, such birthright is vastly overrated compared to the simple curiosity of what happens to those who refuse. When she runs into another 16-year-old girl, Shay, who tells her that there is an entire society of renegade "Uglies," Tally's curiosity takes her to a journey that not only tests who she is but her desire to reshape civilization into a form that could be better for everyone - just depending on which definition of "better" she chooses.
So what lessons can be learned for those wishing to cook up their own Hunger Games clone?
Personal conflicts rule the story
Hunger Games and Divergent certainly have personal conflicts, but the external conflicts of those two stories dominated the plot. Katniss' motivation in the Hunger Games was protecting Prim (and staying alive). Triss wanted to fit into Dauntless without alienating her old family while trying to uncover the meaning of her "Divergent" profile readings. There is a central external conflict in Uglies but it's more underscored by personal conflict. Unlike Katniss, who has a very clear goal, Tally comes into the conflict with very incomplete information and isn't exactly sure where her loyalties lie. The exploration of Tally's loyalties and her motivations towards each give the story a greater personal feel than Hunger Games or Divergent. Throw in her best friend Shay and her own wavering loyalties - and growing distrust of Tally - and it becomes a story of cascading personal conflicts with a larger external conflict as a backdrop. Westerfeld's juggling of Tally's internal struggles is very well done and adds a tremendous dose of personality and humanity to the main characters that I thought were weak points in Hunger Games and Divergent.
The "bad guys" are sympathetic
Because, as Zangief says in Wreck-It Ralph, they are not "bad" guys. Indeed, Tally and Shay have legitimate reasons to switch alliances. In Hunger Games there's little question about the District 1 and 2 Tributes - they rather fill out the "bad guy" checklist quite nicely. The complexity of Tally's villains in Uglies comes from the fact that, often, they were once her friends. Hunger Games had complexly motivated villains too, granted, particularly in Presidents Snow and Coin. I still feel Uglies manages to build on top of that further with greater interaction between the characters that lead and follow in this post-apocalyptic society.
You don't need to kill a lot of "bad guys" to have a good plot
One of the things that's hard to separate from discussing Hunger Games with the general public is the teen-on-teen violence that features so centrally to the plot. Whatever your feelings towards that, Uglies shows that it's possible to have a gripping plot and conflict without having to necessarily kill anyone off. The climatic confrontation in the third book, Specials, is a little controversial among fans but I still feel one that's surprisingly clever. Regardless, Tally manages to defeat her enemies and overcome physical obstacles without having to resort to much physical violence beyond what's necessary to struggle free. You can even say she's the post-apocalyptic version of MacGyver or The A-Team in that regard.
Image credit here, which isn't a bad site to check out in its own right.