There’s no such thing as a hard and fast rule when it comes to writing, but much like the hated adverb they should be used sparingly for maximum effect. I’ll give the standard disclaimer when I say that the clichés I single out in particular here chosen because of my personal opinions; it’s very much the truth that anything can be done/written well if you have the right amount of imagination.
But, oh baby Jesus but, there are some post-apocalyptic clichés and tropes that grind my gears to nothingness.
Raiders, and Bikers, and Slaves – Oh My!
If I’ve seen one story about an ex-raider slave who was brutally and sexually abused, exploited, and beaten on a daily basis until they (usually a young, beautiful she I might add) escape or are rescued. If the ex-slave is the main character they will generally escape, and will be hard, cold, callous, suspicious, and fiercely independent (basically a personification of the “Strong Female Character”, or if they are male the “Lone Wolf”). If they are a supporting character they will usually be, lets be honest, a female love interest who remains damaged, fearful, sensitive until the hero “fixes” them.
The concept of a blasted wasteland which, despite being stripped of all goodness and resource, has a thriving population of bike and land rover mounted raiders is a common one. Very often it makes little sense when it’s deployed; if you intend to create such a world ask yourself how they maintain their machinery, how they feed what constitutes as a veritable army, and how they continue to find ammunition (if they’re using guns).
Now, I’ve read some stories based on this premise which are harrowing, haunting, and genuinely well-written, but the truth is they had to work harder for my attention than their counterparts. This is the nature of the Cliché or Trope; they will often mean that your story has to work harder with many people, but they’re not a hamartia per say.
You only need to consider Mad Max: Fury Road to see that it can be done.
Drab, and Dreary, and hopeless
The lack of colour and optimism in the post-apocalyptic genre may be understandable, but it’s also boring as all hell.
Lets go back to the raider slave; this individual has seen the worst that the remnants of humanity have to offer, and so it makes sense that they may be bitter, hurt, angry, and cold. The ordinary person would be, but readers need to believe your characters are extraordinary if they are to become invested.
Take the path less travelled by and allow your character the courage to not be bullet-proof. Consider Offred in The Handmaids Tale; she is tough, intelligent, and resilient, but she is also vulnerable, hopeful, and idealistic. She is undoubtedly human, and she grieved for her daughter, her husband, and her friends as well as rebelling, in her own small ways, against a situation that is socially and culturally apocalyptic. The Handmaids Tale may be dystopic more than post-apocalyptic, but writers of this latter genre could learn much from it.
The Girl Who Saves the World!
We all know this one.
There is a teenage girl – she is special (and generally white) – and more than one person is in love with her – and she must save the world whilst choosing between them!Divergent, The Hunger Games, and numerous Cassandra Clare novels embody this, and they’ve done it quite well. But the market is close to saturation.
Consider the girl who doesn’t save the world, I urge you, because she can be just as important as her super-heroic counterparts. Consider Daisy in How I Live Now; she doesn’t save the world, but she survives its end, and she saves the people she loves. This is enough because this is a very human concept. Subvert these tropes and twist them into something new for good effect.
Scorched Earth and Bleached Bones
Why is Every. Single. Post-Apocalyptic. Wasteland. Hot?
Deserts can be tundra, or simply cold. The term desert refers to a barren land, not a hot one, and so the logic follows that your wasteland could be swampy and stagnant, frozen and brutal, watery and treacherous. Be creative.
Enough of the painted scavvers in blistering heat fighting for water. What about gangs of fishermen fighting over the last scraps of dry land? Or First Nation peoples trying to reclaim lands in the frozen Yukon?
The Apocalypse needn’t be hot, depressing, and overwhelmingly white-straight-male; these clichés and tropes might have their uses, but the genre is reaching its limit. The saturation point is near, my friends, it’s time to stop them before they kill the end of the world!