We’ve all read a YA novel and picked up on something that sounds a little too familiar. We’ve all met the protagonist who’s living in a dystopian world run by a corrupt government – you know, the one who has a lot on her plate right now, what with having to save the world and having some kind of supernatural power that’s endangering her? She’s also the one being pursued by not one, but two guys, and she just can’t choose between them. And she probably has red hair.
Books in the young adult genre can be amazingly well-written and original, but a good number of them seem to rely on the same tropes every time. Today I wanted to write about a few of them. I didn’t want this post to just be a list of cliches that annoy me personally, so I asked my fellow members of the Literary Box Book Club – a great community of book lovers – what tropes they were tired of reading in young adult novels. Here are ten of the tropes that we need to see less of in books!
1. Love triangles.
This one is no surprise. The trope of love triangles appears in some of the most popular young adult novels out there – hi The Hunger Games – and it’s rarely relevant to the plot in any way. The main character, generally a female of the not-like-the-other-girls variety, is in love with two guys. She can’t choose between them. This is either tacked onto the book as a forced romance storyline, or is the basis of the entire novel. You can usually tell exactly which guy she’s going to end up with purely by their introduction.
In The Hunger Games, the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale is certainly not the most important element of the books, but it’s focused on far too much. Predictably, when the movies came out the media blew the love triangle even more out of proportion. Forget Katniss taking down the government or dealing with PTSD or literally being in an televised-murder-kid-explosion-arena – what the teen magazines wanted to know was are you Team Peeta or Team Gale?
2. Being the ‘chosen one’.
There’s only so much of prophecies, magical powers and being descended from some kind of mythical being that a reader can take. Stating that your protagonist is ‘the chosen one’ at times feels like a cheap way of explaining why your main character is…well, the main character. She is the chosen one. Legend says that a white straight girl with red hair and eyes that change colour when she’s upset is destined to save the world. Deal with it. The prophecy foretold you so.
3. “I let out a breath I didn’t know I had been holding.”
We don’t know where this originated or why people keep writing this, but it’s a thing. A weird thing that adds nothing to the writing and…doesn’t even really make sense. When the reader’s attention is being directed to how the character is breathing, that’s when you know the story is getting intense, right?
4. Diversity where?
This one is a little more serious. The majority of YA novels have white, able-bodied, female protagonists with white, able-bodied, male love interests. There’s a lack of diverse characters in young adult novels that is unrealistic and disappointing. There’s no representation for the young people that these novels should be written for.
In an attempt to claim the cast of characters is in some way diverse, the author might insert one token black character into the mix. When this is done poorly it can be pretty obvious. If the black teenage girl (who is, quite suspiciously, the one person of colour in her entire high school) seems to have zero qualities or personality traits other than being ‘sassy’, then you might need to think about rewriting. Remember that including minorities for the sake of including minorities is a bad move, and nobody’s personality entirely revolves around their race, sexuality, gender or disability. They deserve to be written with equal depth as the other characters.
5. The token Best Friend character.
The Best Friend character generally falls into one of three categories:
A type: Incredibly attractive. More popular than the protagonist. Has a good understanding of makeup and fashion, so she likely helps the protagonist dress up for a date or the prom in later chapters. Is likely to turn out to be unkind and betray the protagonist in some way. In the world of YA novels that revolve around love triangles, female friendships aren’t worth too much.
B type: Their name is Mia and their personality is as bland as porridge. You’ll never hear of them after the first two chapters except for a possible cameo at the end. Bye Mia.
C type: The best friend is a guy. Oh boy. He and the protagonist have been friends since preschool when they tried to drown one other in a duck pond. He is very obviously in love with the protagonist and this will not become clear to her until the end of the book. Has brown floppy hair much like a wildebeest. Possibly a guitarist, almost certainly a social outcast that only the protagonist understands.
6. Instantly falling in love.
The protagonist and the love interest see eachother across the room – sufficient grounds to say that they’re in love. Or maybe their eyes meet at the school cafeteria. Hell, maybe their hands brush accidentally. In your typical low quality YA novel, it’s surprisingly easy to fall in love. If not easy, then fast.
7. Alarming levels of heterosexuality.
Oh god. The YA genre can be painfully straight at times. I can count the good LGBT-inclusive YA novels I’ve read on one hand. And really I can’t say it’s LGBT-inclusive so much as…LG-inclusive? Bisexual and/or transgender characters are a rarity.
Perhaps even worse than an 100% straight cast of characters is, once again, when the author adds a gay best friend for diversity’s sake. This is the only time you’re likely to see a female protagonist with a male friend who remains just a friend. The gay best friend trope is one of my least favourite – these characters are almost always painfully stereotypical. “Oh my Gaga” is a phrase I’ve had to read with my own two eyes. I’m not even kidding. I can’t imagine that every gay teenage boy’s primary purpose is to drift about his high school until he finds a straight white girl who needs a makeover – and yet this character trope persists.
8. Manic Pixie Dream Girls.
They whisk away the incredibly dull male protagonist, get them to shoplift an inflatable dolphin for the sake of quirkiness, teach them how to love and live, then die in a freak accident. All in about the space of a weekend. There’s no rest for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. They’re equal parts lovable and irritating in a vague blue-haired way, and they appear in YA fiction way too much. If you’re trying to write a realistic novel, don’t make your male protagonist’s love interest someone like this. Life is not a John Green novel, ladies and gentlemen. And shoplifting is more illegal than quirky.
9. Parents where?
Chances are the answer to that is something along the lines of:
A) They died in a car crash when Protagonist was three.
B) Business trip.
C) You are briefly introduced to them in the first chapter but after that they are sucked into the void never to be seen again.
D) The antagonist or the government killed the parents.
10. Red hair. So much red hair.
Red hair occurs in 1-2% of people, yet somehow either Protagonist or Best Friend are always redheads. If we lived in a world where young adult protagonists ran wild, red hair wouldn’t be quite so uncommon after all. Then again, if red hair was common, the protagonists would probably not have red hair. And then again! If we lived in a world where young adult protagonists ran wild, at least 1-2% of the population would be Chosen Ones. That’s a lot of choosing.
Thanks to all of my fellow book club members who helped contribute their thoughts and ideas! It’s good to see that so many readers aren’t settling for predictable writing or stereotyped characters.
Let me know in the comments what your least favourite YA trope is!