The young adult book world is full of creative, inspiring, and original books. But no matter how good these books can be, the genre is plagued by some almost inescapable tropes. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate tropes – there is something slightly comforting about their constancy, like an old friend you can see once every 3 years yet they never change. I like reading a tropey book on occasion, especially when I don’t feel like concentrating too hard. Books full of clichés allow for mindless reading because it’s likely you’ve read the same story ten times before.
But tropes are also frustrating and boring. There is so much more room for diversity in storylines, especially in a genre which allows for vast amounts of originality. I get tired of reading trope after trope to the point where I can predict the plots, twists, and character progression of almost all the YA novels I read. In fact, these tropes are so overused and well defined that I’ve managed to compile a list of seven of my very least favourite. If you read, or have ever read YA literature, I’m sure you can relate to at least a few of these.
Throughout the list I’ll give examples of Key Culprits (those who are the perfect example of the use of said trope), and Saving Graces (those who manage to diverge from the masses and do something different). I’m only limited to the books that I’ve read at the moment, so let me know if you think there are any I’ve missed off!
1. The Bad Love Triangle
If you’ve ever read one of my reviews before, you’ll know about my feelings towards a love triangle. Unnecessary, distracting, and overdone, a bad love triangle is like a dementor: it sucks the soul out of an otherwise good book and reduces it to a puddle of meaningless sludge in the middle of the floor.
While I can see the tribal appeal of choosing a side (notably Team Edward vs. Team Jacob, or Team Peeta vs. Team Gale), what the love triangle tends to do is distract from the protagonist, and make every interaction with each ‘team member’ overly flirtatious/about their romantic feelings. The protagonist’s rambling internal dialogue is reduced to deciding which person they should choose, rather than the civil war/oppressive government/killer virus they should be dealing with. Any female protagonist in a bad love triangle has thoughts and conversations that would immediately fail any and all Bechdel tests.
For those who aren’t familiar with this particular trope, let me educate you on every love triangle ever: the protagonist, usually a girl, but in some rare cases, a boy, has to choose between two potential loves (let’s bear in mind that most of the protagonists are 16/17 years old, and for some reason, are choosing a life partner at this age from a pool of TWO different people). One of these will be a person from the protagonist’s home: their ‘old’ life. The other, a person from their ‘new’ life, which they have undoubtedly been thrust into due to some decision they have made or special power that they possess. The ‘old’ will be homely and comforting, reminding the protagonist of everything they had when their life was boring and normal. The ‘new’ is slightly more exciting and unpredictable, and unlike the ‘old’, understands what it is like to live the protagonist’s ‘new’ life. It’s normally one brunette and one blonde just to make sure you can really tell the difference.
‘But what do we have if we don’t have love triangles?’ I hear you cry. Easy: we could focus on realistic, well developed relationships, and decisive protagonists who don’t lead people on for a whole damn trilogy. Is that too much to ask?
Key Culprits: Twilight, The Hunger Games, Everless, An Ember in the Ashes, Fangirl…
Saving Graces: Six of Crows, Caraval
2. The Arsey, Unremarkable Female Lead
We all know them. For some reason, all YA female leads need to be sullen tomboys from the bad part of town, who are particularly adept at hunting, stealing, and breaking rules. The book will open with them hunting/stealing/breaking rules, just so you’re aware of their key skill from the beginning. These female leads tend to describe themselves as regular looking plain-Janes until a bit of a wash provided by the rich folk and a big reveal proves them to be anything but. They’ll note in the mirror that they look pretty at this point, but only when their love interest tells them they’re beautiful do they truly accept it.
There is never really any explanation about why these girls are so monosyllabic and rude, except that they’re ‘different’ to most people, don’t feel like they fit in, or are simply a product of their upbringing in the bad side of town. They’re probably harbouring some secret power that they need to learn to control, or are the ‘chosen one’ to start the uprising against the oppressive regime.
These characters, simply put, are boring. They have little input into conversations, no banter (except overdone ‘sass’ which is just dire to read), and no personalities besides being sullen. Yet, for some reason, YA publishers and authors seem to be enamoured with these protagonists, where perhaps they should be focussing more on deep, well-developed characters, each with different personalities (just like you see in real life) and whose perceived strength does not rely on them answering back.
Key Culprits: The Hunger Games, Red Queen, The Wolves of Winter…
Saving Graces: Six of Crows, Jiddy Vardy, Caraval (ok Scarlett does always say she’s plain, but she does at least have development and backstory), The Belles (as much as it pains me to say it, Camille is not an Arsey Unremarkable Female Lead, but is decidedly awful in other ways)
3. The Distant Mother or Orphan/Lost Parents
Is it just me, or are a disproportionate amount of YA protagonists orphaned or accidentally misplaced by their parents at birth? Maybe it’s because they can tell that they’ve birthed the Arsey, Unremarkable Female Lead and want to get well away, or maybe they’re just incredibly careless. Those who aren’t completely parentless have one surviving parent (normally The Distant Mother – see below – or a kind, jovial father who’s close to kicking the bucket). This lack of parental guidance is probably why all YA protagonists make such horrible decisions and have an inherent dislike of asking for adult help.
‘Me and my mother tolerate each other, but we don’t really get on’ (or similar) is the main sentiment uttered by the Arsey, Unremarkable Female Lead (AUFL – kinda appropriately funny that it sounds like awful am I right) when it comes to their maternal relationship. The mother is usually distant and disapproving of the AUFL’s rule-breaking, and despairs at the path she has chosen. The mother probably has a secret or holds some key information from a secret past that will help AUFL down the line, which will make her daughter (or sometimes son) realise that she actually loves her. They’ll reminisce for a few days about how much her mum actually did for her, but will probably get over her death pretty quickly.
Key Culprits: Harry Potter, An Ember in the Ashes, The Cruel Prince (ok it’s a stepmother, but STILL), Divergent, The Hunger Games, Caraval…
Saving Graces: Twilight (?????)
4. The Gentle Younger Sister
The Distant Mother’s favourite child. She has somehow managed to avoid being roughened by the bad side of town (as has everyone except AUFL). The Gentle Younger Sister is kind, caring, and nurturing, and everything AUFL is not. She abides by the rules and is pretty much only there to highlight the personality flaws of the protagonist. AUFL will probably sacrifice herself for the benefit of her younger sister at some point.
She’ll turn out to be stronger (and more useful) than AUFL thinks she is, but as soon as you become attached to her, will probably end up being killed by the civil war/oppressive regime/killer virus. Sorry.
Key Culprits: Red Queen, The Hunger Games, The Cruel Prince…
Saving Graces: Caraval
5. Black and White Storytelling
Most YA storylines boil down to a fight between Good and Bad. Unfortunately, because of a lot of black and white storytelling, there are few, if any, shades of grey regarding people’s personalities, motives, and decisions in these books. All villains are bad; all protagonists are good (or at least fighting for the right cause). There is little subtlety where YA writing is concerned: everyone is either inherently good and on the ‘good side’ or inherently bad and on the villain’s side. These books have almost no allowance for a bad person fighting for a just cause, or a good person mistakenly fighting for an evil regime. Black and white storytelling will also mean that a civil war/uprising will never end in a treaty or discussion (oh no, that’s far too grey for this trope!), but in one party’s complete and utter destruction.
It would be nice to see future YA novels focus on why villains are like they are (this is an aspect I particularly liked in The Cruel Prince), and focus more on the shades of grey between good and bad. For example, when our hero kills someone, it is seen as necessary, but when a villain does, it’s just evil. What really separates one murder to another? And yet we all see it the same way, due to the black and white nature of YA books. Writers who use black and white storytelling leave their books boring and wanting for the complexity of real life.
Key Culprits: Red Queen, Divergent, The Night Circus
Saving Graces: Everless, The Cruel Prince, Caraval, Harry Potter
6. Killing For Killing’s Sake
None of us like a character death. If you’re like me, and a particularly sensitive soul, you won’t even like the death of a ‘bad’ character. However, the one thing I hate more than a character death is an unnecessary one: a death that serves no purpose to the story. It normally happens very quickly, leading you to re-read the last paragraph, just to make sure what you read really did just happen. “Why?” you whisper to yourself “why him?”. Simple. Perhaps the author didn’t want to write them anymore. Or, like the Roman Empire, when a writer is bored and wants to shock a reader out of the same state, they just kill off a character as a bit of light entertainment.
I think I have definitely become somewhat desensitised to deaths in a book because of this. When you’re constantly faced with characters being killed off for no reason other than to wake the protagonist up, or show how ‘evil’ the villains are, they tend to lose their meaning. It’s such a shame that I no longer feel the deep bond with a character that I once did because I know the trend in YA books of just killing, killing, killing. It would lovely to be able to become attached to characters again without worrying that they’ll meet their untimely demise and my heart will be shattered into a million tiny pieces.
Perhaps writers should focus more on finding alternative ways to keep interest in the story, or other exit pathways for characters than death (e.g. “I know there’s a civil war on, but I’ve found a lovely house in the Cotswolds so me and Brain have asked for a transfer at work and are moving two weeks next Tuesday”).
Key Culprits: The Belles, Harry Potter, An Ember in the Ashes, The Cruel Prince, The Wolves of Winter…
Saving Graces: Twilight, Six of Crows
7. Diversity? What’s Diversity?
Please. Please listen to me. No more white, cis, heterosexual, skinny, able bodied protagonists. Please. Especially when they’re written to look exactly the same and act exactly the same every. single. time. I’m so bored of watching the same white man or woman go on the same adventures and make the same decisions and choose between which member of the opposite sex they want to spend their life with. The world has so much more to offer.
If there are diverse characters in YA books, don’t get too attached, because along with the Distant Mother and Gentle Younger Sister, they’ll probably die. The amount of times I’ve rolled my eyes out of my head when the gay side character dies, or is written as the GBF and used for fashion/relationship advice or sassy comments. I’m sick of the only black person in a book being written as an irrelevant side character. How cool would it be to see a disabled protagonist kick ass? Or a trans character whose storyline doesn’t revolve around them being trans? I’d love to see a larger character not used as a plot point or sidelined, or an Asian character who isn’t a nerd. Is it possible? It should be.
Key Culprits: The Belles, any book without a speck of diversity (there’s too many to name)
Saving Graces: Six of Crows, An Ember in the Ashes, The Cruel Prince
Whew. Rant over.
Do you agree with the vilification of these tropes? Are there any from here that you’d save from eternal damnation?