5 Overly-Used Tropes in YA Fiction and What to Write Instead
Young Adult fiction: the fun and whimsy of children's books with the serious, literary merits and critical thinking aspects of adult fiction. But the cavalry bringing in this new age of fiction is full of one-trick ponies. It's like every time you pick up a YA book, you see at least two of these. YA fiction writers often fall into the almost Mad Libs-esque "formula":
Unwitting protagonist is drawn into [conflict] with the help of [supporting characters] and is usually lured into a trap where they choose to sacrifice themselves to save their loved ones and victory is achieved by [defeat of the bad guy] when he/she is too arrogant and does [stupid thing].
Just plug in a few details and have a bestseller! Sound familiar?
And while most of these tropes can be easily applied to books with female characters, they are widely universal. These are some of the worst:
- Unqualified Protagonist Succeeding Above Overly Qualified Supporting Characters
- Biting Lip Syndrome: Overly Simple Characterization
- The Love Triangle
- The Gullible Martyr
- The Unambiguously Bad Bad Guy
This isn't to say that the entire YA fiction is guilty of all tropes in question. In fact The Hunger Games and parts of Divergent play with these tropes, such as Katniss' constantly questioning her worth and role to play as the Mockingjay for both Presidents Coin and Snow, or Tris having killed someone and showing great remorse over what she knows is a morally grey decision. But when you know how the book will end before it begins, it's time to look critically at these tropes and determine how to avoid or flip them.
There will be spoilers ahead for The Maze Runner, Divergent, The Mortal Instruments series, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games.
1.) The Trope: Unqualified Protagonist Succeeding Above Overly Qualified Supporting Characters
Having a protagonist who is new to your world and conflict will ease the readers in at the same pace as your hero. Fiction Writing 101, right? To bring the ignorant, newbie protagonist into enlightenment come the supporting characters. Without them, Thomas would never have understood the rules in The Maze Runner, Harry would never have found the Horcruxes (or learned Magic, or stopped Voldemort, or saved Sirius, etc), and Clary would never have defeated Valentine and her psychotic brother, or become a Shadowhunter. Though heavily relying on these supporting characters is easy world-building, it can run the risk of putting you into a writing trap: how can an untrained, newbie protagonist somehow succeed where their supporting characters, who provide useful exposition because they are better integrated and more educated on the nuance of the conflict, fail?
If you're going for realism, even in a book about mermaids and vampires, this question should be answered thoroughly. While many readers will overlook it or simply not notice, your book could be written off by older readers as being too "simple" or "childish". Deviating from the expected, and defying this trope will draw in more mature readers, and will garner more respect for you as a writer.
How to Challenge It
Harry, Thomas, Tris, and Clary are all given some sort of innate advantage that allows them to bypass the limitations set upon the supporting characters, otherwise known as "The Chosen One" archetype.
If you want to break the mold;
1.) Make your protagonist human. Don't make them stupider, slower, less capable or less central. Make your supporting characters matter more. If your protagonist has no gun experience and gets into a situation with the villain, forget making them take a miraculous shot, and let the supporting sniper character take the kill shot. Too often writers eliminate or lessen supporting characters in order to build up the protagonist. Supporting characters who are better equipped to handle the situation somehow always put their faith in the person who has only recently realized what's going on, and this feels disingenuous. Stretching your protagonist towards the limit of what's believable at the detriment to realism or character arc progression will do your book few favors.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is not the strongest, or the smartest, or the cleverest, or even the bravest character in the Fellowship. He succeeds because of the supporting characters. Though Tolkien predates these tropes, his work defies the "protagonist = main character, so protagonist must be the one who wins" formula.
2.) Remember that your protagonist ALWAYS has flaws. A common writing faux pas is to make the protagonist seem flawed, and then by the end of the book they overcome it, whether it's through acquiring a magic weapon (see MacGuffin Device), or learning "The Secret". This makes them less relatable, and in a series that features this protagonist's future decisions, you can overstep their progress, forcing future books to either find new flaws or regress character development for the sake of plot. Jace does this for the ENTIRETY of City of Ashes to the detriment of literally everyone he so loudly proclaimed to vehemently care for in the previous book. It's annoying. It's lazy. Don't do it.
3.) Let your supporting characters work. One of the strengths of The Hunger Games was just how helpless Katniss was; whether it was in the face of the games themselves, standing before President Snow, working under Coin or even taking notes from Effie and Haymitch. Haymitch and Effie were a huge proponent of why Katniss succeeded in the Games as she did, because they were busy doing their jobs. Peeta was the reason she was loved by The Capitol, because he helped compensate for her social coldness. Gale was the reason her family survived the bombing shortly after Catching Fire's climax. None of this is to Katniss' detriment; in fact it reinforces her character. The brilliance of Katniss' writing is that she is never in control of the situation, but she never loses her strength or drive. Without that breathing room, Katniss is forced to continue developing and questioning the doubts, fears and motivations she's always had from the beginning. She doesn't win because of an innate ability that puts her above the rest. The collaboration of the supporting characters doing their jobs helps propel the story without weakening the protagonist, holds the believable world together, and remains realistic. Stories that involve protagonists abandoning everything to "do the job alone" negate all the work you put in to describing your supporting characters. If they're not supporting, why have them?
2.) The Trope: Biting Lip Syndrome—Overly Simple Characterization
"Biting Lip Syndrome" (BLS) is a term I've coined to describe the all-too-common shortcuts writers use to build their characters; biting one's lip is the most prevalent of these. This is especially true of female protagonists. Instead of providing a nuanced or varied response to the plethora of stimuli, their responses stay largely the same. They bite their lip when they're feeling shy, when they are holding their tongue, when they're aroused and when they're scared.
BLS affects every kind of Hero. You tend to see overly masculine characters fall prey to machismo's 'men don't show feelings' sentiment, which completely misses that character's potential. With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them we actually see a male protagonist who unabashedly feels fear, tenderness or embarrassment (an excellent article on that here) unlike Harry, who did nothing but sulk and yell at his friends throughout Order of the Phoenix and The Half Blood Prince. Writers also seem to think that giving female protagonists masculine qualities such as skill with a weapon makes them a well-rounded character, or that it excuses the writer from having to add complexities of feminine identity or critical thinking skills. They are wrong.
If a character is clumsy when they need to reveal the next stage of the story, but not when their life depends on it or during the climax, then they have BLS. To say that your main character is awkward because they tell a bad joke in a group or tips something over isn't enough. The seams of the writing shortcut are showing.
How to Challenge It
Rigidity becomes neither the plot nor the character arc. They should respond and play off one another. Making a character deep and interesting can turn a well plotted, budding YA manuscript into the next bestseller. Avoid the pitfalls of the shortcuts by:
1.) Giving them range. How do you react to situations of varying levels of stress or emotional range? So how would your character hypothetically react? Make sure that they provide a variety of responses based on their temperament at that moment, the people they are with, or other factors. Don't use "go to's" for reactions.
2.) Doing some research. If you're going to write a character whose central feature is awkwardness or clumsiness, maybe explore a condition that you can work in. Social anxiety, Autism, various social phobias, early-set arthritis, or inner ear problems all come with their own symptoms that transcend the mainstream definition of "quirky", "clumsy" or "awkward". They also come with problems not immediately visible to people around them, which you can integrate into your character's "flaws" and into their arc. This will also help you keep consistent in situations that could otherwise expose shortcuts. An added bonus is that if you take this route, you will be helping promote representation of people who actually suffer from these issues. Rick Riordan of the Percy Jackson series doesn't skirt representation in many fields to ensure his characters are powerful, but very much still mortal. His entire concept for Percy Jackson is that he's dyslexic and has ADHD, doesn't do well in school, is an outcast, but becomes a hero when he realizes these are key traits of a Demigod.
3.) Exploring new avenues. Being consistent with your character's flaws and limitations will force you to seek new decision-making paths for the protagonist. A character who is clumsy should not realistically be able to perform a heroic feat of dexterity to escape a death trap. Perhaps instead revert to your supporting characters, environmental factors, or on the main character's other strengths. Avoid deus ex machinas. That extra effort will show to your readers. If your protagonist is afraid of small spaces and is trapped in a small room with a supporting character who can pick locks, let the supporting character take the lead.
3.) The Trope: The Love Triangle
A disproportionate number of books with female characters have a love triangle somewhere within the plot, whether it's immediately apparent from book 1 or, if it's a series, book 2. I don't know why YA authors seem to think having a love triangle is a prerequisite to writing a Teen Book, but it's become staler than ciabatta bread left to dry in the Gobi desert for a week. Interestingly enough, not as many books with male characters feature this trope...
It's easy to understand why this is so overused even in The Hunger Games, a series I thoroughly praised previously—it forces the protagonist to evaluate their morals and basic motivations, it creates drama so that the audience can have the fun of "picking sides", and it usually propels the plot.
But enough is enough. The way this trope is done has been played to death. In the end, there's always an "obvious" answer and the second candidate becomes moot, robbing the protagonist's choice of consequence or weight. Katniss picks Peeta because Gale was directly responsible for killing Katniss' sister, Lavender Brown was obsessed with the idea of being in love with Ron and not necessarily Ron himself, and Clary dates Simon because of the very real possibility of Jace being her brother, which put him "off the table"...until she discovered he wasn't and dumped Simon.
One member of the "triangle" is always disqualified for a super obvious reason, and that cheapens the protagonist's choice. So really, it's hardly a "choice" to begin with.
How to Challenge It
If you're writing a Teen novel with a female protagonist, the most subversive thing you could do regarding Love Triangles is to just not have one. Take it one step further and don't feature any love interest at all. But if you must, consider these options:
1.) Remove the romance. The central function of the trope in the overall story is just presenting a choice, a "crossroads" for the protagonist. In Divergent's anticlimactic conclusion Allegiant, Tris is forced to choose whether to agree with Four or with her brother Caleb over how to approach the news of their genetic variations. The conflict here isn't who she wants to marry, it's two opposing approaches to the conflict that Tris must use or dismiss from people she loves differently. Varying the nature of the choice beyond romantic partners will allow you to use the trope without adding anymore whacks to the already past dead horse.
2.) Weight the choice. Since love triangles always resolve, complicate the terms. Make sure to integrate the terms into consequences that the main character must face and maybe eventually redact. Don't just pull a Cassandra Clare and make one be a placeholder until the other is available; force your protagonist to introspect and reflect on the why, how and what their choice means. The choice is emblematic of their character, so don't waste the opportunity to let their choice push them in a direction; plot-friendly or not.
3.) Introduce more representation. If you've decided that a love triangle is inevitable, insert proper representation of racial and gender variants. Too often the white, cis straight protagonist (typically a female), must choose between two white cis straight men. Why not make one protagonist black? Why not make the protagonist bisexual, so their choice is between a girl and a guy? Why not make the protagonist gay and have both interests be of their gender? You can also make the protagonist asexual and make that a factor in their decision, or remove the decision entirely. These avenues haven't been fully realized, so there is still some room to make this trope work. But be diligent in paying proper dues towards representing a gender different to your own. Do your research, read forums, and make sure not to "queer bait". It's alienating to queer people, and is a cheap cheat.
4.) The Trope: The Gullible Martyr
This trope has many sub-sects--the "goody two shoes", the "morally superior", the "Mary Sue/Gary Stu" or "The Martyr"--but their character arc always goes in the same direction and ends in the same place:
Protagonist tries to do the right thing, but never resorts to tactics that would actually defeat the villain because they have to uphold moral high standards, leaving the villain room to endanger the protagonist's loved ones. Protagonist decides to try to sacrifice themselves to save everyone.
The conventional main character follows these "rules":
- cannot intentionally harm or kill someone
- cannot choose a life over another
- their choices are always right with no serious consequences
- cannot allow someone to harm themselves
- cannot leave someone behind
A protagonist who doesn't break these rules always assumes that the Villain will keep their word, that they'll act honorably, and that everything will be alright if they just play by the Villain's rules. These restrictions on how a protagonist thinks leaves them completely gullible to whatever the Villain's plans actually are, and 9/10 times this happens. A hero's ability to become vulnerable gets played on and played on by the Villain and yet the hero learns nothing. How stupid does that make them look? Very!
But these characteristics aren't just prevalent, they're harmful. Characters who are unable to approach these issues lack depth or any kind of humanistic dimensions. By refusing to address the possibility that a protagonist is capable of doing any of these "forbidden acts", it removes relatability or any real sense of tension in the protagonist's arc. If a character never takes risks or walks anywhere near the dark side, how are we the audience supposed to trust in their flaws? How are we supposed to feel any sense of tension or stress as the climax nears if we don't have doubts that the protagonist will prevail? Good always wins, the Dark Lord figure always loses, the Martyr always dies for the greater good. These tropes are so overused that they are assumed, so deviating from them will bring a fresh new twist on your story.
How to Challenge It
Taking risks regarding your protagonist's moral standing can have tremendous payout if done correctly.
1.) Approach and skirt the moral border. In Divergent, Tris shoots and kills Will, her friend and Christina's boyfriend, because he was being mind-controlled. Though she killed him in self-defense and falls into the moral right, she agonizes over how easily and how quickly she does this, presenting a very real and human conflict that ultimately shapes Tris' character.
2.) Cross the border. Make the protagonist fail at saving someone. Make them fail at a critical moment. Allow them to make the wrong decision. But the crucial second half to that risk is you must never let your protagonist brush it off. Taking responsibility for a death is a serious but real example of guilt, and that is not something fixed by a "staring pensively into a mirror" scene or a short "spiritual journey" supervised by a Wise Elder figure. This adds nuance and complication to a character, and casts doubt as to whether they will prevail the next time the circumstances arise.
3.) Cross the border and leave it behind. Turn your character from a protagonist to a villain by showing how one bad decision can lead to another, and another...The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and this would be such a notable break from the norm that it would be hard for publishers and readers to ignore. Darth Vader's paternity to Luke was the twist of the century when Empire Strikes Back came out because Vader, the pinnacle of Evil, was revealed to once be good. Why not play with that yourself?
5.) The Unambiguously Bad Bad Guy
There is a prophecy that talks all about how this ancient, all-powerful enemy that stands for all that is Evil constantly resurfaces, and that only The Chosen One can defeat him.
As I wrote that sentence I could practically hear the groans from editors everywhere. And they have reason to hate that sentence, as you should have. There are so many things wrong with having a character that big and bad, and all of them translate to "your conflict is weak".
The protagonist/antagonist relationship is supposed to be interesting, captivating and the central component to the plot AND most of the protagonist's character development, so using a figure as bland as "The Dark Lord" or "The Evil One" is doing a major disservice. All your protagonist has to do is be marginally good and they stand a chance. By having one end of the relationship be the epitome of darkness, how well can you really showcase your protagonist's traits?
Another problem that arises from having an unquestionably evil Villain is how they came into power. If they were so inescapably corrupt, then how did they attract followers? How did they get so powerful? This is where world building will help, but not even Tolkien could escape this plot hole. Sauron was bad because he was corrupted by an even bigger baddy Morgoth, but Sauron's methods were simplistic and frankly kind of boring: birth mindless followers who blindly follow orders and have no dimension or personal motivations. Keep in mind, this is coming from a Tolkien fanatic who has a Sindarin Elvish tattoo on her back. If a villain doesn't have even a sliver of him that sounds appealing, relatable or sympathetic to the reader, then why should they be wary? Why should they lack any confidence that the protagonist will prevail? Sure, you can overwhelm the main character by The Evil One's sheer numbers, but then your story becomes a matter of numbers, and where's the intrigue? Where's the human complexity? Leave that simplicity to middle grade fiction. Young Adult fiction is more nuanced than that.
How to Challenge It
There's really only one solution to making sure you don't fall into this trap:
Make your villain interesting.
Cassandra Clare's villain Valentine in The Mortal Instruments series had everything going for him for character writing: a difficult past, a completely authentic, understandable disagreement with The Clave (the main supernatural authority of Shadowhunters), led a political upheaval of a system that frankly didn't make much sense, in order to fulfill a cause that wasn't entirely unjust. Where Clare went wrong was her execution. Every time Valentine made an appearance to Clary and Jace, she reduced him to "The Bad Guy" trying to seduce the good guys to join him without allowing any room for Valentine to bring the protagonist's values into question. Clare built up this stupendous character, and then spent the rest of her time assuring the reader he was bad and that Clary would never fall for anything he said.
Complicate your villain's motives. Complicate their methods. Make the reader care for your villain and then sit back aghast at themselves. Lucifer was not always The Devil, he was God's Left Hand, The Adversary, the one to call into question the moral worth of souls. Lucifer is so effective as a villain because he's not entirely wrong. He uses half-truths, he preys on weakness and self-doubt. Make sure your villain does the same without becoming the Devil Himself.