The top ten YA novel tropes . . . apparently

I came across a post a little while ago about common YA tropes. I kind of tripped over it really whilst reading a review posted by Crunchings and Munchings on Broken by A.E. Rought.

At first I was outraged (as were a few others judging by the comments). All I saw was negative, negative, negative. If you remove all of the tropes listed then you would probably eradicate most of the YA books (and adult, for that matter) ever written. I understand the need to find something new – that is what all of us as writers are trying to do – but surely attacking basic storylines / structures is not necessarily the way to do it? What is it that they say, there are only really 3 plots in the world?

A little time has passed since then and I’ve calmed down and am able to look at things a little more objectively. I knew as soon as I read it that I wanted to create a post in reply and upon reading it again in order to refresh my memory, I noticed a couple of things.

  1. Not all the tropes listed are highlighted as bad. Most of them are, but not all, as I had originally thought. See I was so blinded by the negative aspects of the post that I couldn’t see the (albeit small) positives.
  2. The post was written by A.E. Rought, the author of Broken. Given the rather scathing review of it given by Crunchings and Munchings (if you click on the link at the top of the page, you will be able to read the review yourself. Other opinions are available) I can’t help wondering if maybe A.E. Rought decided to write a book (or re-write one, to be exact) that avoided all of these tropes, without much success.

Below are the tropes in question and next to them my reasons why I don’t think, despite a writer’s best efforts, they can not be completely avoided.

Firstly, I’ll just clarify the word ‘Trope’ (more for my benefit than yours, I’m sure).

Trope : a common or overused theme or device; a cliché

So, here we go.

1) Twilight : apparently this is a trope in its own right because most of the others listed below can be found in it. It’s been described as a monster and everything gets compared to it. I’ll talk about the monster part first – it’s a monster because of us. Not because of some Hollywood big wig who says that it is. If us, the fans, hadn’t loved it so much it wouldn’t have grown into the phenomena that it has. And it is because of this success that everything gets compared to it. Those publishing and Hollywood big wigs are always looking for the ‘next big thing’ the franchise that will bring them in as much, if not more, revenue than the last. Some even try to replicate its success by producing something that is practically the same (they say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery). I’m not going to talk too much about Twilight because I have already detailed my relationship with it in another post, but along with Harry Potter, it has set a standard that quite a lot of authors would love to emulate.

2) Female Protagonists : oh my, this seemed to cause the most controversy in the original post. The author in question states that they prefer stories written from a male point of view (interesting then, that the main character of  Broken is a girl. Just saying.). Fine, you are entitled to this view A.E. Rought, I don’t have a problem with it. But don’t poo-poo all those books that are written from a female’s point of view, because you are shooting yourself in the foot there. The main bulk of comments were based on the statement that of course there will be female protagonists because 50% of the population is female. Whilst this may be true, I think it goes deeper than that.

Most female protagonists are created by female authors and vice versa for male protagonists (there will always be exceptions, which is why I say most). When I thought about why this is the case I came to the conclusion that, as women, we understand other women. Men are not wired in the same way, they look at things from a completely different perspective. Only we can truly understand the weaknesses, vulnerabilities, strengths and extraordinary ability we possess as females to get ourselves into emotional pickles over nothing. We get it. We can look at other females who hold other attributes that we may or may not find desirable and put ourselves in their shoes. It’s harder (but not impossible) to imagine things from a guy’s perspective because it is so alien to our way of thinking. They say ‘write what you know’ and girls know girls. We know the bossy kind, the sensitive, the insecure, the show-off, the don’t give a damn, the vain, the shy, the intelligent, the slightly slow-witted and all the others in between.

I think another reason may hark back to the days of the suffragettes and beyond. The need to empower women and give them aspirations and role models appears to have been invisibly passed down from generation to generation. I wonder, if, despite womens standing in modern society, there continues to be a small part of us that thinks that as women we are still the inferior sex, and with that niggling insecurity comes the need to prove everybody wrong. Yes we have women doctors, lawyers and politicians too (to quote Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves) but most of them are still paid less than men and have to fight damn hard to get to the top (those that are worth their salt do, anyway) and I say this as someone, who in a previous life has worked for a big, very well-known, multi-national company. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a stay-at-home Mum, or even aspiring to be one, but do you not have visions of being ‘Supermum’? We all have alter egos in our heads. It’s just that some of us choose to put those alter egos down onto paper (or computer screen).

Side note – there have been a few articles recently saying that some books give the wrong kind of role model to impressionable girls and questions whether we really need any more stories with strong, independent girls as the main character. There is a whole other post in this statement. Initially I thought “who wants to read about a main character who is a dowdy, down-trodden, miserable so and so. Then I realised something. If books are to reflect reality to some degree, then there have to be characters like this, because there are real people who are like this. But is it not about empowering these people to say that they don’t have to be stuck in that rut? I know, I know, in real life some people don’t have a choice due to various different circumstances. See? A whole new can of worms to open up. So I will stop here before I fall in too deep and get completely off track. However I will say this before I move on. I read books as a form of escapism. There are lots of us who do. Therefore I don’t necessarily want them to be too ‘real’.

3) The love triangle : another controversial choice. I think the reason that love triangles pop up in just about every kind of media there is – soaps, sitcoms, drama series, books, films – is because they create tension and offer the main character dilemmas. Even adult books use them (the one that springs instantly to mind is Bridget Jones’ Diary, which was based on Pride and Prejudice, so there’s two spanning several decades straight away). I think the key to making them work is to avoid the typical girl or guy stuck in the middle who can’t decided which of their two suitors they prefer. That formula is a bit predictable and boring. I think the story/scenario becomes more gritty and interesting if one of the said suitors is a bad guy/unwanted admirer. There is usually some premeditated motive behind their interest that does not stem from attraction. Or in a slightly different/reversed twist, the person caught in the middle could be trying to work out which suitor will get them what they want, regardless of how anyone feels. Or, now here’s an idea that maybe I shouldn’t share, love triangles where one of the involved isn’t actually present. For example, an ex they can’t get over that keeps sabotaging all future relationships or denial of feelings about someone else. Okay, now I read them back, maybe these aren’t as original as I thought! However, these are exciting love triangles. I will admit that I am not a fan of the “Polly was so pretty, all the boys fancied her but she just couldn’t decide between Billy Joe and Sam, who were both as handsome and perfect as each other” love triangle. An example of a more original/inventive use of a love triangle is The Hunger Games Trilogy – without giving too much away, in case you haven’t read them – Katnis is caught between Gabe, the friend I imagine she always assumed she would be with, and Peeta, the guy who due to his actions, she now feels obligated towards.

4) The perfectly perfect character that everyone in the book loves : no one in real life is perfect, so maybe this is one trope that I think shouldn’t be used. It’s fine to make someone appear perfect on the face of it, but then they either need to have a horrible side or be insecure. Everyone has hang-ups, but some are better at hiding them than others and eventually they need to be exposed if we, as readers, are to feel anything but animosity towards them.

5) The tortured hero : heroes need to be tortured, that is what makes their journey so worth while! No one wants a hero who had a perfect life before. Neither do we want their ascension to hero-dom to be a smooth ride. We want struggles and dilemmas and things thrown in their way. How else will their victory become so satisfying?

6) The “OMG, I’m a what?” character : okay, I’ll admit that there may have been a plethora of characters like this. And I will also admit that I may have been guilty of following this path with a previous incarnation of the book I am currently working on. But upon reading this, I did some re-thinking and I’ve changed the beginning of it so that the ‘revelation’ moment doesn’t happen in quite the same way. I’ve put a different spin on it and I think the story is better for it. So, with regards to this point, I may have to thank A.E. Rought for making me look at my work in a different light!

7) Missing parents : this is a tough one and I have pondered it for a while. I think maybe the answer lies in the genre of the book. Sometimes it is easier to write a fantasy/paranormal  story where there are no parents to get in the way. But I think, because parents are so much a part of everyday normal life, that there needs to be a justifiable reason why they are not there. Simply not mentioning them and hoping no one notices won’t do. In another previous incarnation of my current story, my main character did have parents. Visible, mentioned parents. But I ended up with scenes in the story that were simply there to show that they had parents. The scenes didn’t really have any relevance to the story as a whole. They didn’t add anything apart from half a chapter of tedium. So when I started working on it again, I got rid of them. And I don’t mean that I killed them off. They literally do not exist. My main character has no parents because she wasn’t created in the traditional human way. Hope you are intrigued now, but I’m saying no more. My lips are sealed!

8) The quirky best friend : we all need a quirky best friend, don’t we? The one who will act like a lunatic with you and not hold it against you in later life. Quirky best friends break up the monotony of what could otherwise be mundane situations. All hail the quirky best friend!

9) Instalove or Instant Attraction : or as it is otherwise known, love at first sight. Apparently this does happen in real life, so I am told, so why can’t it happen in books? See, we’re back at the reality / escapism junction again. It is more interesting if a character can’t quite put their finger on why they are so suddenly attracted to a person. That can be quite a brain teaser. But didn’t we all, as little girls, have dreams about a prince coming and sweeping us off our feet in an instant? I still do! Only now he is a tall, handsome (obviously) stranger driving a Maserati convertible who comes to whisk me away to Monaco for the weekend, preferably when the Grand Prix is on. . . . . . . . . . . . Sorry, drifted off for a moment there. Right, on to the next and final trope.

10) Half human, half something else : I love a half human, half something else. Or even a half something and a half something else, especially if the two halves are polar opposites of each other. How can I not love hybrids when my book Living in the Shadows is about that very scenario (shameless plug here, but I don’t care because I don’t do it very often. It’s available on Amazon, go to my Books page for more info). Half humans, half something else allow us the luxury of imagining, just for a moment, what life would be like if we weren’t 100% human. And the half something else doesn’t have to be something that is good either. Oh the possibilities!

So there we go, the top ten YA tropes (according to some). Do you agree? Are there some recurring themes in books that you can’t stand? Are there ones that you always gravitate towards? Let me know.

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