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The Top 10 YA Tropes & How to Avoid Them

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By Michael Pietrzak


The Young Adult (YA) genre has been overrun with tropes that just aren’t working for readers anymore. 

In the same way that groundbreaking songs spawn 100 imitators, too many YA authors keep going to the same dry well looking for plot inspiration.

Clichés exist for a reason: they usually contain a kernel of truth we can all relate to, like being the underdog. But young readers have heard ‘em all before and so have the publishers that want to be the first to market with something fresh.

By all means, use tropes. But be aware of the most common ones, so you can innovate beyond them. A small twist can go a long way.

And now, a countdown of the Top 10 YA Tropes, and How to Avoid Them…
 

1. The Protagonist is an Outsider 

“I’m not like the other girls”

The world just doesn’t, like, get her. Maybe she’s awkward, weird, or super-smart. She reads Proust and only eats dry toast. She’s definitely not a cheerleader and has maybe one close friend (who’s also not cool).

How to avoid it:

  • Don’t be afraid to write a protagonist who’s popular, who moves between social circles, or who is perfectly average (except for, you know, being thrust into this fantastic adventure.)
     

2. The Parents are Dead  

“They died in a horrible golfing accident…”

Or, dad skipped town, and mom works late at 3 jobs, 7 nights a week. Your main character’s an orphan? Never heard that one before. Do your characters come home after a 2-week odyssey without a, “Where the hell were you, the police have been looking for you!?” That’s weird.

How to avoid it:

  • It’s not impossible to imagine a wild, supernatural, dangerous and epic adventure in which the protagonist has regular parents. Heck – maybe they even aid the good guys in some way? Or maybe they’re just comic relief.
     

3. All Adults are Useless

“Did your mom pass out drunk on the couch again tonight?”

Sure, some young readers are angst-y tweens who get their kicks from reading about parents getting their comeuppance, but we’d wager that most of the ones who are reading have a fairly decent rapport with ole’ mom and dad.

How to avoid it:

  • Let’s see some adult characters with agency for a change. It’s possible to build a world where the teenage protagonist is a formidable force and who also plays well with adults.

4. Token Diversity

“Hi I’m Cheng, and I’m really good at math”

Daily, YA readers come in contact with friends who have a different skin colour, culture, disabilities, unusual family arrangements, and sexual orientations. They are surely capable of relating to a story involving non-white/handsome/fit characters. Publishers are clamoring for this kind of diversity – but don’t be the cautionary tale that writes in a token character for the sake of it!

How to avoid it:

  • Write diverse characters, but make them believable. Do you research: talk to someone of that lived experience. Your characters should talk, act, and even think the way that someone who is X would. Don’t force it.
     

5. Ye Olde Dystopian World

“Hey do you mind just leading this insurgency for a quick sec?”

War. Really Bad War. Everything’s different now, bad different. This government sucks bad, gotta start a rebellion. Nope, it can’t be done peacefully – gotta be overthrown. Sure, this was an interesting premise in The Hunger Games, but nobody wants to read 50 books with that same basic plot.

How to avoid it:

  • Ask yourself – what is the story that only you can tell? Start with the problem or challenge your protagonist is facing, and then write out 25 ideas for the basic structure of your world (Hint: it doesn’t have to be all bleak and broken.)

6. Protagonist can’t see her Beauty

“I’m just an ordinary Hollywood girl making $20 mil a picture”

She’s the family favourite and has a line up of guys at her locker. She volunteers at the orphanage and is at the top of her class. But she’s modest. “Oh, who, little old me? I’m nothing special.” She goes through the book seeing herself as a wilting wallflower despite her incredible feats – until some guy shows her how special he is by falling for her. Please – spare us the 20th-century prince charming thing.

How to avoid it:

  • Show us a girl (or guy) that doesn’t need rescuing. Write a character who is actually quite comfortable in her own skin, thank you very much. She can still fall in love, but she doesn’t need

7. Hey, my Parents are out of Town. House Party!

“Whoa, you have a hot tub, dude?”

I did actually throw a party EVERY time my mom left town. But the house never got trashed and nobody ever got pregnant. That scene where everyone’s arriving at the upper-middle-class mansion, the protagonist not sure if he’s going to go in, and some kind of conflict ensues, has been done. While we’re at it, nobody wants to read about prom again. 

How to avoid it:

  • Put your characters in one of the billion other settings that a teenager might find himself in: stuck at a little brother’s birthday party? Being the elderly neighbour’s dance partner for $5 an hour? Identifying bodies at the morgue? Get the story out of the parents’ liquor cabinet.
     

8. Forced Romance

“There’s something about the way your abs are glistening that makes me want to have your babies”

Have you read a story where a character serves absolutely no purpose except to look pretty and be some kind of one-dimensional love interest for the main character? That’s the calling card of a lazy author.

How to avoid it:

  • By all means – write romance into your character’s life, but his beau doesn’t need to be a walking mannequin. Think about how this other person can drive the plot, or aid the protagonist. You can steer right around the “love at first sight” angle. While we’re at it, let’s drop the “best friend turned lover” trope.
     

9. I AM THE CHOSEN ONE!

“Flunked algebra, but I’m going to defeat the greatest evil the world has ever known”

Main character is just a REGULAR GUY but finds out TERRIBLE SECRET revealed by FATALISTIC PROPHECY. Protagonist may or may not have SPECIAL POWERSthat must be used to SAVE THE WORLD. Oh, and he finds out in the last chapter he’s of royal blood. Your readers are already considering suicide by paper cuts.

How to avoid it:

  • If you really need to use this trope (since it works so well) don’t just write another Harry Potter; come up with an interesting variation on the theme. Maybe your protagonist’s uniqueness is ordained not by fate, but because he trained his whole life in a special skill?

And the Top YA Trope Award goes to…
 

10. The Love Triangle

“Betty or Veronica?”

Your main character needs to find the Trident of Poseidon to complete the 12 Tasks of the Merovingians, aligning the Stargates and thwarting the Arachnid invasion. Also: hormones. Should she go for the guy with the 6-pack or 8-pack? The popular blond athlete, or the brooding brunette anarchist?

How to avoid it:

  • Love triangles are the most overused YA plot device by an order of magnitude. Unless this unholy trinity is integral to your plot (and why would you do that to your book?), don’t force it into your story. Your story might not even need any romantic sub-plot, but if you choose to include one, it need not be this dusty has-been. Get creative.

Download the PDF Checklist

Download the Top 10 YA Tropes article as a PDF checklist!

Download this Checklist!

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