children's fiction, Children's Health, family, Fantasy fiction, reading, writing, Young Adult fiction

Discussion: Tropes in YA That Need to Take a Break

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(Note: None of these photos were taken by my hand, using a cat I know, or books I own. Per my usual aesthetic, I borrowed them from Google.)

So, this is a topic that’s been getting a lot of batting around on the online forums lately. I’ve seen several posts on the subject in the last few weeks, and a few of them I agreed with wholeheartedly. This is becoming A Big Deal.

Whenever you read a lot from one genre, you find that certain formulas are applied to many of them. (This is also called “tropes.” Don’t ask me why. I only discovered that myself about 3 months ago.) In YA fiction, there have developed some tropes that are so predictable that many readers (the fanbase of this genre) are warily eyeing new releases, anticipating that these books will contain these tropes, and potentially ruin the reading experience.

Examples: Orphan protagonists (think Harry Potter spinoffs to the enth degree). Rebellious teenagers just for the sake of being rebellious (sorry-not-sorry, folks, but drinking/smoking/drugs/underage sex still is not cool). Lots and lots of swearing and sexual jokes. Absent parents — either they’re dead (see above), or they’re simply not aware of/don’t care what their kids are up to. True love at first sight between a ridiculously naive female narrator and a stereotypically “bad boy” main character. Love triangles between said narrator and said bad boy and a new guy, the “kind she should go for.”

All right, I’d better stop before everyone hurts their heads bashing their keyboards in agreement.

And I am not the only one who thinks we need to set fire to these tropes and run the other way.

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Here’s why these tropes are harmful:

Most of the time, they create an unrealistic picture of adolescence. Especially when we’re addressing impressionable 13-14-15-year-olds. We should not be telling them getting drunk/breaking into cars/skipping school is fashionable and necessary to live a full life. More YA novels (contemporary, fantasy, historical) need to be presenting realistic consequences for this type of behavior. We need to have more unplanned teenage pregnancies, rehab center admissions, accidental deaths (that aren’t romanticized) addressed in such fiction. If our children are the future, then I think we’ve pretty much shot our future in the foot by encouraging it to steal liquor from their parents and sleep with the whole town before its 17th birthday.

It gives young people unrealistic and even dangerous expectations for relationships. Young ladies, listen to the voice of reason — If you meet a young man who wants to take you on a shoplifting spree instead of to a dinner with roses and candlelight, dump him, now. He is not the man you’re looking for (in fact, he’s not a man at all). And to the young gentlemen out there — If you’re stuck on a girl who “can’t decide” between you and some other guy, go find someone who totally appreciates you without constantly comparing you to someone else. You deserve better than that.

On a slightly less serious note, it’s just plain tiresome for readers to keep coming across the very same character types/plot premise. We know the narrator has faced tragedy. We get it already. Stop moaning. Why can’t we have a happy, positive orphan (like Anne of Green Gables?) Or a kid whose parents are divorced but is determined to make the best of his/her new situation? The most inspiring stories are the ones where the main character didn’t let their circumstances steal their hope. Not the ones where they just wouldn’t shut up about their crappy lot in life.

Back to the very serious — bad parenting is no joke. What, exactly, is the point of having parents of teen characters being “so cool” that they’ll let their kids stay out till 3 a.m., possibly committing petty theft, or enacting the ritual that lets Cthulhu back into the world, without seeming to care? It is not cool, people. Parents are supposed to be role models for how to behave as adults. They need to care what their kids are doing at 3 a.m. And if they’re bad parents to prove a point — could they be addicts, mentally ill, or (unglorified) criminals? — then I really think the author has a duty to the next generation by establishing that these are problems in life. Not a career goal or something we can just make fun of and ignore.

Personally, as an author and a parent, I take pride in writing about mature, stable moms and dads who aren’t afraid to discipline their kids for breaking the rules, work at their marriages, and hold down law-abiding jobs. Dysfunctional families need to stop being seen as the norm to create a concept of functionality in our future spouses/parents/leaders.

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When I was growing up, I remember reading lots of YA novels that focused on the negatives of substance abuse, of healthy ways of dealing with a break-up, of all the reasons not to choose “the bad boy/girl,” of why you should finish school and get to know yourself before trying to find a soulmate. Apparently these books aren’t being sold anymore — or they certainly aren’t selected by publishers post 2010. Instead, the market is saturated with all these tropes — and they’re setting a very, very wrong example.

Here are some YA authors that I would point to as setting a good example (go look them up, everyone): Robert Beatty, Carrie Anne Noble, Erin Hunter (the Warriors series), still JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, indie author Nate Philbrick, and Tony Abbott (most recently, The Copernicus Legacy).

And although my publishing date isn’t set in stone yet, I’ll take a moment to shamelessly self-promote. The Order of the Twelve Tribes: Volume 1: Masters and Beginners should be available in the spring. It’s a contemporary fantasy novel (first in a series), with very little impolite language, no underage sex, functional families, homeschooling, and the concept of taking responsibility for your actions.

Here’s a summary:

When Sophie Driscoll’s grandmother dies, her parents take over running the Annex, a warehouse facility that stores magical artifacts and documents proving the existence of faeries. As she and her brothers, Flynn and Cal, adjust to a new house, new friends, and a new way of living, Sophie discovers that one of her new acquaintances is protecting a dangerous secret. Now caught between two equally imposing groups — one of which is after the girl’s very blood –Sophie and her family must prove where their loyalty lies — and survive the choice they make.

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13 thoughts on “Discussion: Tropes in YA That Need to Take a Break”

    1. Yeah, it’s one thing to have a story discuss a parent that is, say, an alcoholic or bipolar – very valid concerns. But what’s this new guideline that you can’t write a YA novel that has stable, loving families?

      Liked by 1 person

  1. AGHAGAGHAGAGH SO. MUCH. YES.

    For one thing, rebellion and partying and teen sex shouldn’t be glorified in the first place. Then, like you said, it is TOTALLY UNREALISTIC for teenagers not to face any kind of consequences for these behaviors!!!

    Obviously we are aaaalll sick and tired of the LOVE TRIANGLES and the ORPHANS. Enough is enough. 🙂

    And, oh but I hear you about the WHINYNESS!!!! Ergh!!! All the girls are so whiny! Whyyyyyy????

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    1. The only exception I make to this is when the neglectful parents are written as such to make a point – sometimes the author intends to show the dysfunction of the family by portraying the parents as too focused on their own concerns/selfish/not caring enough, and how this affects their kids. But it’s simply not realistic – nor healthy – to indicate that it’s acceptable for 16-year-olds to run around town all night and not ever get in trouble for it.

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  2. Great post! Agree with you that these tropes can be overused and often promote harmful expectations- particularly with regards to the love-at-first-sight-with-bad-boys (and love triangles) thing. Unfortunately sometimes things like bad parents can realistic- but they don’t need to be in every story- and sometimes what really bothers me about these tropes is that they’re supposed to be a good thing (it’s a really bad message to have the teen acting out, not being punished by the parent that lets them stay out all night and then having things like “my mum/dad is so cool”- cos that undermines good parenting). Agree so much that there should be consequences for all this!!

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    1. Thank you! Yeah, I totally get it that some of this stuff is, unfortunately, very realistic – but when you measure it against the number of teenagers who have loving parents, stable homes, and would absolutely be grounded until their 18th birthday if they snuck off to wreck the town with petty criminals – then, yes, to make the alternative the norm is just plain dangerous for the future of society.

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  3. Agh yes, there are lots of dumb tropes out there. Although I don’t think the books are telling kids to “go out and drink and have sex and hate your parents!!” I think that’s just what some authors consider dark/edge and they want to hook readers in like that? Not saying it’s wrong/right, and of course those kind of books WOULD be relatable to some people. But it is tiring!! Not all kids are like that! I thought playing board games with my parents was pretty cool when I was a teen. I still do?!?😂 I would like to see MORE of that in books!! I read such an incredible book this year (The Inexplicable Logic of my Life) with the besssst father figure who was there to listen to his son, give him advice, drive him around because no he didn’t just buy him a car because if the kid wanted a car he’d have to work for it…and just iT WAS REALLY COOL AND LOVELY AND I WANT MORE OF THAT!! I admit to writing a lot of dead parents in my past books but it’s like a new goal of mine to write more good ones.😂

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    1. It’s been my experience that teenagers have a habit of following what examples they’re given – good or bad – so I think there’s something to the most recent research that indicates an intense increase in violence/sex/drug use in fiction/movies/TV has encouraged 13-17-year-olds that it’s acceptable. Unfortunately there are tons of adults who think that “we don’t treat adolescents like the young men and women they are,” and so are pushing them to grow up too fast – I’d love to see what happens when these people’s little kids become teens, and then see how rapidly they backpedal.

      I think it’s far more realistic to have things like board games and not buying a car for your kids, too – since the fact is most families are tending towards that side of life, anyway. If there’s a point to the dysfunctional stuff (cuz in a lot of YA fic there is), then it doesn’t bother me as much. But there are just too many authors/publishers that have been glorifying it for the past several years, and it’s setting a very, very bad example.

      And dead parents doesn’t have to be a bad trope – it could certainly be used to show how a character overcomes a difficult situation. Like I said, bring on the happy orphans!!!

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