Tired of the same old young adult clichés you find every time you open a coming-of-age book? You’re not alone. With thousands of titles targeting young readers, it seems like authors fall back on the same old tropes we all grew up reading. Tropes, or common story types, are loved by readers and publishers alike. But transforming the clichés of the past can breathe new energy into an overcrowded genre, can allow a debut author to stand out, and can bring the YA genre to a more contemporary readership. Here’s a list of ten common young adult tropes authors should reboot to keep their writing fresh and engaging.
1. Dead Parents and Evil Stepmoms
It’s been true for centuries—think Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Cinderella. Didn’t the Grimm brothers use the dead/evil parent stereotype so often it should be worn out by now? And yet it seems no young adult protagonist can struggle or grow, experience conflict and overcome it, if they have a functional family dynamic. Dead parents can’t give good advice, and if the stepmother isn’t evil, no child can find their independence… right? But just think about Wonder. R. J. Palacio develops incredible conflict for his protagonist, Auggie, offering the same struggles of being an outcast and feeling unwanted while demonstrating a wonderful family dynamic with two deeply supportive parents. This take on the coming of age story was refreshing and successful.
2. Dystopian Societies
New societies brought on by war and unrest serves as the backdrop and often a key plot device in young adult fiction. But these new worlds never seem to serve the people as the founders intended, however. That means one young, impressionable adult must save everyone and restore balance to the world through a feat no adult can achieve. The worlds of Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior create impressive obstacles, forcing the characters to stand up against society’s wrongs, but how can no adult see the wrongs and be capable of changing them?
3. Bland-Yet-Exceptional Protagonists
Bella Swan can’t understand why a superior being like Edward Cullen would find her beautiful and interesting. She describes herself as clumsy—rightfully so—average in appearance, and awkward socially. So why does he find her so interesting? These character traits are tried and true—the fish out of water. And while coming-of-age stories often are about profound self-discovery, why couldn’t a character capable of saving herself be interesting? What about a protagonist who stands out and knows they’re intelligent, or even beautiful? Having some sense of self as a starting point doesn’t remove the potential for character growth ahead. But a more interesting, complex take on the trope means taking characters from something to more rather than from nothing to unintended hero.
Love at first sight for teen protagonists? While many of us experienced that tunnel vision the first time we saw the object of our first crush, the instant attraction trope points a big arrow at the love interest, clueing the reader in to the outcome before the story’s really even begun. Why shouldn’t the protagonist learn to love the childhood friend over time? In YA, romance is normally the subplot, so the journey can be more nuanced. Insta-love can be fun, but it’s also been done—and overdone—in YA.
5. Useless Adults
Haymitch certainly held the title of mentor in The Hunger Games, but his less-than-supportive, drunken advice seems weak and his actions weaker. Clary Fray’s mother not only fails to teach her about demons and the dangerous shadow hunter world in The Mortal Instruments. She winds up needing Clary to rescue her, as does Percy Jackson’s mom. Imagine a grownup who not only supports the protagonist, but also knows how to take care of themselves. It almost sounds too real to exist in young adult fiction.
6. Chosen One
Everyone knows the hero must be special. A familiar young adult trope requires a child, often new to the world and certainly new to the evil inhabiting it, to save everyone. Percy Jackson never thought he would travel to the underworld to stop Hades from his evil plot to overthrow the gods. Clary Fray didn’t know she would be the key to stopping demons from consuming the world. And yet they are the only ones capable of doing so. How can writers make this trope fresh? A child who wasn’t chosen for the job because of some outstanding ability but because of bravery or a willingness to choose something hard would make for a very different novel.
7. Love Triangles and Male Best Friends
No young adult story is complete without the best friend who’s secretly in love with the protagonist and the love interest who thwarts the friend’s plans for the future. The protagonists often have to leave their best friend and reliable companion behind to pursue the steamy romance that’s sure to end in lifelong happiness and unbeatable chemistry, be it Bella Swan or Clary Fray. Why not flip the triangle on its head? Have the protagonist be in love with the best friend or find a romance without the added conflict of fending off multiple suitors. The love triangle can feel like a worn-out strategy to make the main character appear desirable when they don’t have enough engaging attributes to appear attractive on their own.
8. Undiscovered Power and Royal Lineage
Whether it’s newly realized magical powers, unknown bloodlines marking them as prodigies, or a secret tie to royalty, young adult heroes always seem to uncover their true superior identities, which carry them through their struggles and bring them safely to the resolution as changed beings, ready for their new lives of greatness. Harry Potter becomes the most well-known wizard of his age. Why not Neville, who grew up in the wizarding world and lived so many of the same struggles as Harry?
9. Explosive Kisses
That first kiss, the one that electrifies the body, lights characters on fire, and consumes them entirely sounds far more deadly than they turn out to be. If life were filled with as many mind-blowing first kisses as plague the pages of young adult books, no one would survive. These daze-inducing displays of chemistry confirm the unique relationship each protagonist finds with their amazing soulmate, and they continue to experience these revolutionary kisses every time they lock lips. Do all kisses have to be magical to prove the characters are a good fit? It seems a valuable life lesson to overcome teenage awkwardness and a learn a new skill, so why not start with a bad kiss that can only improve?
10. One-Dimensional Villains
While the YA protagonist can save the world, the villain must be capable of creating the disaster the world needs saving from. Katniss Everdeen defeats not one but two rulers set on forcing children to fight to the death for retribution and entertainment. Most villain characters seem to have no souls. Why can’t villains have complexity? Like in real life, aren’t even antagonists more than just their evil deeds?
The young adult genre appeals to readers who want to experience all the possibilities in the world and life. Why restrict these novels to the same old tropes? Try something new, and you just might shape the genre—and the tropes—for the better.
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