Bad YA Book Tropes to Avoid (or Fix)
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
There are plenty of great things about YA books: they help teens and young adults feel seen and understood, follow the timeless and relatable theme of coming-of-age, and plant great morals and life lessons within their narratives.
And sometimes they're straight trash that make us cringe so hard, our brains hurt. Find out which tropes are so overused or nonsensical, they could use a kick to the curb or a good scrubbing.
1) Aggressively Normal Characters
You know the ones. The ones who can't stop stressing how ordinary and boring they are, whose epic goal in life is to be "normal," who can't see why anyone would take a liking to them.
Do people honestly think like this? I mean, we go our whole lives without magic or fantasy-level adventures (sadly), but very few of us would consider ourselves so aggressively "normal." Ask anyone. I bet they'll tell you they're weird as fuck once you get to know them. We know ourselves inside and out; we know what strange hobbies, quirks, and interests we have. We know we think odd things. We know that, given the chance, we'd show that side around close friends, even if we at first appear "normal."
Let's see more of that side of characters. The side that says "o-kay, but I only get weirder from here."
2) DEAD PARENTS (or Useless Ones)
I mean, I get it. It's popular for a reason. If you're dealing with underage characters, you need some excuse why your teens are off galivanting without parental supervision. This falls under the "tread ye carefully" category, because while there are ways to do this tastefully and impactfully, it takes skill to weave an interesting take on this very tired trope.
On the flip side of this, where are all my supportive parental characters at? Not everyone's home life is The Brady Bunch, but does every YA book have to feature dead, useless, or abusive parents? Where are the parents who, even if they're not front-and-center, are cheering the protagonist on from backstage? Or the ones who are actually strong side characters?
If you don't think this can be done, take a look at Disney's Onward, which features one teen and one young adult character having an adventure while Mom has her own adventure to find her sons and is a total badass!
3) Awful Sibling/Friend Relationships
Again, yes I know not everyone is tight with their sibs. But have you noticed none of the YA protagonists seem to have a sibling? Or, if they do, it's a dead younger sibling meant to fuel the YA character's loneliness and "no one understands me" complex, or it's a snotty or otherwise horrible sibling whose goal in life is to make the protagonist miserable.
What about siblings who love each other? Where are the sisters who, sure, get into catty fights but will always have each other's back? Where's the older brother or sister who loves and supports the protag unconditionally, or the younger one who looks up to the protagonist? Where's the hilarious, non-destructive bickering?
And don't even get me started on the backstabbing or douchebag friend trope. What is that about? Why is the protag friends with someone who turns on them in an instant? Alternatively, the friend is a terrible influence or emotional wreck the main character is basically taking care of. Talk about setting a bad example for healthy friendships.
4) Death For Impact Rather Than Story
Maybe thanks to shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin's books the latter is based off of, I'm seeing an uptick in the trend of slaughtering side (and sometimes main!) characters unnecessarily.
By unnecessarily, I mean deaths that serve no purpose beyond making the readers sad and shaking things up a bit. It's normally a very contrived or drawn-out death meant to bring about pity or shock, when really it has no impact on the plot. No, how sad the main character is doesn't count.
Now, I love a good character death if the protagonist grows exponentially from it or is spurred into drastic action. I may miss that character, but I understand the purpose.
But characters who didn't have to die? I mean, yes, it sucks, but what was the point? If everyone sniffles and moves on, nothing changed except for how upset the characters now are, then why?
5) High School Bullies
This one, if tackled, needs to be handled with care. I'm in no way diminishing what bullying does to a person or how far it can go, particularly for teens still trying to find acceptance, but . . .
It's often not handled great in literature. The bullying in YA books is so dumb and petty, you wonder why the main character is affected at all. It's realistic for teens to say that shit, but is it realistic for the mature protagonist who can handle themselves to be devestated when a mean girl says she doesn't like her clothes? If the character is set up to be that impressionable, by all means—but the books often feature this self-same character later leading a rebellion, developing or already having powers, and generally being a badass.
I can't take this character seriously if they were sniffling because Stacey said they look funny.
That's it for today's rant, folks! Stay tuned for more good and bad YA tropes, and tell us about your least favorite ones in the comments!