July 23, 2018

Young Adult Novels: Five Tropes That Need to Die

I don’t intentionally look up tons of Young Adult books to read, they just keep falling in my lap. I really enjoy reading (and writing) dystopian fiction, but a lot of dystopian stories are targeted at teen readers.

It totally makes sense, though. Under the thumb of their parents and teachers, life as a teen can feel like living in an oppressive bunker while the rest of humanity has been wiped out. The protagonist fights for freedom from the current tyrant—fathers, mothers, principals, teachers—and finds their place in a totally new and foreign world.

Tropes are what make stories feel comfortable and familiar, but there are a number of them that are so played out I don’t think really add much to the story. So without further ado, here are the top 5 tropes I could live without:


I had noticed this one before, but didn’t really stop to think about it until an author I follow posted a video on beating writer's block by adding a party. (link!)

So many novels include a party. It doesn't matter that there is an intense war going on and everyone is poor as dirt, the protagonist will be invited to a party, and it will be an amazing, spectacular event. What baffles me the most is that nothing important really happens at the party. The characters just get dolled up, go, and eventually leave on their spaceships to shoot up the enemy. A party could be an excellent chance to further character development, advance relationships, or reveal something new about the world. But most of the time, they’re just fluff between other scenes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written a party scene or two. They can be useful for storytelling. But including some sort of prom simply because the characters are teens is just wrong.


I’ve read this so many times, and it bugs me SO much, it may be an instant ‘do not finish’ in the future. I understand that morality is really important and something that young adults need to think about, but I really hate the black and white, protagonist must always do the RIGHT thing theme in so many stories. And the ‘right thing’ is never ambiguous. It’s always framed as ‘put yourself in imminent peril to save some civilians, or let them die.’ I don’t hate characters having a moral code, I hate that it takes agency away from the protagonist. The meat of a story is our beloved characters making hard decisions and living with the consequences. I want to see our main character struggle over which choice to make, questioning their entire belief system.

This could be simply my age. I’ve been faced with plenty of heart-wrenching choices throughout my life. I know there aren’t always clear answers, and sometimes mistakes are just too tempting. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to show teen readers the realities of moral ambiguity.


I feel like I’m such a hypocrite when I point this one out since my favorite movie is The Matrix and I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. But I’ve come to really dislike ‘the chosen one’ trope. I know people like reading stories from the hero’s perspective, but why can’t a normal person who’s worked really hard to become skilled rise to the challenge? I’m not saying that the chosen one is always already gifted, but they have a clear destiny, and even if they’re conflicted about whether they will fulfill their role, in the end, they always do.


Another annoying and unrealistic protagonist is the Mary Sue. This is the main character who is good at everything she’s tried, smart, and beautiful. All the other girls want to be her friend, and all the boys want to date her. A Mary Sue might have a Tragic BackstoryTM, but in the framework of the story, nothing she’s faced with is challenging, and she easily saves the day.

Mary Sues always read as the author’s fantasy self-insert. The real problem with characters like this is that they rob the story of any meaningful conflict or hard decisions since the protagonist merely has to step in and make everything rainbow and sunshine again.


In any sort of conflict or battle situation, a hierarchy and leadership are needed to keep organized and achieve results. If the protagonist is the chosen one, a Mary Sue, or a moral beacon, they will rise to a leadership role, even if it’s as the unofficial leader of their group of friends.

Don’t get me wrong, reading about someone in a leadership role is great and not a problem. What I hate is when the main character crosses the line from keeping their unit safe to doing really dumb and dangerous stuff to save an inconsequential side character. Sure the commander ordered all the fleets to retreat, but damnit, the main character saw a dog trapped on the battlefield, so they command their band of fighters to leave the spaceship without protective suits, run into the battle, and rescue Fido. Rarely do the other fighters object or put their foot down, or even offer an alternative plan. Yeah… I’m going to take the extra minute to put on my spacesuit so I don’t die.

Not only does the protagonist's crappy leadership make me hate them even more, but it also makes me hate the spineless characters who never stand up to them.

I know most of these tropes are closely related, but they all have a similar remedy.

Writers: Make your characters real people. Everyone has strengths and flaws, and everyone is different. Don’t create a perfect protagonist, and make sure to acknowledge that all the characters around them will have unique perspectives and might not always agree with the main character or each other. And don’t write parties unless they further the plot. Or if you add one in order to break through writer's block, cut that shit before the final draft.

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