So, we all love young adult fiction, but you gotta admit – there’s certain things you just know you’re gonna find when you pick up a book labelled YA.
These threads run through so many books in this genre, and the question I’m asking is: why?! I’ll take a wild guess that it’s because it’s tried and tested, and clearly sells, but nonetheless, it does drive me mad sometimes.
As YA expands its reach past the 16-25 market and ensnares adults of all ages with blockbuster franchises, redesigned covers and Hollywood marketing budgets, let’s grab a cup of tea and get comfy as we discuss the many tropes of this genre!
It’s rare to see a YA novel set in the world as we know it today. Besides Harry Potter, so many of the successful books in this genre take place in a future world that’s been changed by something huge and political that completely breaks up society as we know it. I’m looking at you, Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner…and so many others!
2. “The Chosen One”
The novel always centres around a character who unwittingly becomes the key to saving all of society, and potentially the world. Harry Potter wasn’t just a boy wizard; he was the only one who could kill Voldemort. Katniss wasn’t just a competitor; she was the Mockingjay who had to lead the rebellion. Clary Fray wasn’t just a girl; she was the child of Shadowhunters and the key to binding our world and theirs to stop evil.
Geez, no pressure – these teens have no time to find the right acne cream, as they’ve gotta save our asses!
3. The tortured hero
Usually after finding out they are half-mystical creature, a wizard/witch, the subject of a long-revered prophecy, or the key to humanity’s survival, our protagonist reverts into the tortured hero. It’s totally understandable; I’d probably freak out and question “why me?” and if I was even able to do the things I was destined to do if suddenly the world rested on my teenage shoulders.
That said, there’s a fine balance between being relatable (come on, who wouldn’t freak out a little in this situation?) and being annoying – characters who are forever brooding over their fate or throwing themselves into unnecessary dangerous situations “for the greater good” (*cough* martyrdom *cough*) are the worst.
4. Love triangles, and inevitable romance
Love triangles. ALWAYS love triangles. They drive me a little insane. Obviously there was the Hunger Games Peeta-Katniss-Gale situation, but there’s loads more – there’s the Twilight Bella-Edward-Jacob situation, the An Ember in the Ashes Laia-Elias-Keenan triangle, the A Court of Thorns and Roses Feyre-Rhysand-Tamlin troubles…and they’re just the ones that spring to mind.
I’ve only read the first book in The Infernal Devices series, but I can already see a Jem-Will-Tessa triangle heading my way, and I wouldn’t bet against one in The Raven Boys, which I’ve just started.
And, whilst we’re on the subject, I can’t think of a single YA book that doesn’t have even a hint of romance. There’s always either slow-burning desire, unrequited lifetime love (Peeta is the poster boy for this), a relationship, or a love triangle of some sort, and I’m not sure why. Yes, it could be argued that hard times bring people together, and it’s natural to experience relationships for the first time as a teen so we should reflect this in the books they’re likely to be reading, but it’s also just as likely that as a 15 year old kid, you go through a year of life without even a sprinkle of romance coming near you. And that’s fine. That’s normal too – not that you’d know from most YA!
5. Traumatic pasts
Whether it’s being an orphan like Harry Potter or Tessa Gray, losing one parent and being forced to take on a more adult role as provider in the family like Katniss, having divorced parents, or parents that die traumatically in the books, there’s always something that sets our poor protagonist apart.
They never have a normal childhood, attend a regular school with a close circle of good friends, and then end up thrown into some kind of situation that sets the book off. There’s always a horrible situation that just gets worse. The closest to this I can think of for a “normal” life beforehand is that of Harry Potter – he lived normally for 11 years in the Muggle world, went to school etc…but even he didn’t have a great childhood, what with the Dursleys keeping him in the cupboard and all!
6. Danger, danger!
It might be set in a maze, a games arena, or even at your school. It might be in the form of an evil person, usually with magical powers, following you with intent to kill. It might be in a whole different world, where creatures lurk in wait of their prey…but the point is, life is no walk in the park for our YA protagonists. (Well, they could walk in the park, but they’d probably get attacked by a goblin or something, like Tessa and Jessamine in Clockwork Angel. They can’t win!)
7. Adult supervision? Pah!
You’d think a bunch of teens would have more adult supervision, but our YA heroes tend to get away with murder – sometimes literally! Whether it’s starting a rebellion, running away to battle evil wizards, or ending up in the middle of a war between magical races, our protagonists don’t take the path most travelled.
That said, it’s a running theme that when they ask for help from adults, they’re either dismissed as silly children and left to solve the issue alone, or taken seriously but then left alone for trouble to find them while the adults go off to “save” everyone.
8. Rich landscapes and brave new worlds
One of the things that I’ve come to expect, and love, about YA fiction is its ability to form a flawless method of escapism. Even if it’s set in our world, it’s usually a version we don’t recognise, and we can get lost in glittering cities of glass, sprawling castles set on mystical lakes, flower-scented, colourful sisters to lands we’re familiar with, and even barren lands with sparse supplies and ramshackle cabins.
You can rely on YA to transport you to a vivid new world, for better or worse.
9. Happily never after
You can’t have a YA novel without some kind of traumatic twist that sends you reeling. There’s usually at least one character you’re attached to that ends up mortally wounded, dying of illness, sacrificing themselves for the greater good, killed by bad guys, or taken away never to be seen again.
Why?! Why must you get us attached to these characters, and then take them away from us?! (Warning: kind of spoiler for The Hunger Games! Personally, one that always gets me a bit watery-eyed is Cinna, both in book and movie…in fact, probably more in the movie, due to the visual combination of a much-loved character in physical pain, and another being emotionally tormented by the fact she can’t derail the train hurtling towards the last stop for her friend…hold me!)
10. Angst maketh the arsehole
I get it, I get it, you’re the Chosen One and your life is hard, and you are a teenager with hormone fluctuations…but pull it together, man! I wanted to slap Will Herondale for 50% of Clockwork Angel. I get that these characters haven’t had the greatest lives and it’s normal to be sad every now and then, but stop being an arse and acting like the world revolves around you (even if it does!!)
It’s definitely getting better, with novels like The Hate U Give and An Ember in the Ashes having protagonists of colour, but for the most part, YA novels tend to have a straight, white lead and maybe some sidekicks of colour, or gay secondary characters.
There definitely is diversity in YA; off the top of my head, I can think of gay characters, Asian characters, black characters, white characters, Jewish characters – hell, even half-giants – who are loved in Harry Potter alone. But they’re all side characters. There’s shockingly few novels in this genre that feature a non-white, or gay, lead.
Whether it’s districts in The Hunger Games, houses in Harry Potter, downworlders, Shadowhunters and mundanes in The Mortal Instruments, vampires, werewolves and humans in Twilight, factions in Divergent, faeries and mortals in A Court of Thorns and Roses, the slaves, the rebels, and the masks in An Ember in the Ashes, or demi-gods and gods in Percy Jackson, all characters are neatly put into boxes so we can easily process who they are, what they are, and who we relate to.
There’s usually one group that’s “bad” (e.g. Slytherin, the downworlders, the “career districts”), and for the most part, the author doesn’t try to give this group a human side we can relate to. JK did slowly do this with Draco and Snape’s story arcs, Cassandra Clare did it with the introduction of loveable and talented downworlder characters like Magnus, and Sabaa Tahir did it with Helene and Elias as the “bad” but good characters – but the “bad” group is usually left on the outskirts and used only as a way to make the “good” groups look better.