Top 12 Tropes in Young Adult Fiction

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!

1. Dystopia

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”

tmi mprThe 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

ATATNLove 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

hp mprWhether 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!

tmi mpr 2You’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

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini TaylorOne 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

The Infernal Devices - Clockwork AngelI 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!!)

11: Diversity

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.

12. Groups

slytherin mprWhether 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.

What do you think? What’s your most hated trope in YA literature? What’s your guilty pleasure? Maybe you’re a sucker for love triangles or the brooding bad boy. Leave me a comment – I’d love to hear from you!

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10 thoughts on “Top 12 Tropes in Young Adult Fiction

  1. Maraia says:

    These are so accurate! I really hate most of these tropes, too. I think love triangles and assholes who are supposed to be attractive are my least favorite. How obnoxious! Oh, and I also hate cheating in YA. I realize that cheating and love triangles do happen in real life, but I don’t enjoy reading about them. Really, the only thing I want more of is diversity!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tsundoku Girl Reads says:

      They’re so annoying! I can deal with one or two with the caveat that I kind of just expect it from YA, but some books throw as many in as possible!
      And YESSSSS, the obnoxious arse with an angsty past that makes his behaviour “acceptable” does my head in. This is the very reason I don’t understand why everyone loves Will in TID, when Jem is a) so much nicer on every level, and b) the only likeable character in the whole book, pretty much?!
      Exactly. It happens, but the way YA goes on, you’d think it was abnormal to be either single or in a steady relationship, as opposed to fighting between two hot guys who are madly in love with you…😒🙄
      Oh, definitely! There’s so little of it in terms of main characters. It’s there, but it’s in the background, and it needs to be in forefront.

      Like

      • Maraia says:

        I agree about Will and Jem. I guess nice guys just aren’t alluring enough. 🙄

        And hahahaha, that is so true. I think girls who are still single at the end of the book are especially underrepresented. And reading about girls in steady relationships is clearly too boring, lol.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Tsundoku Girl Reads says:

        Apparently not! They say nice guys finish last! 🙄

        They really are!! Even if they’re single, it tends to be because there’s a budding romance that clearly left on a cliffhanger so you buy the second book, or because they’re the bad guy and therefore their punishment is to be unwanted and alone…

        And also, there’s always dramatic arguments! I never argue with my boyfriend over anything more important than what to have for dinner or watch on TV! 😂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. moonika says:

    I think the romance and the traumatic past thing, stem from the basic plot (conflict) and character creation.

    I’ll go with the traumatic past first. When creating a character, a writer will think for each character an external and internal goal, motivation and conflict (the What, the Why and the Why not, of a story). Most character creation guides, will even say, that to achieve the external goal the character has to over-come the inner conflict (i.e the traumatic past that doesn’t let them live a wholesome life or save the world).

    It’s all fine and dandy, until the moment, when the terribly traumatic past becomes a trope, because all writers bestow unthinkable woes upon their main-characters to over-come. I think normal people (maybe with some difficulties in the past), have also inner struggles, so I hope there will be more characters that are not emotional wrecks (how are they able to do anything at all? People are depressed and unable to achieve anything with far less traumatic pasts…)

    The romance thing in YA fantasy bothers me most when it replaces all other plot, and becomes the main-plot. I get it, there is love and sex and pining after someone, falling in love, being attracted to someone, – all that exist in life too, but it’s not the only trouble in life. Just like you said, many 15-year olds don’t probably have any romantic experiences. Some have, some don’t, but it’s definitely not their sole focus in life, especially if the world is ending. Like who has time to go smooching, when the sky is falling?

    But my theory is, that romance is the simplest and easiest conflict to figure out for a character. Why take the time to develop other characters and their complicated relationships with the main character (whether it be work, family, friends, school related), if it’s easy to make a love-interest.

    Another point is that many female leads in YA, are actually self-inserts for the reader. Meaning the main-girl serves only as wish fulfilment in a (romantic) fantasy for the readers (Bella from Twilight is the prime example for that, but I’m suspicious of a few others as well).
    A similar thing is very common in Japanese visual novels or anime based on them, the main character is a plain girl/bloke (their character traits are not strong enough to over-write the characteristics of the player/viewer/reader) who has a multitude of love-interests falling in love with them, interestingly all the love-interests are much more developed and have colourful personalities, than the main character (Bella again, someone once pointed out that every single character in Twilight has a fascinating background, just Bella here is this plain girl stumbling about). There’s a whole industry out there banking on self-insert romance.

    And finally, I heavily dislike the grouping thing. That’s like.. when Dumbledore says: “maybe we sort them to soon”, I want to punch him and the whole wizarding world: maybe don’t sort at all, maybe stop putting a label on people, huh? I feel the grouping thing is one of the most harmful ones (like Slytherin, they’re ambitious and cunning, that doesn’t make them evil, in real life people like this bring progress, possibly create jobs for all the Puffs, Claws and hot-headed Gryffindors etc). I’m severely disappointed in Rowling for having created this cartoon’ish (again way simplistic) way of grouping people, and since HP was so popular I can see other writers copying this trope for their own gains. And while yes, there are groups in life, they mostly overlap one way or the other, nobody is just one label.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tsundoku Girl Reads says:

      Yes, I completely agree with everything you just said about the traumatic past, and the need writers feel to create it to give a tangible, impactful meaning for the character’s determination. But still, I totally agree with you about more “normal” people – everyone overcomes something, whether it’s traumatic and on a huge scale, or smaller but just as personal.

      Yeah, precisely! That’s why romance as a huge focus in these books irritates me! It’s not the sole focus for most kids, and even if it is, surely in their situations in YA, it would be blasted off the itinerary?!

      That’s true though, I suppose it is a bit of a cheat card for character development.

      Oh yes, true, that’s like the whole “Mary Sue” thing. It intensely annoys me when it’s super clear that the author has just written a fantasy they want to inhabit and inserted themselves into it – I remember reading a book about this woman who seemed stuck up and aloof and was described as being blonde, super beautiful, having the perfect body and Slavic features, and was a journalist who trekked the Amazon… then I flipped to the author bio and she was blonde, Slavic, a journalist, had trekked the Amazon…🙄

      Yes, very true! Like, even in the real world, people view groups from Harry Potter like that – I posted a photo where I had Slytherin socks on and everyone was like “you’re not a Slytherin, you’re too nice!” and I was like “whaaaat?!” Yeah, exactly. No one fits neatly into one box!

      Liked by 1 person

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