A Field Guide to Six Infectious YA Clichés

What do you mean I fit all six?

Dear YA novelists of all shapes and sizes: there is an infestation spreading through the ranks of our beloved genre. Distorted by centuries* of grotesque overexposure and abhorrent inescapability, these clichés have wormed their way into even the best-intentioned novels. Watch out! They may be a-creeping and a-crawling into your work, too.

Bites from these beasties cause serious problems. I have taken the liberty of creating a brief field guide for those venturing forth into the wilds of noveldom and those deep in its wonderful wilderness. Sickness is among us; look out for these signs and symptoms. Once you know how to find the cures, you should be safe.

1. Not Beautiful Yet Beautiful Syndrome

Clary from Mortal Instruments Mortal Instruments: You hair is too red? My eyes! They’re bleeding!

The telltale sign of this syndrome rears its head as the protagonist, usually female, looks in a mirror. Oh no! they think to themselves. I’m so ugly, especially compared to [insert other female character]. My skin is too flawless. My hair is too thick and flowing. My eyelashes are too long. Later on, the gorgeous love interest decides that the “ugliest ugly in all of ugliness” protagonist is beautiful after all. You know the drill.

Now, the appeal of this cliché is understandable. Centuries of skewed, impossible, thin-white-curvy-Eurocentric beauty standards have left many people, especially women, self-conscious about their appearances. So, it makes sense to create a character who has similar issues.

However, the message this cliché sends is in reality very harmful. It says that no matter how beautiful a person is, they are never allowed to appreciate their beauty, because doing so would be . . . vain? Often, in these books, a woman who does acknowledge her beauty and appreciates it is cast as the evil, antagonistic temptress.

This “wicked siren” archetype is commonly portrayed as a femme, cougar, or other deceitful social climber who acts as a threat to the poor, pure protagonist. This in turn feeds into another harmful cliché known as “girl-on-girl hate,” which, in many YA novels, is written as if it’s well justified. Such characters invariably face some kind of shaming or defeat at the end of the novel – public embarrassment or loss of popularity are popular choices. This punishment is usually portrayed as self-inflicted, something that the perpetrator brought unto herself by way of knowing her own sexiness. Because woe betide any girl who wishes to express her sexual autonomy!

The message indicates that good girls can’t know they’re attractive. Instead, the only person who likes the main character’s looks is the love interest – which furthers the toxic idea that women’s bodies exist for the benefit of male eyes. Women are not allowed to like themselves. Only men get to do that.

All people should be allowed to appreciate their looks. Why not have a protagonist who knows they’re beautiful and values their beauty? What about a protagonist who has actual problems when it comes to beauty? What about someone who’s just average-looking? The possibilities are endless.

2. Convenient Clumsiness Disorder

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Sudden, hitherto-unseen clumsiness thwarts a villainous victory.

Picture this: the main character is walking down the hallway when – gasp! – someone irresistibly, undeniably hot is coming the other direction. Little does the flustered protagonist know their shoelace is untied! They seem to be about to pass the hottie without a hitch when – whoops! – they trip and fall right into those sexy arms.

This character trait is often added for the sake of endearment or humor. Clumsiness is equated with cuteness, and lots of books use it as a cheap excuse for the protag and the love interest to meet. Clumsiness can also be considered goofy, and so characters stumble and drop things to lighten the mood.

But this subsection’s title isn’t “Clumsiness Disorder,” it’s “Convenient Clumsiness Disorder.” In YA, especially speculative YA, chances are the character is going to get into a fight at some point. Oh no, the zombies/laser worms/big bad gummy bears are coming! Quick, grab a sword/gun/big stick, because a showdown is pending! This is the point at which the supposed clumsiness vanishes.

This contradiction is extremely frustrating. First, clumsy characters are often not cute or funny; they’re annoying because they’re incompetent. Readers want protagonists who can do things and do them well. Second, when this clumsiness vanishes, it’s jarring. Was this the same character who stabbed themself in the forehead with a pencil last chapter? It throws consistency out the window and makes the author look almost as incompetent as the character they wrote.

Now, this isn’t to say clumsiness can’t be a character trait. Lots of people in real life are clumsy; that’s why a large draw of this cliché is relatability. But the main character’s clumsiness needs to mean something. Too often, it’s a cheap plot device, which can be cast aside at the drop of a hat, or a one-dimensional characterization. The cure for this ailment is consistency and complexity. Make sure that clumsiness isn’t your protagonist’s only trait, that it impacts the plot and the way the character interacts with the world and stays consistently present. Unless, of course, part of their arc is growing out of it, which should also be done slowly and reasonably. Basically, make sure clumsiness is something that goes beyond protags tripping over themselves for laughs and dropping things when it services the plot.

3. Love Triangle-itis

Twilight: Patient Zero.

Almost exclusively reserved for female protagonists, this cliché follows a very, very predictable pattern. The female main character* likes two (usually white) guys, who both like her. One is dark, brooding, and handsome. The other is cute, sweet, and sensitive. Whoever will the poor protag choose?

This ought to be dead by now. And I mean dead. It should be buried twelve feet under and rotting to bits, but somehow it keeps managing to rip itself out again and stagger sickeningly around before we try to beat it back down whilst gagging and holding our noses. These days it seems like authors consider a love triangle to be a prerequisite to writing a YA novel, and the triangle’s inescapability is so, so frustrating.

It’s experienced a recent upsurge in large part because Twilight did it and Twilight was successful. But it also supposedly gives the audience the dubious pleasure of picking sides and creates cheap relationship drama meant to propel the plot forward but instead often ends up just being distracting.

This cliché is so. Freaking. Dead. Please, kill it properly so we don’t have to deal with its stench any longer.

However, if you’ve decided to put a love triangle in your story, all is not lost. Freshen it up. Add some variety: gender, background, culture, sexual preferences, even appearance. What if your brooding love interest has the hots for the sweet cutie dude and not the protag? What if your cutie dude is a transgender POC? What if neither love interest fits into conventional beauty standards? What if your main character is bi, and the choice is between a guy and a girl? Heck, even just making your protag a guy choosing between two gals would be shaking things up. And always, make sure the triangle really is relevant to the plot.

4. Preordained Paramour Disease

The Matrix: So far our interactions have been limited to kung fu, but my love is the real deal because the Oracle said so!

The stars have aligned, the muses are singing, and the Fates are laying down a jazzy tango. What’s happening? Is it a new era of enlightenment? A coming of world peace? Will humankind experience newfound harmony, hope, and joy? Nope, sorry. The protag and the love interest just met.

Usually the product of an ancient prophecy, this cliché occurs when the main characters’ love is predetermined. It’s destiny: these protags will fall in love, and the fate of the universe depends on their relationship.

Most often, this cliché is used as a cheap trick. Two characters have no chemistry, or lack any reason to get together, or fall into the “Love at First Sight” trap because their author can’t think of a way to build and develop their relationship gradually, realistically, and healthily. The solution: it was destiny! And naturally, these characters love each other more strongly than anyone has ever loved each other before. Their love breaches all boundaries and is the most epic and ultimate love to ever grace any pages ever!*

This is problematic in part because it devalues normal relationships which develop over time and are never perfect. It states, basically, that if it wasn’t love at first sight, and if the relationship had its ups and downs, it wasn’t real or true love. It also stigmatizes the ending of relationships. Sorry, people trapped in abusive, loveless, or generally bad situations. If you leave your partner, you’ll never find love again, or if you do, your love wasn’t ever real in the first place. Also, the universe is going to end now, goodbye.

Relationships, like characters, require development to feel real and rounded – not to mention how super creepy it is to have forces beyond the main character’s control decide who they’re going to be in a world-ending relationship with. Choices, what’re those?

5. Absent Parent Condition

Post of a Percy Jackson movie Percy Jackson: Even omnipotent deities can’t give these heroes support.

Oh dear, the protagonist has homework and zombie-fighting lessons this afternoon, and after that, they (groan!) have to get back to being the chosen one and saving the universe and all that. It’s just too much! Good thing they have mom to talk to. Never mind, she died in a convenient avalanche. Dad? Nope, he’s all mystic and mysterious or whatever; no straight answers from that guy. Aunt Betty? Whoops, she got turned into an orangutan in suspicious circumstances six years ago. Uncle Ken? He has a thing about dark clothes and knives; that can’t mean anything good. Grandparents? Please. By now you should know what kind of cliché you’ve stumbled in upon.

When was the last time you read a YA novel in which the protagonist’s parents were present, supportive, and caring? Parents who love their children and help them during hard times are few and far between in this genre. Instead, parents are distant, judgmental, overbearing, antagonistic, or just plain gone. Often, the main character ends up watching their parents die, be killed, or be tortured so they can go on a quest for revenge. Other, non-parent adults are usually mysterious, evil, or inept.

The appeal of this cliché is to add conflict. The poor main character has nobody to fall back on, nobody to go home to, nobody looking out for them in the bad, bad world. It’s a common choice for authors who want a quick-n-easy tragic backstory, often to provide motivation for their characters or make them seem like loner underdogs and thereby more sympathetic. And it’s true that many teens have parent problems, which makes protagonists in similar situations relatable.

This cliché is largely problematic because it’s so common. There are few examples of positive parent-child relationships in YA. But it’s also detrimental because it sends the message that teens can’t rely on their parents or any adults or that their parents are holding them back in some way.

Instead, why not have a protag who’s got a good relationship with their parents? Whose parents care and want what’s best for them, and the protag heeds their advice? Why not set a good, positive example of teen-parent relationships?

6. Fancy Snow Globe Character Virus

The Maze Runner: Theresa, fancy snow globe in need of a hairband.

Imagine arriving at work one day and finding that you’ve been laid off. What? you gasp. Why? You peek inside the conference room, and here’s what you see: Dancing penguins. Twinkly lights. Petrified carolers. Frolicking reindeer. Clumpy snow. Damsels in distress. It’s all inside a snow globe. Thousands of hard-working characters like yourself have been bested and ousted by cheap snow globe labor! Dun, dun, dun: you never did any work that a fancy snow globe couldn’t.

Fancy Snow Globe Characters (FSGCs) could be replaced with a fancy snow globe and nothing about the story would change. Essentially, it’s the sexy lamp test for every character in the story, not just objectified female hotties. This blanket category is comprised of almost any one-dimensional character, including damsels, fridge stuffers, obligatory love interests, and the like. In some cases, it even infects the protagonists. As a rule, FSGCs have little to no agency or arc and are usually dependent on the protagonist for their safety, livelihood, and existence in general – the shaking of the snow globe, if you will.

These characters are boring and frustrating. Their one-dimensionality and lack of action is infuriating to readers, as is the fact that they are walking plot devices which only exist to provide the protagonist with motivation, angst, or direction. Need the protag to embark on a rescue quest? Shake the globe! Need some romance to spice things up? Shake the globe! Need some cheap emotional investment? Shake the globe!

The cure for FSGCs is simple: Pick a character. Replace them with a fancy snow globe. If this character’s job in the story can be done by an amusing or sentimental bauble, something needs to change. If they exist to be saved, there had better be a damn good reason why they can’t save themselves. They need to be fleshed out or cut out. Give them flaws, wants, desires. Make them true characters by deepening their personalities and giving them a hand in the things that happen to them. Maybe the damsel manages to signal the hero or distract the guards. Maybe the love interest won an award for spoken word poetry in sixth grade. Maybe the fridge stuffer isn’t actually dead, just trapped in an alternate reality surviving by their wits. Who knows?

These are just a few of the more pervasive bugs found in that far-off wilderness; many, many more are still out there, squirming across our poor pages. Take care to steer clear. If, however, you are inclined to study some of the rarer, more positive cousins of these pests, then by all means, do. The “Dad who is actually supportive of his daughter’s relationship” and the “Guy who feels and expresses genuine emotion” beasties are two such specimens. Too many of these kinder varieties exist to put in one little handbook; it is rumored that there are an infinite number of these in the jungle. It’s all up to you, intrepid YA explorers, to find them and bring them out.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Read more about , , , ,



  1. Dvärghundspossen

    There’s an additional problem with number 1, which I’ve pointed out in other comments: Although it’s realistic for a woman to be beautiful and still insecure about her looks, it’s completely unrealistic for her to look in the mirror and think things like “my eyes are too big, my body is too slim, my boobs are too big” etc. Since even the most beautiful woman don’t look precisely like a photoshopped picture in a make-up ad, someone who’s insecure about her looks despite being beautiful will exaggerate things like blackheads on the nose, flab on the thighs, sag in the tits etc when she stares into the mirror and thinks about what she looks like. However, if an author wrote down this realistically beautiful-yet-insecure woman’s thoughts, the author wouldn’t be able to convey to the readers that she’s actually beautiful, because her thoughts would be similar to the thoughts of someone who DOES fail to live up to society’s beauty standards.

    So yeah. For this reason AND the reasons pointed out in the article, please bury this cliché yesterday.

    • Birgitte Heuschkel

      When I was writing fan fiction in order to find my voice, so to speak, I tried doing exactly this. My narrative character had a moment of self-doubt when looking at herself in the fluorescent lights of a public bathroom, an environment that anyone will know is not exactly flattering. I envisioned her as an above-average looker (fan fiction — Jennifer Connelly isn’t exactly a monster!) but wrote her thoughts the way someone doubting themselves would; focusing on the negatives, worrying about getting older, seeing only the bad.

      I thought I made it very clear that that’s what it was — a moment of self-doubt, the kind that we all get at times. Both male love interests in the story clearly considered her to be stunning.

      The reader outrage was fantastic. Some readers quit reading right there. I dared insinuate that the character was not the most beautiful woman in the world. That she was human. That she had self-doubts. Time to ragequit.

    • Ellie

      Honestly not trying to seem presumptuous or anything, but I do have to disagree with you on the, “my eyes are too big, my boobs are too big” thing solely because of my own personal insecurities. You can 100% look in the mirror and think “my boobs are too big” and just be so horribly upset and uncomfortable with your own body and hate it so much, you can look in the mirror and think “I’m too skinny” because that’s another insecurity some people have. Insecurities are strange sometimes, but I do get what you meant int your comment! I believe you were talking about the characters that are so “amazingly wonderfully beautiful” but they think they’re so ugly with their “amazingly wonderfully beautiful” features, and I agree.

  2. Cay Reet

    Dang it! Now I want a story with big bad gummy bears as villains. So evil, yet delicious!

    Another interesting resolution to the Triangle-itis would be to make the protag pansexual and just have them end up with BOTH love interests. Bonus points if the love interests also have the hots for each other – everyone wins!

    Those are surely six horrible diseases a YA character might catch, great article!

    • Sophie the Jedi Knight

      I could be wrong, but do you mean polysexual? I thought pansexual was attracted to all genders and polysexual was non-monogamous.

      • Cay Reet

        You could be right. Or it could be polyamorous.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Polyamorous is generally the term used for someone who has consensual romantic relationships with more than one person. Pansexual is one term for a person who is sexually attracted to people regardless of sex. Bisexual is often used that way too (the “bi” in this case being used to mean the person’s own sex/gender as well as other sexes/genders).

    • crimson square

      Uh – I… think you might mean polyamorous, not pansexual? I mean, the protagonist could be both, but neither implies the other, and polyamorous is the one that means “both” is an option.
      Anyways, yes, both is an awesome answer to love triangles.

      Personally, I’m also fond of “no one” as an answer to “Who will XYZ end up with?”, because… well, how often do you see fictional protagonists going “alright, while I do technically find both of these people hot, relationships with either of them would be a disaster” and deciding that yes, they would be happier single. … that’s the aro part of me talking.

  3. cerabobble

    Who is the girl in the header picture? I don’t recognize her, but maybe that’s because I haven’t seen the movie.

    • Cay Reet

      I haven’t seen the movies, either, but I believe that is Bella Swan from Twilight.

    • Matt

      That’s Bella Swan from Twilight.

    • cerabobble

      Thanks for the answer, Cay and Matt!

  4. Brigitta M.

    There’s a bigger issue here: clumsiness is either cute or equated with incompetence. In real life, it’s neither. I’m clumsy. I can trip over painted lines. I’ve walked into walls. It’s not pretty and it’s often bloody.

    I’ve also received awards for my dancing.

    In my case it’s because I’m unable to perceive three dimensions (my eyes can do it, but my brain doesn’t process it). I use clues around me to “guess” how and where to step. I often guess wrong, but I’m better than I used to be. It requires a lot of focus and calculating and well…sometimes it doesn’t work in my favor.

    And sometimes paying that much attention 100% of the time is a lot more work than I’m able to do in my daily life (or anyone would, as fatigue makes anyone’s grace fall by the wayside: witness the number of nighttime shin attacks by coffee tables).

    In short, using clumsiness as a shorthand for incompetence is a sign of lazy writing.


  5. Adam

    What’s YA in this context? Googling YA doesn’t come up with anything useful. I assume it’s Young Adult. Is it Young Adult?

    • Bunny

      Yes, YA is shorthand for Young Adult.

  6. Alex

    Another solution to love triangle-itis: polyamory. Why not choose both guys? More stories need to include polyamory as a valid relationship option as opposed to strict monogamy.

  7. Leon

    I think there’s a big problem with this generation, especially in America, with how beauty is defined.
    Beauty is not having a generically pretty face (Lucy Lawless dosen’t, Carrie-anne moss doesn’t and have you seen Anna Paquins teeth, yet they are all beautiful), its not about being skinny; if you want to see the kind of physique men consider beautieful just Google some “people are awesome” videos, most of those women are STRONG. Yet Adel, Tina Fey and Portia De Rossi are also beautiful.
    Beauty is virtue. It’s not about the face or the body you have, it’s about what you do with it.
    Beauty is simply a side effect of striving for excellence.

    • Michael Campbell

      Profiteering from the insecurities of teenage girls has been a staple of the economy for a very long time.

      Since it’s easier to sell pimple-cream than it is to sell compassionate- behaviours, the corporate machine uses advertising to aim at the insecurities associated with “looks”.

      It’s not just a problem for Y.A. persons:- Ask your G.P. some time as to which is better for your health. Five good friends or a balanced diet?
      But the economy doesn’t want you to have five good friends; it might interfere with your productivity. So your choices are a balanced diet and Gym membership, or diabetes…and that’s the way the big end of town like it.

      • Leon

        But how can you have five good friends if you don’t have good skin?

      • Leon

        Seriously though, staying healthy (good nutrition and fitness) is extremely important. Especially if you work at a desk. One year of computer science totally ruined my back and shoulders, took about two years to recover.

      • Leon

        Its also incredibly important to your mental health and it’s a good way to make friends ?

  8. Rhona

    One of my problems with using clumsiness as a cute character trait is that in real life it can feel like the exact opposite.
    My cluminess comes from my disability, so it’s really not cute, or endearing to be constantly falling or hurting myself.
    When I see a clumsy character in a book I could identify with suddenly and inexplicably lose their clumsiness when the plot requires it, it pulls me away from the character and out of the plot. It’s not exactly insulting but it’s depressing that the author has only decided to use it as a throw away or silly affectation.
    I want to read a book where the protag managed to defeat the zombie horde despite tripping over her own feet or a disability.

  9. Justin

    Just to shed some light on your Absent Parent Condition:

    This trope exists because traditionally, storytelling for children depicted children in life-threatening situations. The storyteller needed a separation between a real-life youth – safe and secure with parents and a home – with the dangers that accompany the youth protags in the stories. Therefore, the writers removed the parents – who are, by default, the protectors of innocence. If a kid in a story has parents who love them and still gets into trouble, it means that the RL kids can also find themselves in similarly precarious circumstances. That takes the escapism out of middle grade and YA literature and creates stress and anxiety in the minds of young readers. Orphaning the main character allows the reader to remain safe and secure in their bed while they read.

    • Innocent Bystander

      While I agree that the trope exists for a reason, I don’t think it’s the only way to keep parents/guardians out of the plot. There are other ways to do it while letting the protagonist have a healthy relationship with them.

      Using a not-quite YA example that still works, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Madoka’s parents can’t fight Witches but it doesn’t stop her from having a very good relationship with her family, especially her mother. Hell, my favorite scene from the series is Madoka and her mom sitting down and talking about the recent issues Madoka is going through (even if Madoka can’t go into details). Her mother even gives some advice that, while leading to disaster, is still pretty good. And at the end, her mom trusts her enough to go off and save the world even though she doesn’t know all the details.

      I’m also writing a YA story of my own where the protagonist’s parents have to come to terms with the fact that they can’t help him get out of the situations he will inevitably find himself into thanks to his powers. And because of his personality combined with those powers, there’s nothing they can do to stop him either. All they can do is support him, give him advice, and hope it’ll be enough to keep him alive and well. I found that going this route instead of making them distant or killing them off ended up being a whole lot more interesting and ripe with potential for characters and story. And lots and lots of feels.

      • Lucy

        … that sounds great. And a lot closer to most people’s experience of being that age. The fact is, the YA age is exactly the point where it really becomes clear that Mum and Dad can’t step in and solve your problems for you any more – whatever they happen to be.

        • Cay Reet

          Another example may be the “Please don’t tell my parents…” series. Penny, the main character, is the daughter of two retired superheroes who, through things happening out of her own control, is turned into a supervillain herself. So instead of being able to go to her parents with her problems, she has to keep her identity hidden from her parents (which in case of her mother is really hard – that woman goes through probabilities like a hot knife through butter). She still has a great relationship with them, but she needs to be careful and to disappear discreetly from the house when things come up.

  10. Jurgan

    “Heck, even just making your protag a guy choosing between two gals would be shaking things up.”

    Not in the anime world. I was a big fan of Tenchi Muyo! where that was the main conflict, and it had probably dozens of imitators.

  11. Robert Dukes

    Regarding number 4, it can happen even if it’s not a literal prophecy in the story. I’m specifically thinking of Angel and Buffy. It felt to me like they were only together because Whedon or whoever liked the drama of a vampire hunter dating a vampire. They had moments, especially in season 2, but the writing hammered in that they were such a mythic love story for the ages, and I didn’t buy it. Through the course of the Angel series, though, he and Cordelia grew closer, and by the end I thought they were a much better couple than Buffy and Angel ever were. Their relationship grew naturally over the course of several years, and I totally believed they would do anything for each other.

  12. Alex McGilvery

    As side cliche to the triangle, or in harem stories (I’m looking at you anime) is the rejected characters never move on. Their love interest has said nope, and clearly given their affections (and a whole lot else these days) to someone else. Do they heal and move on? Forget about it. They’ll mope until the end of the book. It they do move on, it is usually taken to mean they are a) shallow b) promiscuous c) both.

    Something else plays into the triangle thing. The two rivals are the only game out there. Nobody else is there to allow the MC to dump them both and go with person C who doesn’t drool over her like a bone.

    To add to this, the heroine is often the only love interest available to the rivals. Even in high school dramas, they are treated as if they were on a desert island, with the occasional visit from the BFF.

  13. Innocent Bystander

    Persona 5 had a great example of a beautiful character facing problems because of her looks: Ann Takamaki.

    When you first meet her, she’s dealing with a teacher who keeps pressuring her into dating (and later sleeping with) him in exchange for giving her only friend a starting position on his volleyball team. Meanwhile, other students think she’s sleeping around because of her looks, her modeling job, and her being biracial when in actuality she isn’t comfortable in sexual situations. Even after that arc is resolved, her personal story involves a rival model who looks down on her for not putting in as much effort since she’s a “natural beauty.”

    That’s not to say there aren’t any problems (stop putting poor Ann into situations where she’s uncomfortable, ATLUS!), but I feel that a lot about her character shows you can have a good character be beautiful, know it, and still have problems.

    • Cay Reet

      The problem with the beautiful character is not that she has problems. Of course beauty can lead to problems and it won’t magically keep problems away from a character.

      The problem is that whole ‘I am utterly beautiful, but think I’m ugly’ syndrome. That is unrealistic and has been done to death. Especially the way the characters are usually described in YA novels (anime or manga, of course, don’t need descriptions, because they are visual media) makes it clear they are attractive. They complain about things like ‘glossy hair,’ ‘narrow waist,’ or ‘long, well-shaped legs.’ A woman who is really unhappy with her body would complain, as another commenter pointed out already, about flabby thighs, blackheads, or a fat ass. Real physical flaws, not physical traits which everyone wants to have. It’s probably supposed to show how pure and innocent they are, but it’s outright stupid. Beauty standards are varying throughout history, but women always knew what was considered beautiful and what wasn’t.

      • Innocent Bystander

        I’m aware of that. I was just giving an example to back up the article’s suggestion of having a beautiful character who faces problems because of their looks.

  14. Ennis

    I’ve seen #1 done for male characters too, though it’s not usually as extreme. More of a “character claims to not be very attractive, still has little trouble ending up with one or even a couple of love interests”. Might not be “oh no my body is just too voluptuous” levels, but it’s still that strange trope of trying to have a character be “realistically” flawed even though they’re actually an escapist fantasy.

    Then possibly similar to #2, I think the male equivalent is being non-athletic or “weak”. I may be misremembering because I watched it awhile ago, but Lelouch from the Code Geass series was supposed to be (physically) weak, yet it didn’t really become an issue aside from that one episode where the cat stole his helmet.

    There’s a similar split where the character is competent to great when it comes to facing off against real enemies, then at school they just let themselves be pushed around. Spiderman and Danny Phantom come to mind, and I know there’s the whole “having a secret identity” excuse, but I still think that having them continue to take it exactly as before is a little… dumb. Like a kind of contrived noble suffering.

    • Cay Reet

      I do remember Danny getting even with people with the help of his powers, though, even if not outright and visible for all. Can’t speak for any of the various Spidermen. The point about Danny (or Spiderman) is, indeed, their secret identity. They were on the lower end of the hierarchy before they got their powers and they can’t use them openly afterwards without drawing attention. In Danny’s case, it might not even be the attention of his peers or the teachers, but remember he’s a half-ghost and his parents are ghosthunters. It’s difficult enough for him when his sister finds out who he is. Danny drops his secret identity at the end of the series, but that is in a severe situation.

  15. Frederf

    As an adult, I agree that these things ave very annoying, but I remember what it was like to be a teenager. Points 1 and 5 are used to make the characters relatable. Most kids feel ugly and awkward at some point, but they still want a Disney story about a beautiful princess. That is why these books are so popular. Although it would be a healthy change to see an average looking heroine. I find that “Average looking” is usually reserved for the boy characters.
    The absent parent thing is also relatable. Most kids feel alone. How often do we hear “My parents don’t understand me?” Very often. And parents who are physically not there is an easy way to show the reader “this character gets you.”

    These books are pretty much “designed” for teenagers. If they didn’t include these elements, they probably wouldn’t sell as well.

    • Bunny

      Oh, I doubt that. Everyone – friends, teachers, peers – I’ve talked to about the article agrees that they’re tired of these cliches. The reason they’re so common is not necessarily because they work, but because successful series used them before they became cliche. Copycatting is hardly new, and YA authors riding the wake of, say, Twilight feel obliged to add a love triangle, or a “you don’t know you’re beautiful / that’s what makes you beautiful” heroine.

      The problem lies in that people have come to believe that these cliches are somehow intrinsic to YA, that there’s no way a YA book could be successful without them. And so these harmful, problematic ideas get perpetrated and spread, and soon become nigh inescapable.

      The “designed for teenagers” part comes after. Once something that does this is successful, people decide that they want to emulate that work in certain ways and we get stuck with an onslaught of cliches, even if the thing that was popular didn’t become popular because of the cliches in the first place. And then, once there’s a flood of these copycats on the market, people view these harmful things as central or necessary or “designed” for the genre or its readers. Thus harmful cliches get spread.

      The popularity argument is silly. Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it doesn’t have harmful implications, and when things have harmful implications, we shouldn’t keep them around just because they’re popular. The definition of “popular” also tends to flex. These cliches are overdone, stale, frustrating, and problematic – but they’re “popular” because they’re so common. That doesn’t make them good.

  16. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    “The female main character likes two (usually white) guys, who both like her.”

    Well, Twilight actually doesn’t have that exactly. Jacob isn’t white. Although, um, Bella does end up with the white guy. Where was I going with this?

    Oh yeah, I am SO SICK of the “This one guy is dangerous, this one is nice! How do I choose?”-style love triangle. Every single time the girl chooses the “dangerous” guy. Every time. I can think of only one series where the girl chose the “safe” guy. And that was an older series. I wish that would be brought back. Realistically, why would any self-respecting girl choose a guy who says “I’m not a good guy.” Take him at his word, don’t try to “fix” him!

    • Tifa

      I’ve noticed this, too, and I think it may have something to do with the idea that ‘all girls want/must want bad boys’, and that a relationship with someone can redeem that someone no matter how twisted and messed up that person is.
      The romanticizing of abusive relationships doesn’t help, either.

      • Sophie the Jedi Knight

        Thank you! I am so tired of that trope! It’s just setting up an unhealthy precedent. I like Twilight as a guilty pleasure – not for the romance. I can read those books without wanting an actual Edward or Jacob to treat me like crap.
        The ones I hate the most are the books with the girl with a “safe” boyfriend who goes off and cheats with him with the broken “bad boy.”

    • Innocent Bystander

      I actually liked “Wicked Lovely” for subverting those expectations. The protagonist gets with the guy she has chemistry with and she feels safe with. And he’s NOT the Fae Summer King.

      Also because she does a hell of a lot to keep her agency regardless of how much people try to take it from her (including the aforementioned Summer King).

    • Bel

      To be fair, (HUNGER GAMES SPOILERS) Katniss does end up with Peeta in the end.

    • A.R.

      Yay for Phantom of the Opera! I seem to be in the 1% that agrees with Christine’s decision. The Phantom was a freaking serial murderer more than twice her age. Raoul was her childhood sweetheart who genuinely loved her. Darn right she should’ve chosen him.

      I mean….there are plenty of problems with Phantom, but at least the girl’s choice isn’t one. Christine isn’t even ‘how do I choose?’ either, she’s just scared to choose Raoul because of what the Phantom will do.

      • Cay Reet

        Well, in the novel, I always had the impression that Raoul wasn’t the ideal choice, either, yet he clearly was the better one. He was closer to her in age and, indeed, not a serial killer twice as old as she was.

        Interestingly, in his epilogue, Leroux writes that while it can’t be excused what Erik did, he was not a monster, but a human who’d been treated badly by society for something he had no fault in – which is unusual for pulp stories.

        • A.R.

          True, Raoul has his problems (my sister likes to point out that he and Erik are both stalkers). He’s definitely not ideal, but at least he’s clearly a better choice than Erik. I like that Christine doesn’t have any dilemma over ‘which one do I like better?’ She’s more like ‘I can’t choose Raoul because Erik will kill him!’

          I love how sympathetic Leroux makes Erik (I’ll take your word for it on its pulp rarity). What I don’t love is how much that sympathy seems to blind people to the fact that he’d killed who knows how many people and was at least old enough to be Christine’s father. I’ve read the YouTube comments on MOTN videos, and so many people’s reactions boil down to ‘omg why did she choose Raoul she should have chosen the Phantom his voice is amazingg.’ Yeah, his voice is nice, but nice enough that you’re going to excuse multiple murders and creepy behavior?

          Not trying to argue, just agree in too many words.

          • Cay Reet

            Pulp stories usually have a clear good/evil divide, so the villain is not supposed to be sympathetic, but downright bad.

            I think a lot of those ‘she should have stayed with Erik’ fans are more fans of the musical than of the book or the movie versions. Let’s be honest, the Erik of the musical (due to being a stand-in for Webber himself) is presented as a much better choice than Book Erik.

            Both Lindsay Ellis and Dominic Noble have done great videos on the Phantom and all aspects of the story in its different forms.

          • LeeEsq

            Cay, I think another way to see it is that Phantom of the Opera: The Novel is all over the place with what genre it is in. It’s part mystery, part thriller, part gothic romance, and part journalism because Leroux can’t help himself. Webber realized that he needed to pick one genre for Phantom: The Musical and realized that gothic romance is going to sell a lot more than Leroux’s thing. It is also why musical Phantom is not referred to as Erik because that isn’t a mysterious name for English speakers.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, the novel sends a pretty mixed message genre-wise, which was made even worse for the original audience by the fact that Leroux had only published mysteries before and it started off as a mystery to become gothic horror (to a degree) later. The audience expected a new mystery and wasn’t amused.

            The problem with Webber isn’t that he cut away whatever was extra for the story (that made it better, really). The problem is that you can see how Webber wrote this around and for Sarah Brightman, the first Christine. He wanted for the Phantom (his stand-in) to be a much more interesting character and for Christine to be really tempted by the Phantom. In the book, she is not. Make no mistake, Raoul is a lot less ‘youthful lover’ in the book, too (like not recognizing Christine at first – she’s the one who remembers him and approaches him about their past), but the Phantom is clearly the ‘I sacrifice my future and my life for the life of my love’ choice (rather common in Gothic novels), not the ‘if only he were a little more compatible with normal life’ not-choice. Webber didn’t want that, because for him, the Phantom was this ingenious composer and perfect musician (note anything?) who was ignored for his less than stellar looks. That why he also plays down the Phantom’s death count (which, including his time in Persia, is quite high).

          • A.R.

            New Phantom facts, yay! Nice to know why the story/character was changed. Thanks, Cay and Lee, for the new bits of Phantom trivia.

          • LeeEsq

            Erik, Phantom of the Opera, the Original Incel: Except No Imitations. Debate.

            King Henry VIII, the Original Neckbeard, Except No Imitations. Debate.

  17. Alverant

    Is it me or are some of the characters starting to look alike? Until I read the caption I thought Theresa was Bella.

    • Leon

      It’s because the casting people look for trends, they think if they cast a person who looks like somebody who is popular, or fits what they think people want to see they will have a more successful project.
      Leading ladies use to be tall blond and leggy. Now the mainstream heroine mostly looks like a scrawny, not quite pretty brunette.
      “Diversity” tends to look like a pretty girl with fine features, light brown skin, freckles and big frizzy hair (normally with a slight gap in the two front teeth).
      They don’t expect people to see a broad nose or big lips as beautiful (I’ve never seen cornrows in an ad) or to believe that an athletic blonde girl can have real problems.
      Fortunately we have indie films

  18. Fig Eater

    Fortunately, I think these cliches are much less common in modern YA! No one holds Twilight as the genre standard anymore, and many current YA authors are expanding the genre conventions and adding more diversity. There are still many popular authors who could learn from this list (looking at you, Sarah J. Maas!), but I’ve seen a real improvement in YA in general over the last few years.

    • Fig Eater

      Just saying all of the works discussed in this list are relatively old and not representative of the genre in its current state.

      • Bunny

        Older, maybe, but well-known and still widely read/watched, which is why I used them as my examples. I certainly do think the genre is improving, though.

        • Fig Eater

          I disagree. The matrix, percy jackson, and indiana jones are not ya. Twilight and the maze runner haven’t been big for years. If you want to make a convincing article about “infectious” ya cliches, please pick more examples that are actually current ya. Or, maybe, talk to an actual young adult.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Just a factual point of order, Percy Jackson is absolutely YA, in so much as YA is a publisher defined genre and publishers sell Percy Jackson as YA.

          • Bunny

            I /am/ a young adult. I’m in high school, thank you very much. I don’t think there’s any harm in bringing forth the best (if older) examples that I can find to illustrate my points, especially since the Mythcreants audience includes a lot of adults. I mean, honestly, if I used “An Ember in the Ashes” as an example, many people wouldn’t know what I’m talking about. This choice, to include older works which are better-known examples, rather than current works which are more obsolete, was conscious.

  19. Asyles

    I’d like to add an add-in to #1 Not Beautiful Yet Beautiful Syndrome and #2 Convenient Clumsiness Disorder: The Convenient And Not So Serious Injury Effect
    In that case the usually Not Beautiful Yet Beautiful and sometimes the Clumsy Cutie female protagonist has a seemingly serious or moderate injury, which causes only a minor inconvenience to her, but leaves her beauty untarnished. For example, the female protagonist has an injured knee or ankle. It makes her limping a little bit. Oh, the horrors! Or makes her pace a little slower or uneven. What a cruel fate!
    Yet she’s still gorgeous, she can run, fight and dance, when the narration requires her to do so. Yes, afterwards she’s in pain, and needs medical aid, but when it’s showtime, this injury never impedes the heroine. She can win the big dance contest, defeat the evil and run an ultramarathon, when it is her destiny.

    • Innocent Bystander

      You forgot the most important part about the convenient injury; an excuse for the LI to carry the heroine.

      • Asyles

        You’re right. My bad.

  20. Greg

    I know there’s an element of wish fulfillment in the YA genre, but why can’t we just have a female (or male for that matter) protagonist that ISN’T conventionally beautiful at all? Why can’t the thick-framed, acne-ridden, crooked-toothed (because her family can’t afford braces) introvert be the one that saves the day?

    • Cay Reet

      Bonus point if she proves suprisingly strong. As someone once put it: if your introvert, bookish heroine can carry the LotR series, the Harry Potter books, the Hunger Game series, and all her schoolbooks at once, she can probably throw the good-looking quarterback across the football field.

  21. Keith Kenny

    Excellent article, and I agree with all the points. The problem is that impatient, immature YA readers want the affirmation and wish fulfillment that comes with these clichés. My favorite is the undiscovered princess with hidden talents (or beauty because she’s never encountered a mirror) living with unappreciative or abusive parents/in-laws. This Cinderella story is also the Harry Potter story. Their attributes are inherent and unearned—like winning the lottery—as are dial-a-power magic wands, technical devices, or apps in virtual settings.

    Alas, I fear this sort of storytelling drives the YA market the way comfort food dominates their dietary choices.

  22. A.R.

    “What if your brooding love interest has the hots for the sweet cutie dude and not the protag?”

    This is actually a book! ‘The Love Interest’ by Cale Dietrich. There’s a sort of compound (don’t remember exactly, it’s been awhile), and two boys are selected from each side to be potential Love Interests for a girl who is/will be powerful or influential or whatever. These two, the ‘Boy Next Door’ starts feeling weird around his ‘Bad Boy’ counterpart and realizes he *likes* him (and not the girl). Spoilers: they end up together.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.