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
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
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
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 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
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
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.
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