*warning – spoilers ahead*
“Okay? Okay.” – Augustus and Hazel, The Fault in our Stars
“Remember we’re madly in love, so it’s alright to kiss me anytime you feel like it.” – Peeta Mellark, The Hunger Games
“I said it would be better if we weren’t friends, not that I didn’t want to be” – Edward Cullen, Twilight
Who doesn’t love a cringe-filled young adult novel or series? That’s what 14-year-old me loved about young adult (YA) fiction. But it was the memorable characters, dramatic storylines and overall mood of the genre that really drew me in. Since then, YA fiction has continued to evolve and grow (to be less cringe), yet I am still as obsessed with the genre as I was as a teenager. With many YA novels and series being made into movies and television shows, its popularity has never been stronger. However, longevity not only brings popularity but also overused tropes and themes. After years of writing, problematic tropes have begun to sprout up and develop. With the target readership obviously being young adults, some tropes can be incredibly problematic on a young, impressionable audience. Here are the four tropes that I hate to love and love to hate.
- Absent Parents
It seems that in most YA novels, parents have all but disappeared. In some cases like Divergent by Veronica Roth, Tris loses her mother and father. In other cases, such as Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door, the use of a ‘working single parent’ means the main character can go off on their hero’s journey and get away with murder. Whilst a character having lost their parents is not problematic, the lack of a grieving process is. Many authors fail to acknowledge that their character is grieving through the loss of their parents. Despite loving the Divergent series, even I have to admit that Tris never properly grieves for her parents. And although she was too busy saving the world, young adult readers need novels to show them that they are allowed to grieve through loss.
In other cases, parents just seem to be ‘missing’ from the storyline. This usually manifests in a single parent that is working, two parents who have busy jobs or parents who happen to be travelling for the duration of the book or series. In most YA novels, without these disappearing parents, the storyline wouldn’t be able to function at all. (See Tomorrow When the War Began by John Marsden)
- ‘Quirky’ Protagonists
How many times have you picked up a book where the white, straight and able-bodied protagonist thinks they are different from other people their age? (@Bella Swan I’m talking to you) And although they may be a little bit quirky, they are virtually very similar to other YA protagonists. Whilst there is nothing wrong with a quirky character trope, the problem lies in the lack of representation. There are not many YA novels that feature coloured, non-straight main characters. A Lee and Low study found that only six percent of YA novels in 2016 were written by Black, Lantinx and Native authors combined. Academic Melanie Bold similarly found that of the YA authors in Great Britain, only six percent were women of colour and 0.4 percent were men of colour, as opposed to the 59 percent of white female YA authors. In recent years however, there has been a small increase in diverse protagonists. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Gloria Chao’s American Panda feature African American and Taiwanese main characters in their novels. Additionally, Tim Federle’s novel The Great American Whatever focuses on gay teenager Quinn and his journey for love. Whilst these novels have been a part of a small spike in representation, there is still a lot of room for more diverse characters in YA literature.
- The Bad Boy
I’m not going to lie. I’m a real sucker for the bad boy character. It’s just something about his ‘leather jacket’, ‘upturned smirk’ and their broody nature that just suck me in. They make the main character and/or love interest feel dangerous and by extension, make me feel dangerous too. But even my love for these characters cannot cloud the obviously problematic environment they bring. Often these bad boy characters, in their attempts to be a bad boy, can just become emotionally abusive, possessive and show signs of an anger management problem. It’s perfectly alright to love the bad boy who is really a good boy but when the bad boy character is actually just a dick, then what message does that send to young readers? Bad boy Noah in both the novel and movie, The Kissing Booth spends most of his time getting angry at other males speaking to his love interest, Elle, and raising his voice at her whenever she does something he doesn’t like. In Anna Todd’s fanfiction-turned-published-novel (and soon to be movie), After, bad boy Hardin takes the main character Tessa’s virginity because of a bet he made with his friends. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she still thinks he has enough redeeming qualities to fall in love with him. Do we really need more bad boys who treat their romantic interests badly in the name of love? The answer is no.
- The Love Triangle
Twilight began my dislike for this trope a long time ago. But when more YA novels built upon this trope, it really cemented my hate for it. In almost every love triangle in a YA novel, you will find a girl stuck in between two men, with no idea what to do. The focus on who the protagonist is going to choose is huge (as if this is the biggest problem in her life) and sometimes even bigger than the overall plot itself. Almost to the point that it takes away from the actual storyline and the character herself. Katniss Everdeen is stronger than most young adults her age. But even she, in the middle of a political rebellion nonetheless, is more concentrated on whether she loves Gale or Peeta. Despite the fact that these women, similarly to Katniss, are kind-hearted, intelligent and strong, their inability to have a decisive and clear relationship paints them as overly fragile characters. And more than anything, I, alongside many other YA readers, cannot handle another dystopian novel where the focus is more on a love triangle than it is on overthrowing the government.
May YA fiction live forever! Maybe more than ever, young adults need literature to inspire and encourage them to be themselves and live their best life. As writers write for a new generation, let’s hope that we can toss out problematic tropes and themes and bring in new tropes we can all learn to love or hate. And I think we could all live with one less love triangle.
Words by Emma Ruben