Priya has been previously shortlisted for the Margaret and Reg Turnill Writing Competition (2020) and the Val Wood Prize (2020).
Young Adult (hereinafter “YA” – sorry, I’m studying law) novels are notorious for employing clichés. I’m not saying clichés are bad per se but as a reader, it defeats the purpose of reading a book if I already know how the story is going to pan out. So this post is all about clichés that desperately require a fresh twist.
Please note: These clichés are generated by YA novels with female leads. (I’m familiar with them).
8 Clichés to Avoid in Young Adult Novels
1. Damsel in Distress
2. Character Introductions
3. Self Description
4. Love Triangle
6. Girl Hating
7. Token Character
8. Useless Parents
Let's look into them in detail.
1. Damsel in Distress
Reese Witherspoon, a Hollywood actress, in an acceptance speech once said (sort of): What woman doesn’t know what to do at times of an emergency? And yet, Hollywood scriptwriters churn out scripts when the female protagonist would invariably turn to her male counterpart and say – What do we do now? Fairy-tales are overrun with this terrible cliché and it’s bad enough that young girls grow up listening to those tales. It’s worse when this cliché is adapted in YA novels. YA is an impressionable group and it is important that girls don’t carry on this notion into adulthood that they need “saving.” [I am defs preaching] Damsel in Distress is soooo 18th century, give it a rest already! We need independent female leads who are actually independent. Not whiny, pathetic leads who claim to be independent but ultimately always need rescuing.
2. Character Introductions
In first-person narration, I’ve noticed authors awkwardly have their protagonists introduce themselves to the reader. I am Rosa, short for Rosaline and I’m a sixteen-year-old girl, I am Jacqueline and I thought I was normal till yesterday. I am Kylie and I am an idiot. As a reader, yes, I want to know the name of the protagonist in the first page and preferably a short description so that I have an idea about what he or she looks like. But cliché phrases like the ones mentioned reeks of unoriginal content. The only book that got away with it was Percy Jackson and that too because it was a Middle-Grade novel.
Nobody and nobody looks at the mirror and describes themselves. At least, not in real life. The character describing himself on a mirror or a glass reflection is a staple in poorly written first-person narration. I’m certain there must be subtler ways of describing the character.
4. Love Triangles
We can all thank Stephanie Meyer’s Edward-Bella-Jacob love triangle for all the love triangles that have occupied every single YA novel thereafter. Love Triangles does wonders to elevate the angst, indecision, and tension in the book. But it’s become a sure-fire cliché which irate plenty of modern readers. It’s even worse when it’s evident which of the two guys (or girls) is going to be chosen. It’s always the brooding, pained, rebel without a cause. Always.
For me, three cop-outs are a big no-no when I read a novel. Let’s categorize them into (a) Fainting (b) Dreaming (b) Deus ex Machina.
People do faint from exhaustion or heavy blood loss or whatever. But characters aren’t normal people – they are – but the reason we’re so invested in them as readers are because we root for them, care for them and want to know what happens to them. In first-person narration, the author cops-out big time when the character faints in a critical scene. And yes, post-war is a critical scene. We want to know what happens after the villain is destroyed. Conveniently making the character faint is lazy writing 101.
How to move the plot forward? How to learn the motives of the villain? Oh, I know! Let the protagonist learn it from a dream! See? Lazy Writing.
(c) Deus ex machina:
Deus ex machina is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and seemingly unlikely occurrence, typically so much as to seem contrived. (Wikipedia) This too is a cop-out. There’s tension, the hero is battling with the villain and the hero is losing, he’s about to die, and then the hero realizes that he has powers in his reserves, powers he never knew he had, and those powers help him defeat the villain. End of story. No. Plus, new powers take time to master.
6. Token Characters
You have a black girl who is confident, sassy and a total badass. You have a black girl who’s gay but is like totally comfortable in the 2000s homophobic era. You have a black girl who’s gay and Muslim. Do you get what I’m trying to say? The author makes an effort to include minority groups to create the impression of social inclusiveness and diversity but it more often than not fails. These characters remain in the background and are introduced and disposed of when convenient.
More on Writing and Books
- 7 Things to Avoid When Writing Fiction
Details require a fine balance that few authors have mastered. So keeping that in mind, I’ve listed seven things that I, as a reader, skip while reading a book, and I think a lot of other readers would agree with me.
- 18 Standalone Contemporary Romance Novels Worth Reading
After a few years since I forayed into the romance genre, I have a list of 18 Standalone Contemporary Romance Novels for you.
- 10 Love/Hate Relationship Books Worth Reading
A good love/hate relationship always leads to an exciting build-up – sparks flying, sexual tension, romance - and executed with the right finesses, it creates the most swoon-worthy read.
7. Useless Parents
I am 21 and I still have to rely on my parents. How do sixteen-year-old kids go on to save the world without their parents? How do parents not know when their kids keep disappearing in the middle of the night? Don’t people lock their houses at night? This is insane, ridiculous and serves as a giant plot hole that authors cover-up by stating that the parents are (a) on an extended business trip (b) partying (c) abusive or (d) dead. That’s right. Easier to kill them in the beginning so that the protagonist can keep moping about it for 50 pages.
8. Poor Characterization
Poor characterizations are over overwrought in YA novels. Sometimes, it sounds like the author has never met an actual person. People are complex. They don’t fit in archetypes no matter how much you want them to. The protagonist is brave and courageous. The mentor is wise. The villain is bad. The friend is loyal. The love interest is a brooding rebel without cause. The love interest is a sassy badass.
Damsel in Distress
Kills the dragon before the prince arrives
Introduced by another character
Compares oneself to a relative and describes oneself for the benefit of the reader
An actual triangle where readers root for both guys or girls.
To be sincerely avoided
Give them their own story arch
Parents actually care. Parents stop the protagonist from "saving" the world because parents care about the protagonist.
Observe a few people, jot down their character traits and mix and match a bit.
Comment for Me!
All comments are welcomed.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Priya Barua
Priya Barua (author) on August 03, 2020:
Glad you liked them. These seem like a formula most authors use and they are working!
Uriel Eliane from Toronto on August 03, 2020:
Such an enriching article! Both readers and writers are tired of cliches, but I truly do not know why we keep including them in the narratives. Thanks for pointing out and illustrating the Déjà vu in YA fiction.
Priya Barua (author) on April 23, 2020:
@Andaze, thanks and happy it has helped you. Keep writing!
AndazeAkash on April 22, 2020:
it is something like that I am looking for. You have describe each point very clearly and yes, you had chosen the most important eight points. I found the article very much helpful. Keep sharing.
Priya Barua (author) on January 29, 2020:
Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on January 29, 2020:
Well-written and informative article. I enjoyed reading it.
Priya Barua (author) on January 28, 2020:
@Liz and @John, thanks a ton for commenting.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 28, 2020:
Great work. I found this very interesting and agree with the points you make.
Liz Westwood from UK on January 28, 2020:
This is an interesting perspective on YA language use.