If you handed me a young adult novel and gave me thirty seconds to look at it, I could probably tell you a bit about the cast of characters. There’s a pretty good chance the cast consists of a dark and mysterious guy, an insecure girl, and a vaguely attractive childhood friend.
Not all YA books would be like that, of course, but a majority of them do contain these basic character archetypes. They’re like pages in a coloring book – an outline for the writer to fill in with whatever colors or patterns they see fit. There’s nothing wrong with that, but some of these archetypes have become tropes. In other words, all of the writers are coloring in the picture the exact same way.
These tropes make stories predictable, which gets boring for the audience. But are all tropes really that bad? Can any of them be salvaged? I’ve picked ten of the most common character tropes in YA fiction to try and answer which tropes are really worth saving (and how to save them), and which ones should be tossed aside.
The Bad Boy
The Bad Boy doesn’t talk much, he wears dark clothes, and he has a strained relationship with his dad (if he has parents at all). He seems like a jerk at first, but once you earn his trust though, he’ll tell you all about his tragic backstory and expect you to provide emotional support for the rest of his life.
The Bad Boy has become a staple of YA fiction because for some reason, readers find his jerkish demeanor to be endearing or even attractive. However, they’ve been twisted into characters that are demeaning, rude, and somehow get praised in spite of it. That’s not cool. You can have characters who are awful, but they should reap the consequences of their actions. It’s okay to have a “bad boy” character, but don’t treat them as if they’re exempt from consequences.
The Verdict? SAVE – just don’t give them a free pass on their mistakes
The Strong Female Character
The Strong Female Character (SFC) has approximately 2 emotions: anger and apathy. She has an older brother or male mentor that taught her everything she knows (he’s probably dead now). She looks down on anything remotely feminine.
This trope started out with good intentions (probably). A bunch of writers realized, “Hey, women are pretty cool, they should get some time in the spotlight.” I think that’s great, but many writers have taken this idea too far. Instead of creating unique, fascinating female characters, they’ve limited them to this trope.
There’s nothing wrong with creating a SFC, but they need to go beyond the outline. Maybe she knits in her spare time, or she isn’t emotionally repressed. Strength doesn’t mean she has to be tough all the time, so give her some more depth of character.
The Verdict? SAVE – After all, knitting needles can double as weapons.
The Dead Mentor
The protagonist is just a sixteen-year-old kid, so they need someone else to show them the ropes. This mentor may take the form of a relative (but never a parent), and old hermit, or some mysterious ally. Regardless, once they’ve taught the protagonist everything they know, their days are numbered.
I’ve seen some good characters that fit the mentor archetype (Haymitch Abernathy from The Hunger Games is one of my favorites), but the problem is when they die. Their death rarely fulfills any type of character arc for the character, but is instead used to motivate the protagonist. That is not a good character death.
The Verdict? SCRAP – Keep your mentors, but please stop killing them.
The Evil Popular Girl
Her fingernails are red, she wears high heels that clatter down the school hallway. Her skin is flawless, her eyeliner is sharp, and she’s on the cheerleading team. She’s super popular, and she has a grudge against the female protagonist.
This is yet another trope that limits female characters. Whereas the Strong Female Character is very masculine, the Evil Popular Girl is extremely feminine, and for some reason, that’s a bad thing. The sole purpose of her existence is to make the female protagonist’s life miserable. Honestly, I don’t think there’s any way to make this trope still work.
The Verdict? SCRAP – Why is being “popular” such a bad thing anyway?
The Edgy Antihero
Morally gray and never smiling, the Edgy Antihero has somehow gotten roped into your plot, but they’re probably only in it for themselves. They’re not pure evil like an antagonist, but they’re not exactly heroic either. If you’re in high school, you’ll find them smoking in the parking lot and listening to My Chemical Romance. If you’re in a dystopian, they’re the ones who have no qualms about killing the enemy.
I have seen really good antiheroes, and so it can be done. The edginess has gotten way over the top though, and there’s only so much moral ambiguity I can take. They can provide a great balance to heroic characters, but give them more than just cynicism and skinny jeans. Give the audience a reason to cheer for them.
The Verdict? SAVE – A little bit of redemption never hurt anyone.
The Mary Sue
The Mary Sue has never had a bad hair day once in her life. She’s an expert in everything, from martial arts to computer coding to playing the guitar. She’s never gotten in trouble with a teacher or her parents. In other words, she’s perfect.
The Mary Sue (Gary Stu for male characters) is a trope most commonly seen in fan fiction, and they can do no wrong. Not a single flaw. Other characters either want to be them or date them, but the audience probably hates them.
The Verdict? SCRAP – No one likes reading about unrealistic characters.
The Chosen One
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a prophesy was made that claimed a hero would come and save the world from some tragedy. Years later, this chosen one rises and leads their people to victory over war/disease/oppression/etc.
The Chosen One has existed almost as long as stories have (think King Arthur and the legend of sword in the stone), which makes it a rather predictable trope. However, there is still room for this at the roundtable of plot devices – try turning the idea on its head, make the prophesy misleading, or maybe the chosen one doesn’t want to be the chosen one.
The Verdict? SAVE – Just flip it around until it becomes something new.
The Oblivious Adult
In the rare event that any adults appear in a YA novel, they’re probably completely clueless. They’re very detached from the rest of the young cast and only appear a few times to assign homework or chores. Sometimes, parents will say a few kind but idle words to their child, but that’s about it.
I don’t know if this is an attempt to relate to teenagers (who apparently think they’re completely misunderstood), but it almost never goes over well. I find it very hard to suspend my disbelief when the main character goes out vampire hunting every night and their parents never question it. Adults aren’t stupid.
The Verdict? SCRAP – If I randomly disappeared to go hunt vampires, I’m pretty sure my mom would be up worrying.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl
You’ll find the manic pixie dream girl (MPDG) at your local hipster coffee shop, with her hair colored pink or blue or rainbow and listening to indie music. She speaks in song lyrics and strange, philosophical statements. Her main goal in life is to make the protagonist step out of their comfort zone and do something new and exciting.
Like killing the mentor to motivate the protagonist, the MPDG is another character type that gets sacrificed to further the arc of another. They tend to be female characters, but they can be male characters, too. Either way, these “weird and quirky” characters rarely have any development outside of fulfilling another character’s story, they lack depth, and they’re pretentious.
The Verdict? SCRAP – Make your supporting characters three-dimensional, not a means to an end.
The Mom Friend
The Mom Friend is the character that’s always taking care of the others, whether that means giving out sage advice (in the place of actual parents), baking cookies, or putting band-aids on scrapes. They’re often used as comic relief, especially because they’re overbearing.
This trope is often attached to female characters, especially if she’s the only one in an all-male cast. That doesn’t have to be where it stops though – try experimenting with male characters that fit this trope, or characters who don’t embrace their role as the “mom” of the group (think Steve Harrington from Stranger Things).
The Verdict? SAVE – your characters need someone to take care of them, it just might not be who you think.
Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for – what character trope are you? Are you a bad boy in need of a supportive significant other, or are you the perfect Mary Sue? Take the quiz and share your results in the comments!
(The quiz may take some time to load at first, so just give it a minute)