Name some paranormal young adult fiction cliches so I can avoid doing it
August 22, 2013 8:26 PM   Subscribe

Please name some Paranormal Young Adult fiction tropes and cliches (obvious or obscure) so I can avoid doing them myself in the book I am writing. Thanks!

The YA section in my local Chapters is gigantic. I've read a bunch of them, but I can't read everything. I have noticed however a preponderance of vampires, werewolves, fallen angels, dark dangerous dudes who seem menacing but who secretly care, utopias with secrets, dystopias with secrets, and otherwise average heroes with special destinies, mentioned in ancient prophecies, about to save the world. And while I like the genre, and hope one day to be a contender, I would like to avoid the more glaring overdone plot devices, character tropes and tropes. Can you help? Thanks!
posted by Sully to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
It's my pleasure to introduce you to "", which has long since transcended mere television in scope.

For instance: Horror Tropes
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:31 PM on August 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

For what it's worth, I've been hearing agents say that paranormal stuff is starting to feel played out. (What's on the bookshelves now was acquired about 18 months - 2 years ago). Which is not to say that you can't write an awesome paranormal YA book -- Holly Black has a new vampire book coming out this fall -- but it's something to think about.

Mermaids are starting to creep up there with vampires, werewolves, and fallen angels on the "hey, we've seen a lot of these lately" list.

Things I have seen too often but will never be able to get away from:

Love triangles. Girls who think themselves to be utterly average and ordinary. Especially when they are both beautiful and supernaturally gifted.

Cliches that I would think carefully before using:

Girls who have some power relating to death-knowledge. (If you can touch someone and tell when they're going to die; if you can touch a dead thing and know the circumstances of its death; etc.) Girls who have secret supernatural powers that they can't tell anyone about. Girls whose supernatural power just happens to be super-compatible with the supernatural power of the boy they like.

(Have you read Laini Taylor's series that starts with Daughter of Smoke and Bone? Essential for paranormal that embraces a lot of the cliches and transcends a bunch of them at the same time.)
posted by Jeanne at 8:41 PM on August 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

It's important to keep in mind that a trope isn't a cliche.

It's totally OK to use common situations, narratives, storypoints, etc. in your work. In fact, if it's too far out, it won't resonate with people at all.

Example: writing a YA novel that is a utopia or dystopia with a secret is perfectly OK. But it's important to recognize that you're not the first person ever to come up with that idea. And you're going to want the utopia/dystopia to be REALLY interesting in a way people haven't seen before, and the secret better be a BIG secret that won't be obvious to your audience, who you should assume has read The Giver.

It's also very true that there's a fine line between trope, cliche, and MARKET. While zombie stories are a perfectly OK trope to explore, too many people have been doing that lately, and the market isn't there anymore. If you want to write a zombie story, that's perfectly OK. If you want to sell a zombie story, that's a different question.
posted by Sara C. at 8:48 PM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Girls who think themselves to be utterly average and ordinary. Especially when they are both beautiful and supernaturally gifted.

FWIW this goes all the way back to Jo March and Anne Shirley, and is unlikely to go away pretty much ever.

This is a classic example of a trope that can be a cliche, and which you should be aware of, but which shouldn't be discounted just because it's been done before. Because "ordinary" girls who turn out to be incredibly gifted/beautiful/desirable/important is how the sausage is made, in YA lit.
posted by Sara C. at 8:51 PM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's important to keep in mind that a trope isn't a cliche.

It's totally OK to use common situations, narratives, storypoints, etc. in your work. In fact, if it's too far out, it won't resonate with people at all.

Exactly. If you're going to use TVTropes as a list of things to avoid, you might end up with some brilliantly esoteric piece of abstract anti-literature, but you sure as hell won't have a marketable YA novel.

Tropes Are Not Bad...

Tropes Are Tools
posted by Rhaomi at 9:03 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sara is right. Reading the TVTropes site can be really discouraging for a new author, who can find themself asking, "has everything already been done?"

The answer is "yes" but that doesn't mean you should give up writing. Tropes aren't necessarily a bad thing, as long as you're careful about using them. The problem is that they can become a crutch for lazy or uninspired writers, and that's when they become pathological.

However, there do exist tropes that you should treat like kryptonite. Study Mary Sue in all her forms and incarnations, and then shun her in your writing! If she creeps into your story, shoot her! For she shall surely ruin it if allowed.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:04 PM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

All this is a very good (and yes, there is no reinventing the wheel!) but you know what is PLAYED OUT is "girl torn between two boys." The big three--Divergent; Twilight; Mockingjay--all have it pretty heavily and it is T I R E D. (Though Divergent does it best? I think?)

That being said, there's a reason it exists. You gotta fill up the pages between action somehow.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:10 PM on August 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Keep in mind that if you write YA fiction, nearly any female protagonist (average girl, exceptional girl, deeply flawed girl, perfect girl) is liable to get labeled a Mary Sue. Seriously, it's almost inescapble, in my experience. I'd focus on creating a teenage girl who is realistic and has a strong voice and resonates with you, and not worry too much about whether she's a Mary Sue or not.

That being said, one of the largest and most problematic cliches of YA paranormal romance is the much older and wiser love interest who tends to treat the female protagonist like she's some variation of an idiot (a damsel who must be protected, a hopeless klutz). The power differential is often skewed in favor of the male partner, so some variation of this--capable heroine, inexperienced dude--is always refreshing.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:13 PM on August 22, 2013 [12 favorites]

Please, by all the gods above and below, avoid having your female teenaged heroine have a superpower that only comes into being after she has sex the first time. Having her powers onset at puberty is a trope, possibly even a cliche, but you can argue in favor of it; having them appear only after she experiences an arbitrary amount of physical intimacy is groan-inducing.
posted by KathrynT at 9:41 PM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Screw it. Write what you want. If it fascinates you, it likely fascinates someone else, too.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:03 PM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Regular human in love with supernatural being. If you can avoid that one, awesome.
posted by amtho at 10:21 PM on August 22, 2013

you know what is PLAYED OUT is "girl torn between two boys."

Not only that, it's torn between the same two guys: the Stalwart Friend who represents security/childhood, and the Mysterious Stranger who represents adventure/adulthood; she always chooses the Mysterious Stranger in the end. (The Hunger Games trilogy played with the dynamic a bit by making the Stalwart Friend be the one who was more abrasive and brooding and having the Mysterious Stranger be more warm-and-fuzzy, but it still played out many of the same beats.)
posted by kagredon at 10:32 PM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

The world can do without another magical/supernatural hybrid child that grows up much faster than a human child (rapid aging stops as teenager) and is the savior of mankind/relevant species.
posted by MinusCelsius at 1:27 AM on August 23, 2013

Not only that, it's torn between the same two guys: the Stalwart Friend who represents security/childhood, and the Mysterious Stranger who represents adventure/adulthood; she always chooses the Mysterious Stranger in the end.

In other words, a genderswapped Betty and Veronica dilemma.
posted by sukeban at 2:49 AM on August 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Paranormal YA is a broad category. If you're only looking at the books that are face-out at your local chain store, you're only seeing lead titles.

Those are the books with the most commercial potential, the highest of concepts, and the broadest of appeals. They're going to feature the exact same tropes and cliches that any popular fiction does because storytelling is storytelling. (Epic of Gilgamesh: the chosen one meets his soulmate; they civilize and enoble each other. Twilight: the chosen one meets her soulmate; they civilize and enoble each other.)

If you're not looking to write broad-appeal, high-concept commercial fiction, then you've straight-up read the wrong books. If you are looking to write books that end up face-out at your local chains, then I suggest you read more of them and learn how to put your own twist on those tropes and cliches because that's what sells.

As a paranormal YA author, I can tell you that the market is contracting. For four or five years, paranormal was the shiznit and there's a glut of it on the market. Hunger Games shifted people to SF and dystopia, but as of last year, editors were tiring of that as well. Mermaids haven't panned out the way they were supposed to. Zombies had a very short-lived (ha) run.

Everybody swore contemporary was coming back in a big way, but it looks like that might have just been a bubble inflated when John Green's THE FAULT IN OUR STARS did so well. [PS, don't try to sell a cancer novel right now.] There's a weird void at the moment, while all the publishers scramble to figure out what the next big thing is.

So my advice to you is to read more widely. Go to the library. Pick up the books with the fantastically ugly covers that never got a marketing push. Then, sit down and do you when you write your book. Mean the hell out of whatever you write, because sincerity sells, especially in YA.

A Very Short Curated Reading List of Paranormal YA (Mostly Midlist Edition):

Bad Taste in Boys by Carrie Harris
Blackwood by Gwenda Bond
Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood
Kill Me Softly by Sarah Cross
Misfit by Jon Skovron
This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers
Tighter by Adele Griffin
Torn by Erica O'Rourke
Transcendence by CJ Omololu
Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce
The Replacements by Brenna Yovanoff
The Revenant by Sonia Gensler
Witch Eyes by Scott Tracey
posted by headspace at 5:39 AM on August 23, 2013 [8 favorites]

I am an avid reader of this genre and my main annoyance in all genres is for us to be told how unique/quirky the main character is, like the literary version of the manic pixie dream girl. She is always artistic. She never has two live parents. She always has a male BFF or no friends to start with and her first is the male romantic lead. Most adults are clueless or only act as guides. I doesn't ruin a story for me, but it can be hard to get past.

I loved Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, however the opening nearly turned me off because it was all about the main character's gothy, annoying ex and then went into her drawing class with an artsy, kooky friend. It got way better. Most YA fantasy these days starts with a regular character that discovers the secret world that exists within our own. Plenty of regular fantasy never touches our world at all. If you can somehow twist this concept of our world vs theirs to break out of those patterns, it would be good. Taylor's series has two very separate worlds with some overlap, but it works well in my opinion.
posted by soelo at 8:24 AM on August 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

The thing that drives me up the wall in fantasy fiction (not just YA) is the species or race or organization or individual whose sole apparent reason for existing is to help the main character reach the next stage of their Quest. Like they've all just been sitting around in the Cave of Mystery for generations waiting for the day that they can hand off their plot token to the hero spoken of in prophecy.

(Related Things That Drive Me Up Walls: plot tokens (collect 'em all!) and prophecies that go figure turn out to be about the main character)

An example of how to do this both well and badly is the centaurs in Harry Potter. In the book you get all sorts of hints and details about centaur society; without dwelling on it so much that it becomes distracting you get to see that they have goals and disagreements and desires that are unrelated to Harry Potter or his quest. When Chris Columbus got his hands on the story, all that had been reduced to "Hello, Harry Pottter! I, a centaur, have been sitting here all this time in the forbidden forest waiting for you, so that I can give you this vital clue and a nice rousing speech! Now go on your way, Harry Potter! We're all rooting for you!"
posted by ook at 8:48 AM on August 23, 2013

My top pet peeve in recent YA in general is when authors use emotional trauma as a substitute for character development. This isn't exclusively a YA thing, but for instance Twilight and the Hunger Games were both full of it.

It's tricky, because trauma, catharsis, guilt and expiation, etc. are all a big part of the genre. But when the protagonist only develops by accumulating more traumatic memories to trigger, more burdensome guilt to atone for, etc. etc. etc., that shit gets unsatisfying pretty fast. (For instance, I think a lot of the shit that people found unsatisfying in Mockingjay could have been avoided if Katniss and Peeta had been allowed to genuinely grow up a bit instead of just drilling down deeper into pathological guilt-fueled self-sacrificing despair and then emerging miraculously sane in the umpteen-years-later epilogue.)

At a certain point you need to either go full-on Greek Tragedy and kill your victims characters off (and I don't think this is completely out of the question — SPOILER ALERT makes it work stunningly well) or ease up and let them heal and recover.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 10:08 AM on August 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

In the protagonist's society, inscrutable and irreproachable authorities sort everyone into a role/job/guild/caste, either at birth or at coming of age. These divisions are considered so absolute that they usually receive Capitalized Names: "Receiver of Memory," "Gryffindor," "District 12," "Uglies," "Dauntless." So irreproachable are the authorities, so absolute the divisions, that no one can possibly imagine (much less dare to bring about) any other way of life.

No one, that is, except for a certain misunderstood adolescent with a defiant streak...

(This is also more of a trope than a cliche, though it's grown rather careworn of late. When used with care, it's a fine way to connect with kids who are (a) staring down the barrel of college selection and (b) just coming to grips with the existence of class and privilege and their own place within the scheme.

When used carelessly, it's a fine way to inflate your subtext into supertext and spray your misconceived notions of class, race, and gender into your unoffending readers' eyes.)
posted by Iridic at 1:14 PM on August 23, 2013

Nth-ing lovetriangles. Another thing is it don't have to be a trilogy just because it's paranormal YA. Ok, it's "yey more books!!!", but it's become more of a trope since the Hungergames-series.
posted by Tawny Owl at 2:41 PM on August 23, 2013

What I really like and think is written far too rarely is when the main character isn't surrounded solely by suitors or enemies. So *SPOILER-ISH* in Terry Pratchett's YA Tiffany Aching series, a potential romantic interest/good guy for her ends up happily dating someone else and Tiffany gets to feel and work through jealousy/assorted emotions.
posted by vegartanipla at 3:50 PM on August 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

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