Clichés in YA: Use Them or Lose Them?
While writing a Young Adult novel I’ve become more and more aware of ideas, themes and types of characters that commonly pop up in YA literature, and noticed how writers, critics and readers alike have come to dislike them, and refer to them as cliché. I’m going to look at how YA authors have approached five different clichés to see if they have found a way to successfully use them.
The Mirror Scene
This is when the protagonist, usually early on in a story, glances in a mirror, allowing a description of their features to be reeled off. Many writers and critics strongly dislike mirror scenes because they allow the writer to describe a character’s appearance in detail using what is perceived as a lazy loophole, but I’ve never quite understood the hatred surrounding this cliché. Looking in the mirror is a natural and routine thing to do. We check our appearance for many reasons, including making sure we look presentable for work, to make a good first impression, to attract a future partner, and to give ourselves confidence. We also turn to the mirror in moments of sadness and self-doubt, because in those moments the bathroom often seems like the best place to hide away, and most bathrooms have mirrors. It’s human nature to check our appearance, and yet writers and critics have a hugely hard time accepting mirror scenes as anything but poor writing.
The reason for this, I believe, is not to do with the use of the mirror, but rather the need for the writer to describe the character’s appearance in detail. As readers we like to project our own ideas onto characters, and so don’t need a full description of all their features. As such, I have come to accept that on the whole mirror scenes should be avoided when possible, with only two exceptions.
1. A character needs to check their reflection to study how their features are changing after ingesting or catching a deadly, appearance-altering virus.
2. The use of the mirror is somehow intricately woven into the plot.
An example of what I find to be an acceptable mirror scene is in Amongst Wolves by R.A Hakok. The bulk of the story is about a boy who survived an apocalypse by hiding inside a mountain bunker with his classmates, a handful of soldiers, and the president of the United States. But every now and then we’re allowed glimpses into the life of a woman who willingly swallows a virus that she’s been told will stop the technical development of a dangerous country. What she’s actually ingested is a virus that turns her into the first of a mutant species that will come to be known as The Furies, triggering the beginning of the end of the world, and explaining the reason why the boy is in the mountain. As we follow small snippets of the last days of this woman, we see her look in the mirror on several necessary occasions to check her degenerating appearance as the effects of the drug take hold.
Another example of what I believe to be an acceptable mirror scene, and evidently a successful one, is in the opening paragraph of Divergent by Veronica Roth. The female protagonist is trying not to check her appearance in a mirror while her mother cuts her hair. We discover she is part of a segregated community which believes vanity is a sin. Therefore they have only one mirror in their house which comes out on the second day of every third month, for haircuts. The use of the mirror, as well as giving us a few small details of the protagonist’s appearance, is a perfectly executed tool to give the reader a clear insight into her restricted way of life, and the play on the cliché is in itself rather impressive.
The Missing Parent
This cliché refers mainly to the parents of the protagonist, but any characters in your work can fall into it, even the villain. Whether the parents of the character are deceased, in prison, unknown, abusive, distant, mentally unstable, alcoholic—the list goes on—they just have to be anything but the ‘happy family of mummy, daddy and two-point-four kids’ image. I have a hard time understanding why this has been labelled a cliché. When a writer describes the sky as cloudy it isn’t labelled as cliché, even though it can sometimes be blue or sunny or black with thunder; clouds are the normality for the bulk of the weather, and so is the growing normality of the missing parent. When I was at secondary school only one girl in my circle of friends still lived with both her biological parents, and this was sadly the abnormality. She was the odd one out, not us with our single parents or step-parents and holidays split between forever bickering mothers and fathers. In my opinion, the missing parent cliché cannot be overdone, and shouldn’t be labelled cliché, because they are a reality.
However, when using this, it shouldn’t just be thrown into the story. It shouldn’t be fuel added to the characters fire merely to give an excuse for their actions, determination or defect. It should be intricately woven into the story, and explain some of the character’s personality traits, not just give them excuses for their misgivings.
Suzanne Collins’ protagonist Katniss Everdeen was used to taking care of herself, hunting game and foraging, because after her father died she had to take care of her younger sister and distraught mother, or they would have starved to death. This experience gave her the independence and survival skills she needed to endure the Hunger Games.
In We Were Liars by E.Lockhart, Cadence’s father leaves her and her mother in the first few pages of the book. We take a journey back through Cadence’s memories of her summers spent on a private island with her affluent family and soon learn of their vanity and greed, and the family pressure which caused her father to leave. We gradually uncover just how much of a deadly impact her stiff and rigid upbringing has had on her, and the reason why her memory will not allow her to fully access the tragic events of the summer when she and her cousins turned fifteen. The repercussions of her image conscious family and broken parents are the whole reason for the plot of the book, not just thrown in for character depth. Entwine your characters in their upbringing by making their experiences relatable and their lack of fully functioning parents integral to the plot.
The Plain Jane
This cliché refers to the common use of the lead female protagonist being described as plain, dull or ordinary, allowing the reader to believe that it is possible for any girl, not just the popular, beautiful ones, to save the world and get the guy. The truth is, the plainer the girl, the easier it is for a reader to insert themselves into the role. Relatability is easier to achieve with a blank canvas, but a balance must be maintained to prevent you writing a mere shell of a character with no defining traits whatsoever.
I have to admit that when reading a novel it’s a huge plus for me to be able to escape into the life of the main character, just for a little while. But even if they are different to me—as any well-written character should be—I still need to be able to empathise with them. When I read The Woodlands by Lauren Nicolle Taylor and saw the detailed description on the female protagonist I realised straight away that I was nothing like her, and I have to admit I was a little disappointed as I struggled to relate to her. I knew that as I read the story, no matter how good it was, I would be reading about someone else rather than imaging myself in the leading role. However, writing your lead character as a vacuum to be filled by the reader is something to also be avoided. To overcome this cliché, and both pitfalls, I would say there are two options.
1. You can go with the ‘less is more’ approach and describe them minimally, allowing how other characters relate to them to determine their looks or ‘plainness’ whilst ensuring they have a defined character that the reader can empathise with.
2. Go the other way, the much more challenging way, and write them beautiful. A novel which brazenly goes against the Plain Jane cliché is Eve by Anna Carey, because the lead female protagonist, Eve, is beautiful. When I read her describing herself as such, it made it harder for me to picture myself in the lead role, but the character is very relatable, and her fortunate looks prove to be very unfortunate in her dystopian reality.
The Minority Character
Whether it’s the sexual orientation of the character or their ethnic origin, characters from minority groups often seem to be added to YA novels to tick a box and broaden the range of the reader. In Insurgent by Veronica Roth there is a background character called Lynn who, on top of her usual brooding self, becomes even more moody when her friend Marlene and a guy called Uriah get together. Only after Marlene’s death, and when Lynn is dying herself, does she confess to Uriah her love of Marlene.
On the whole I enjoyed reading Insurgent, but this small moment where Lynn reveals her love for Marlene felt very thrown in and cliché. It wasn’t relevant to the plot. It didn’t change it. It existed in such a small way that it needn’t have existed at all.
If one of your characters can be placed in a minority group then avoid the cliché by doing it because it is who they are, not just because you want to tick a box. Don’t just throw in some diversity for the sake of it. Let your characters be free, be themselves. Whatever race or gender or sexuality they are, let them be it, but don’t let it define them. Make them real. Diversity is part of who we are, not who we are. And always remember to ensure you don’t discriminate against your minority characters by only giving them a few lines of dialogue or cropping up in one scene. Make them speak and interact with other characters more than on just a few occasions. Make them impact the plot.
The Maze Runner by James Dashner is a novel that I feel does this well. At the start of the story the protagonist wakes to find himself surrounded by teenage boys. He has no idea who he is, where he is, or how he got there. Many of the boys around him are from different ethnic origins, but they aren’t hovering in the background to tick a box, they become the main characters of the book. They impact the plot. They have worth as characters, rather than merely being used to fill a minority.
Sun-Kissed Mean Girls
This is one I’ve noticed has been criticised a lot recently. Critics and readers want to know why the bitchy, popular white girls in teen books are golden-tanned instead of their true skin colour. In my writerly and life experience, mean girls should be one of two things: bullies who are strong and tough enough to handle themselves, tan or no tan, and therefore able to be mean because they are at no physical risk of retaliation; or popular and pretty girls, usually favouring plenty of cosmetic products, and always tanned, whether natural or faked. Drawing from my own memory, the girls who had the most confidence and the capacity to be mean and get away with it at school were pretty, slim, and tanned.
Tanned skin, not full on bronzed but golden and glowing, is a sign of a healthy outdoorsy life. Pale skin, no matter what the lessened risk of cancer may be, isn’t perceived as attractive as it shows the person doesn’t get out in the sun as often, and are therefore considered, however wrongfully, to not be as outgoing. I am not saying that in real life all mean girls are tanned, or all tanned girls are mean; that would be like saying all girls who care about their appearance and wear nail varnish and make-up are mean, which is just not the case. But stereotypically, mean girls are image conscious, and they are usually tanned, because tanned skin is deemed to be more attractive.
A few years ago a small online experiment was conducted to determine the truth behind whether tanned skin is in fact deemed to be more attractive than fair skin. The photos of forty-five woman were uploaded to a site called ‘Hot or Not’ where users rate people on their attractiveness from one to ten. The original photos were then doctored, giving the forty five women golden tans, before they too were uploaded to the site. The results found that the tanned versions of the women were twice as likely to be rated higher in attractiveness then their original, paler selves.
However, back in the days when the poor had hard, outdoorsy farm jobs and the rich were able to stay indoors, pale skin was favoured, as it was a sign of wealth. Take into account the circumstances of your characters, and what may be portrayed as healthy and wealthy for them in the world you have created. If you want to show a divide between your protagonist and the character(s) who are mean to them, but would rather avoid the ‘mean girls are sun-kissed’ cliché, then find a new angle. Not all mean characters are rich. It could be the few wealthy characters in your story who get picked on by the others who are poor. It could be a divide completely unrelated to money. But whatever difference you decide upon, back it up with reason so that it’s believable for the reader.
I hope this essay highlights some helpful clichés for new YA writers, and shows how you really don’t need to avoid themes and characters that have come to be labelled as cliché, but instead use them in a creative, plot integral, non-cliché way.
© 2016 Rebecca Delphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.