Why Tropes in YA are OK

Thematic tropes in Young Adult literature are always under scrutiny, but Rebecca Delphine argues that they can be completely acceptable.

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© 2011 Flash Totty / Used With Permission

First off, I need to be clear I’m not talking of the overdone clichés in literature such as mirror scenes, token minority characters or missing parents—although I do believe that these clichés can still be executed well, if used in a way that makes them integral to the plot, but that’s another essay. Right now I’m going to look at theme tropes in Young Adult literature and explain why I believe their repetition to be excusable and often unavoidable.

My initial encounter with the term ‘trope’ came when I took the first draft of my novel to my local writing group. I was told my story fell into the ‘chosen one’ trope, and I was mortified. I was worried that all the time I’d spent on my novel was entirely pointless.

I researched the word ‘trope’ and discovered that although it has many meanings, the most popular current use is to describe a reoccurring theme within a genre, such as ‘the chosen one’ trope in Young Adult literature.

I also noticed how many writers and critics see tropes as unoriginal, lazy writing.

I don’t agree, and not solely because my novel’s ticking one of the biggest trope boxes.

Let’s think about the target age range of Young Adult fiction. It may be true that more and more adults are learning to love YA, but the true target age of its reader is around 12 to 17 years old. Therefore, every six years or so the pool of the main YA reader is completely refreshed, with new and eager teenagers ready to fill their minds with the next bestselling books they believe to be unique and original.

This isn’t my whole argument on why I believe tropes in YA to be perfectly acceptable, and I find the best way to express my opinion is to have a peek into the world of fashion. Take the bomber jacket for example, the staple jacket of this Spring/Summer season. Is it a new invention? Of course not, it was invented during the First World War as a snug, weatherproof jacket for pilots to wear, and has been successfully reoccurring in fashion trends ever since the 60s. This year saw it in silk with oriental florals and in tencel denim with biker patches and in camouflage print and in metallic nylon and in pastel suedette and in sporty mesh—I’ll stop here since I think I’ve made my point, which is: if it works, and it’s still working, it would be fairly futile to ignore a wonderful idea just because it falls under a particular theme, or ‘trope’. If you have a story you want to write then go for it, without worrying about tropes. But as with the trusted bomber jacket, pull it together differently from what’s gone before.

An example of how YA tropes successfully repeat themselves is clear when you compare the cult classic film Battle Royale to the first Hunger Games Book. The Japanese film was adapted from a novel by Koushun Takami and featured a class of teenage school children who were forced to fight to the death on a remote island, as an example to all Japanese teens whose disrespect their elders. The film was massive in the UK and I remember how when I was a teenager everyone at my school had seen it, regardless of its viewing age restriction.

Eight years later come the release of the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy. Although the author Suzanne Collins has said she came up with the idea while sleepily switching between the news and reality TV, her book has arguably an endless list of similarities to Battle Royale. I don’t point this out to be negative. On the contrary, I’m extremely thankful for the existence of the Hunger Games trilogy because I absolutely loved reading it. Suzanne Collins, whether knowingly or by accident, has put her own unique twist and complex backstory to a novel that sits pretty in what I like to call the ‘Teens fight to the death’ trope.

And because of this, in the next decade or so when some other lucky author has a success in the same trope box, I know it’s likely I will thoroughly enjoy it.

It’s the same with most other YA books I have read; if I hadn’t had enjoyed reading Eve by Anna Carey so much I wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to read Joe Hart’s incredible novel The Last Girl. I might not have so keenly reached for Stephanie Meyer’s The Host in my local bookstore if I didn’t know I already enjoyed the ‘alien love trope’ from reading Roswell High by Melinda Metz.

Tropes help readers understand the sort of themes they enjoy the most, and therefore help them find enjoyable reads quicker. No-one enjoys a book and then refuses to read anything else from that trope again. They actively seek it out.

I’m not suggesting that all YA releases should fit into tropes, or discouraging wonderfully original writing, but I am asking that if a book does fall into an obvious trope, such as vampire romance, as many great ones do, then please, instead of straight off dismissing it, give it a read for the clever and unique twists the author will give to a frequently used theme.

So, despite their negative connotations, I believe tropes in young adult literature to be thought-provoking, helpful and often unavoidable. Their existence is proof of their success. People wouldn’t keep writing decade after decade about vampires and werewolves, lost princesses and hidden magical powers, elves and trolls, dystopian futures and community segregation, if readers didn’t get such a kick out of reading it.

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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