7 YA Fantasy Tropes That Need to Stop

If you read enough YA sci-fi/fantasy, you’ll eventually start noticing some trends and common themes. A lot of times they’re harmless, but there are a few tropes that just have become so repetitive that my eyes have gotten tired from rolling. See if your favorite novels are guilty of any of these (I know a few of mine are).

1. The Prophecy

I’ve become so sick of this one that if the summary even hints at a prophecy, I drop the book like it’s diseased. The most notorious author for doing this is Rick Riordan. Basically what happens is at the beginning of the book, there’s this Big Prophecy that the main character alone can fulfill. My problem isn’t with the prophecy itself (okay, it kind of is), but with the fact that the prophecy is the only thing that drives the protagonist. They should be motivated by more than a few cheesy rhyming verses, which if failed to act upon will result the destruction of everything we know. Which leads to the second point…

2. Let’s go save the world…again

Conflicts in YA novels have become over-the-top. The main character doesn’t have to solve a problem that just pertains to them and their community; no, if the conflict isn’t solved, the entire world is going to be enslaved or destroyed. Therefore, if they’re a decent human being, they have no choice but to act.

Let’s think realistically for a moment. What things in our world will completely destroy the earth if one person is an honest coward or simply makes a mistake? Nuclear weapons. Possibly an engineered plague. And that’s about it.

3. Absent-parent syndrome

Young adult novels feature teenagers doing ridiculously stupid stuff that no decent parent would actually allow. This poses a problem for authors because, well, the world is going to end and their character alone can save it! So what happens? The parents die within the first few chapters, if they haven’t already died before the novel even begins. Being the parent of a character in a YA novel is a very dangerous job.

4. Super Special Powers

Every single character has something special about them that no one else has, and that’s the reason why they–and they alone–can save the world. Harry Potter has a love spell that repels Voldemort’s curses. Katniss Everdeen can shoot an arrow better than anyone else (and not give a @#&$ what anyone thinks). Percy Jackson is Poseidon’s son. The Midnighters have en extra hour of the day, during which they have super powers (which they use to save the world). That’s all fine and dandy, but what’s also cool is reading about every day ordinary people, who aren’t royalty, who aren’t part of a prophecy, and who don’t have special powers–people just like you and me who change the world. You don’t have to be a prince or a wizard to make a difference.

5. Dreams

Before you open the first page of a novel, the characters have had years of prior experience. The author has to somehow convey this history to us without info dumping. One thing I’ve noticed in YA novels lately is dream memories. The character falls asleep and we the readers become privy to their dreams, which conveniently are the exact recollection of their memories.

Are your dreams perfect memories? Because mine certainly aren’t. My dreams are weird and crazy, changing and flowing from one odd scene to the next. Dreams should reveal the deepest fears and desires of the character. They could contain snippets of real memories (as dreams often do), not a perfect play-by-play memory. Using memory-dreams a cheap trick to give us back story.

6. Secrets identities

Secret identities are a lot of fun, and I’ll admit that I’m most forgiving of this trope than any other. Most YA novels either have some kind of secret that only a few people know about, whether it’s a secret society (Harry Potter) or a secret identity (Song of the Lioness) . I think the appeal of the secret society/identity is that it makes us feel like we’re a part of this select group of people who are in the know. While it’s a lot of fun, it happens a lot, and I would really enjoy reading a series where everything is out in the open.

7. Series

I’m not sure this one really counts as a “trope,” but since we’re talking about things in the YA lit world that needs to stop, I figured it needed mentioning. I’m a little sick of series. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about that wonderfully awful anticipation for the release of the next book, but it would be extremely refreshing to read a stand alone YA novel every now and then.

(EDIT: @stillrecruiting pointed out that these tropes are unique to YA fantasy, so the post has been updated to reflect that fact.)

12 thoughts on “7 YA Fantasy Tropes That Need to Stop

  1. (Does quick count of personal failings on this score. Feels a bit guilty)

    On the one hand, I agree. I have a dreadful orphan problem. On the other, doesn’t everything become a worn-out cliché if it’s done badly? I mean, think about a Ken Loach movie made by anyone other than Ken Loach…

    There are more pernicious tropes, though – being stunningly good looking but not realising it, for example, being one i particularly hate.

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    1. I tend to be guilty of the royalty/special powers one when I write. Great point about the not realising they’re good looking one! I’ll add it to my paranormal romance trope list.

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  2. Haha, I was about to recommend a series to you that was interesting to me. Mainly because it didn’t fit under the majority of the criteria… except that it’s a) a series, and b) fulfilling at least the “special-er” than thou concept except for the fact that it’s some guy that knows a girl that is special-er than thou. I can recommend you some ordinary life YA books. I have a bunch of them. and Princess Diaries isn’t counted on that list. 😉 Either way, I am recommending Everworld. I think you’d get a kick out of a “World for the gods.”

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  3. I strongly dislike prophecies as well. I grant that there is small possibility of utilizing a prophecy well, but most authors are not nearly as cryptic as they thing they are–and thus the entire plot of the rest of their series is given away in a few sentence. Also, as mentioned, it’s hard to work with the whole prophecy vs. character agency thing.

    I think the saving the world thing is just common of genres like fantasy and science fiction. There’s a quote (by Tolkien? or Lewis?) about how no one is going to read something where the conflict is locating a lost button. Authors want their plots to matter, and the default thought is that the fate of the world is pretty important. But, yeah, there is room to explore in saving a small kingdom. perhaps, or even just one lost person.

    Parents are also just commonly problematic, even more so in middle grade. How does one do awesomely cool things if there are parents around to tell you it’s dangerous or that there might actually be professionals to handle some of your problems?

    I understand why publishers like series–they’re more profitable and it’s easier to market sequels than a bunch of standalones. But, yes, I am now in the middle of reading so many series that things are out of control. And the fact that I won’t be able to finish some of them until three years have passed? Ugh.

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    1. You know, I never really thought about it, but The Lord of the Rings is essentially about Frodo saving the world and it never bothered me. I supposed because, well it’s not as if Middle Earth is going to explode or something. It’s really more about good vs. evil, the way I see it at least, rather than Middle Earth as we know and love it ending, though that was an eminent possibility. Hmm… Now I’m thinking about the differences :p

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  4. I’m super late because I happened to find this via another blog post which was written as a rebuttle. But I immediately stopped and checked this out instead and it’s so true and refreshing to find someone who feels the same way.

    Yes and yes again, these tropes are done over and over. Like you I immediately turned off by anything that deals with prophecy and saving a world or worlds. A lot of people I know are hyped for the Mortal Instruments movie coming. But every time I see the movie trailer, I think “this is the same thing we’ve seen over and over again.”

    But, in their defense, I think super special powers is fine as long as their are other characters with super special powers equal or greater to the main characters’. Last take Harry Potter for example. Most people want to read about the special boy wizard, rather than just any wizard. Protags who are too ordinary aren’t as entertaining. Most of the time.

    And someone else has already pointed out that a series is more profitable for the publisher. And for the author. These won’t be going away anytime soon.

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    1. HI! Thank you for your comment (and sorry that it’s taken me so long to respond).

      I agree that super special powers are okay as long as everyone else has some kind of super special power. And you’re right about series, though I have found a few lately that are single books. It’s definitely more profitable to publishers, and therefore not going anywhere. (A lot of my favorite books are series, so I can’t complaint too much!)

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