YA Cliches And Checkboxes

Specfaith has an article where Rebecca Luella Miller wonders about good writing and Divergent. My reply wound up growing into a full post, so I’ll put it here.

Basically, Divergent didn’t need good writing. What it needed to do was check off the boxes that made up the stereotypical YA female-oriented novel. If it filled that template, it worked in spite of its writing for enough people to buy it. What template? Here’s an extended list.

Elements of a YA girl-oriented novel.

1. You need a heroine sixteen years old or older.You can’t have a fourteen year old, because then what happens in step two becomes skeevy and possibly offensive to your audience unless you are very accurate in how those types of relationships progress.

2. You need a hawt boy love interest. Or two. Age doesn’t seem to matter as much; Dmitri in Vampire Academy is twenty-five years old and the instructor of Rosemarie at age 17. This is why YA books don’t have heroines under sixteen much; its easier just to put the heroine at 17-18 and make her enter into relationships like an adult rather than deal with how younger teens have romance. And of course, you can tease sex scenes for the older teens in books; Rosemarie again has a rather intense sexual history I think. Not that this is entirely unrealistic, but part of the crossover appeal for adults is an adult in a teen body. Peak of intelligence, peak of attractiveness.

3. The girl must have a special, often undefined ability.  Divergent in particular is a hilariously bad example of this. You’d be hard pressed to discover what being Divergent means in any real way. Sometimes the ability is just being liked a lot. In other words, she’s NEVER an ordinary girl just in the wrong place at the wrong time. She’s the only special snowflake with the power to solve the plot. This ties in with point four below.

4. She’s unrealistically empowered. This is tricky.

I believe that women can equal men in the terms of an action-adventure plot, but it has to be realistically aimed through technology. Like in Divergent; if the Dauntless faction used guns, or powered armor, or psychic abilities, yeah no problem. But a lot of YA novels have the girl do blatantly unrealistic things in terms of female physiology and mentality.

Divergent again. Any faction that focused on physical ability and courage would not be egalitarian. Only the exceptional woman can match the average man in terms of physical prowess; biology simply is too different for men and women to be interchangeable. Again, while women can easily match men in arenas where technology levels the playing field, or its more intellect and reflexes than raw physical capability, they can’t be just as good as the man in terms of raw physical strength.

This is just one aspect though. You can also have unrealistic general empowerment, in which the woman has absurd abilities for her position in life. Usually good or even average novels disguise this with what TVTropes calls “the training from hell,” but its rare to see a woman in a YA novel realize she’s inadequate, or that she can’t go toe-to-toe with the bad guy; she has to use brains, guile, allies, or even luck.

5. She can disrupt or destabilize her entire society in a good way. 

Tied in with the point above. A good way to show this is by a counter-example.

In the short story “A Bowl of Biskies Makes A Growing Boy,” a young chemistry-minded teen experiments on his food and suddenly discovers that the government has laced just about every bit of food with mind-altering chemicals. He goes to the health store to eat, while suffering through serious drug withdrawals as his system purges the drug.

If this were a typical YA novel, he would immediately start to fight against his corrupt society and he’d bring the government down by book three.

Instead, in an absolutely horrifying twist, he doesn’t. The government runs the health food stores too, and uses it to determine who has discovered the secret. He is captures and put into a room with a group of other intelligent teens, who suddenly find out their intelligence is being destroyed by the radiation seeping through the room. The government knows how to deal with dissenters, you see.

The story is so compelling because it isn’t an easy out. It’s HARD to change society, yet in every YA book it seems like the prevailing social structure is just waiting for a random teen to be born or show up to topple it.

6. She must be better than the boy. Boys may not be main characters, ever.

I think the best example of this is in Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan. You’ve got Alek, a member of a noble class, who plays second fiddle to Deryn. It grates because it’s ridiculously unrealistic; while Deryn can be competent and empowered, she’s literally better than the member of a country’s nobility. You can also see this in the Hunger Games; Katniss is always better than Peeta, who acts almost like a girl at times.

And we must never have boys as main characters. It’s not like teenage girls could be served well by understanding their thoughts or anything. Boys must only be accessories, love interests, or villains.

Yes, I know, women suffered this too. But in YA fiction its done to rather absurd levels.

7. She must also be hawt.

What’s odd about this is that for all the talk of unrealistic body images, you could find no worse offender than most YA fiction aimed to girls. I think the movie of A Fault in Our Stars is probably the most hilarious example of this. She’s wrestling with cancer for God’s sake, yet she’s a slender model. You rarely see a girl who is unattractive; who is skinny and boyish, or is overweight, or has a bad face, or blotched skin.

8. Boys must madly fall in love with her.

The only way a YA heroine fails to get a boy in the end is if her love interest dies.

And she must ALWAYS have a love interest. A Fault In Our Stars again-John Green honestly can’t write for shit in this regard. Augustus literally falls into Hazel’s lap despite the fact that she is suffering from a form of cancer that should make even the basic activities of life impossible (like sex; she’s hooked up to oxygen ffs,) she should look like crap, and he himself is dealing with the loss of a limb. All of these things would make simply relating to others impossible or hard. A major victory would be in just opening up, and not being paralyzed by the fear of death; to make a real friendship, one who isn’t driven away by the fear of caring for a girl who may very well die soon.

But no, we need lolhawtboy instantly falling in love and giving his life to her. Because that makes the women swoon, you know.


This is why Divergent succeeded. You tick off checkboxes, and the quality of writing doesn’t matter as much. The typical YA book aimed at women is more about a certain narrative than any real artistry. It avoids a lot of the hard questions about being a teen because the audience doesn’t want that. Heck, just writing about the changes your body goes through, or the voraciousness of the male sex drive would take a lot more artistry than your average girl in a dress book. Or facing that you might not get the boy, or just the hawt one, but that’s okay. There’s no complexity in that genre; just tick off the boxes and follow the script.


3 Comments on “YA Cliches And Checkboxes”

  1. notleia says:

    I feel like I have to defend Scott Westerfeld, because he is a good writer. I don’t know if I would say that Deryn outclasses Alex that much, because it’s a bit apples to oranges with the difference between animal-based tech and the dieselpunk. Plus, she’s led a more practical life than he has, but by book 2 he seems to be closing the distance quite a bit.
    And that thing about Katniss and Peeta just kinda bothers me, because I don’t like seeing guys bashed as “girly” because they don’t fit the masculine stereotypes. It’s like….sublimated misogyny, is the best term I can think of, that girls are okay, but the things labelled “feminine” are bad things. Girls being “masculine” is okay, but boys being “effeminate” is the WORST POSSIBLE THING. Larry Correia (I followed his blog a bit but haven’t read much of his stuff) hits this pretty hard, because whenever he’s on his political rants, his strongest insults are feminizing his opponents, like calling Obama “panty-waisted.”

    • dmdutcher says:

      Deryn came across as a Mary Sue in the first book. I don’t know if she gets better. It was more that for a raw recruit in the army (and one who had her secret to hide) she came across as competent to the point of absurdity. Westerfield is a good writer, and Alek was a fine character, but he kind of messed up with Deryn.

      Also, barking spiders. Barking spiders!

      The effeminate thing is tough. I mean that Peeta is actually a girl; when I read him, I was struck at how nothing would be lost if they gender swapped him, and a lot would be gained. It would have been a real forbidden love, and would have made the end a lot more dramatic.

      I’ll spare you the masculine roles rant. I’ll say that it’s not that feminine is bad, but for men, we only provide value when masculine.

      • notleia says:

        Why are men supposed to only provide value when being “masculine”? I have a friend who is awesome with kids, especially in comparison with me. And he lost his job at a daycare just because he was male and it made some parents uncomfortable that an upper-teens-aged boy was watching their kids rather than an upper-teens-aged girl. He was devastated, too. That was a whole load of bullshit, and it was entirely based on gender-normative assumptions that are bullshit. (goes off to scream in righteous fury in general direction of that daycare)
        Peeta’s problem was that he was never developed as a character. He spent most of his time just being Katniss’s foil and/or sentient, walking Prozac (that was an uncomfortable, awkward relationship dynamic). I personally would have just preferred if that half-assed love (triangle) crap had just never existed. It does just look like Collins just wanted to check of that box on the YA marketability list.

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