The Top 25 YA Clichés

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A fantastic list compiled by YA author Joelle Anthony. You can check out the list on Joelle's website. All I can say about this list is that I agree, I agree, I agree. Just because it's here doesn't mean people should stop writing red-haired characters, it's just surprising to notice the recurring themes.

I'd love for you to comment below with other things you've noticed popping up a lot in YA - what drives you nuts, which name is in every second book you read, whether there's a theme of garden gnome stealing running through every new YA book (I sincerely hope not. That's the entire premise of the novel I'm working on). And many thanks to Joelle for letting me feature the list here (an interview with her is coming up soon!)

Updated & Expanded - Red Hair’s Not as Uncommon as You Think
Joëlle Anthony

“Simple fact: If I don’t read, I don’t write.” – Chris Crutcher, The King of the Mild Frontier.

Three years ago, after reading this quote, I embarked on a self-designed reading program because my writing was stagnant. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined what I would learn. Over the next thirty-six months, I read approximately four hundred young adult novels, with some middle grade and adult fiction thrown in for good measure.

My plan was simple. I primarily stuck to YA because that’s what I write, I looked for books published in the last two to three years so that I could learn where to market my manuscripts, and I kept a record of everything I read.

Before I was very far into the program I began to notice similarities in many YA and MG novels. At first it just made me laugh, but after a while I began to take notes. There may not be any original stories, and nothing may be new, but some things are way overused and here are the ones I’ve run across in my reading.

A countdown of 25 things that show up repeatedly in young adult fiction.

#25 – Vegetarian teens with unsympathetic meat-eating parents
#24 – Shy or withdrawn characters that take refuge in the school’s art room/ compassionate art teachers
#23 – A token black friend among a group of white friends - usually it’s a girl, and she’s always gorgeous
#22 – A tiny scar through the eyebrow, sometimes accompanied by an embarrassing story
# 21 – Using the word ‘rents for parents, but not using any other slang
# 20 – A beautiful best friend who gets all the guys but doesn’t want them
#19 – The wicked stepmother who turns out to be simply misunderstood and it’s all cleared up in the climax
#18 – Authors showing their age by naming characters names they grew up with (i.e. Debbie, Lisa, Kimberly, Alice, Linda, etc.)
#17 – Parents who are professional writers or book illustrators
#16 – Using coffee, cappuccino, and café latte to describe black people’s skin
#15 – Main characters named Hannah and making a note of it being a palindrome
#14 – Younger siblings who are geniuses, adored by everyone, and usually run away during the book’s climax, causing dramatic tension
#13 – The mean-spirited cheerleader (and her gang) as the story’s antagonist
# 12 – A dead mother
# 11 – Heroines who can’t carry a tune, even if it were in a bucket
# 10 – Guys with extraordinarily long eyelashes
# 9 – The popular boy dating the dorky heroine to make his former girlfriend jealous, and then breaking the heroine’s heart
# 8 – The diary, either as the entire format, or the occasional entry
# 7 – Fingernail biting
# 6 – Characters who chew on their lip or tongue in times of stress – usually until they taste blood
# 5 – Raising one eyebrow
# 4 – Main characters who want to be writers
# 3 – Calling parents by their first names
# 2 – Best friends with red hair
And the number one thing found in YA novels…
#1 – Lists

This was not a scientific study by any means, but if you have used any of these things in your manuscripts, think long and hard about how important they are to the story because you may want to cut or change them now. Stretch your imagination, make your characters’ career choices different than what you “know”, find new ways to show emotion, and read, read, read. Besides being fun, the best part of all that reading is it will make your writing stronger.

*While lists rule in teen fiction, red-haired best friends are amazingly predominant in both MG and YA, and certainly gave “lists” a run for its money. It might be an easy way to quickly identify a secondary character, but it’s a lot more common in books than red hair actually is!

So, what have you seen everywhere in YA lately?



  1. I've run across most of those. But I don't think #6 and #7 can ever really be overused, because it's just something people do when they're nervous. At least I do.

    My friend says digging your fingernails into your palm is another YA cliché.

  2. I am wracking what brains I have left to think if I have used any of the ones mentioned in Across the Pond (list might be one..though it's spread throughout the book as a school project) Also making mental notes what not to put in my next book "Across the Pond and a Back Again" thank you so much for sharing.


  3. I have an award for your blog here,

  4. That list made me laugh. So true! Your post is making me think. I especially like your comment that it might be okay to resort to some of these, but that you are pointing out a trend.

    Two other clichés:

    1. labeling: geeks, nerds etc. It might reflect how tweens/teens talk, but I fear using these terms in YA is also reinforcing stereotypes.

    2. Sexy vampires. I enjoyed Twilight, but can we move onto something fresh?

    Good luck writing your story!

  5. How about the sympathetic but clueless single parent?

  6. Great list! I've run across all but four of those in my reading.
    Personally, I'm a big fan of the eyebrow raise, mainly because I'm in the Able To Raise One Eyebrow Club. Haha! :P

  7. Good grief, it's true it's all true! I confess to using seven and five in my WIP. But my defence is that cliches aren't always wrong!! They can sometimes be very effective devices! Instead of saying 'She was neverous', you can say, 'She nibbled on her nail and said, "Blah blah"'thus conveying nevousness without using the word nevous. But you're right. I'm getting out of my comfort zone.

  8. It seems like ever since The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot the name Mia is very popular for the main character.

  9. I've read this list on Kristin Nelson's blog, I think it was. It's a great list!

    I haven't really noticed anything, myself. I guess I don't pay that close attention but maybe I should!

  10. After Spike no one else should have a scar through their eyebrow ;)

  11. Loving the list, Steph. But now I'm worried. My book doesn't have ANY of those things in it. Maybe it's not YA after all... Please, please don't throw me out of the blogosphere!

  12. This list cracked me up. And so true!

    Ugh, I have committed a few of those things in my own writing. I guess it means I need to go through my MS and alter those repeated themes to make more work more original.


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