Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tropes in YA: why it's not so simple

Hi readers. It’s time for another blog post. I really would like to get regular on these. Is there a fiber fix supplement for writers to get regular? If not, there needs to be. I think it would involve caffeine and chocolate.

Anyway, back to my blog post for today. Today I’m talking tropes. More specifically, tropes in YA. I have been thinking of this ever since a certain twitter handle has come up in my feed, spawning numerous others. And on one level, it kind of highlights a lot of things people (especially detractors) of YA argue—that YA books rely heavily on tropes and are over simplistic and overly dramatic.

I really started to think about how most YA books are guilty of some clichés and overdone characters. It’s fun to point it out, make fun of it at a certain level. And certainly what it has created is a need for YA books that push the boundaries and challenge these notions of what YA literature is.

I spend most of my day around teenagers. Ok, almost all of it. As a teacher, I’m constantly wondering how to reach my students, how to help them, and connect with them. I started doing a little research on adolescent brains (which I find fascinating) to figure out why my students make such poor choices when it comes to academics. What I realized while researching, is that first of all, the teenage brain is WAY weird. Second, the formation of the frontal lobe (where most decision making is done) is only partly developed in the teen years. It won’t be fully developed until 24 for women, 27 for men. And thirdly, teens run mostly on the amygdala—the pleasure and reward seeking part of the brain.

“So I thought you were posting on tropes, Torg? WHAT THE HELL? You lied!”

No. Control that amygdala, people. Patience. I’m getting there.

You see, I’d argue some of the most prolific tropes/clichés of YA aren’t really overdone at all. I’d argue that this is the teen condition. And the people who criticize them are forgetting what teens are really like.

Criticism 1: Insta-love

Remember that amygdala I was just talking about? This is why there is so much insta-love in YA. And it’s why insta-love for adults (who function with more reasoning of the frontal lobe) seems ridiculous. But really, it’s not. Teens want instant gratification. They seek situations that primarily FEEL good. And having a cute guy/girl you’ve been crushing on return your affection feels pretty good. Dare I say, a teen would seek out that person at all costs. Think about them constantly. Probably rearrange their whole school class schedule so they could be in classes with that person. Hypothetically, of course. I would never have done anything like that. It’s just plain silly. (I may have done that very thing.) The thing is teens DO experience life changing insta-love. They are wired for it. Don’t blame them. Blame the amygdala.

Criticism 2: Females are weak/clumsy/lack decision-making

Again, teen brains are not good at decision making. There is a lot going on in the brain but essentially here is why. Reasoning hasn’t kicked in yet. So teens can’t see consequences of their actions. They’re unable to think and process about the outcome of their choices. Everything is done for the immediate reward. This combined with their changing bodies and an awareness that with those feelings of insta-love or whatever, they are fighting against cultural norms saying what they should be like or look like. Girls are constantly waging a war against judgment in all forms, inner and outer. It comes from others, media (perceived) and it comes from themselves. With this feeling of insecurity comes the incorrect assumption that these females are weak. They aren’t. They are just trying to figure who they are and where they fit in. They’re trying to walk the line between good girl and bad girl. (it’s practically a non-existent line.) They’re trying to avoid labels meanwhile they are all too well handing out their own. If you add on to this that teens are growing and this causes a lack of center of balance, you can see why they might be insecure and clumsy. The cerebellum, responsible for physical coordination, is rapidly developing during the teen years as well. This is why teens can be gangly and awkward. It’s not a trope. It’s the brain at work.

Criticism 3: Love triangles

Here is the thing, as fast as teens can fall in love, they can fall out. And if the amygdala isn’t receiving it’s fair share of excitement and reward, it will seek new situations. Hence, that girl or guy can fall in love with someone else pretty quickly. And to have TWO suitors…well if that isn’t pleasure and reward giving, I don’t know what is. So a love triangle is not just a tool for a plot twist, it’s reality. We always covet what we don’t have. And for teens, this is even more true. And in high school, where classes change every forty-some odd minutes, alliances and swoon worthy love can change just as fast.

Criticism 4: Why so emotional?

Because the brain is changing at the same rate as it did when that teen was a toddler. The growth exhibited by the brain is the SAME PERCENTAGE growth from 12-17 that is was from 0-3. Think of everything kids learn how to do from birth to toddler. Eating, swallowing, drinking, talking, walking, recognizing faces, motor skills. It’s crazy. You would never look at a 2 year old and criticize them for their lack of decision making. You expect they will be testing boundaries and seeking pleasure. So does our teen. And everything is life or death with a teen because they lack the long term vision and planning it takes to understand the consequences of their actions. So when they fall in love, it’s quick, it’s strong, and it will last forever in their minds. When they hurt, it’s to their core. With hormones raging and their intellectual capacity to learn peaking, while judgment and reasoning being relatively small, we see how the things that happen to a teen will impact them far greater than any other age. Even when shown troubling images, teens are shown to react with stronger emotion than both adults and children. So how, then, can we blame our teen main characters for being emotional?

Basically, teens are morphing and changing in so many ways and it’s all because of their brain development. If we are to write true characterizations of teenagers, then all of these things should be taken into account. Adult readers who are quick to say these things are tropes or clichés are missing the point. It is no more cliché to have insta-love with teens than it is to have a toddler eat something he shouldn’t or to have an adult get married. These are not clichés, rather they are characteristic of a time in life.

That’s why readers who love YA will defend it. It reminds us of who we are at heart, and how far we’ve come. It helps us think about our emotions a little more, consequences a little less, and that sometimes, pleasure is important to seek out. Perhaps there is a lesson to learn from YA tropes. We should all be a little more open to the teenage mind, willing to take risks with no fears, and live like love lasts.

What do you think? Yes on tropes or still not a fan?

Want to read more on the teen brain? Check this out from National Institute of Mental Health


  1. What an excellent post! So many good points made here and I most especially love how you scientifically back it up with explaining the teenage brain. Really good.

  2. Thanks so much, Dana. It really is interesting to see how teens are biologically driven and it's ok to show that in our stories.

  3. OMG. From another high school teacher and YA novelist. Yes. You said it really well. Next time someone complains about any of these things in my last novel, I'll send them here!


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