Saturday, 9 January 2016

Six YA Fantasy cliches and why I don't mind them

I love YA. And since starting this blog and chatting with other YA book fans I say it loud and proud! I get a lot of stick in some of my bookish circles for my love, particularly of fantasy YA. "It's so cliched" is one that is regularly leveled at me. True, there are certain ingredients that seem to make up YA bestsellers, and a few that seem to be legal requirements for the genre. But you know what? I still love them. And here's why.

The love triangle
The cliche - What's a girl to do? One's a sexy, mysterious, brooding and dangerous newcomer. The other one's a sexy, probably a big brother type figure that only gets his act together in pursuing the heroine when the other guy arrives on the scene.
Why I don't mind it - Come on, it's fantasy! Who doesn't want their pick of two insanely attractive guys? There's a reason this cliche pops up time and again in YA books too, it's often showcasing the different wants and desires of the protagonists, and interactions and dialogue between different characters paint so much more of a picture than infodumps or endless reams of internal diaglogue. Done for the sake of it, love triangles come off as needless. But done well, they up the stakes and ultimately say a lot more about the main and supporting characters than a standard "and they all lived happily ever after".

The Mary Sue
The cliche - She gorgeous. She's kickass. She's witty. Magic powers? She's got 'em. Master fighter in an obscure martial art? She'll pick up a weapon and put them on their ass like she's the one who's spent 20 years training. Plain at the start of the novel? All she needs is a "She's All That"-style makeover and boom. Stunner.

Why I don't mind it - First off, I'm not a huge fan of this term anyway. "Mary Sue" has become a bit of a redundant phrase used to describe any female protagonist who is gifted and doesn't have an immediately obvious, crippling flaw. For someone who complains about weak, ineffective heroines, I feel like a hypocrite for bringing this one up. There's a fine line between creating a believable, well-rounded character and the kind of mash-up of cliches that has me rolling my eyes to the ceiling, but it can be done. One of my favourite examples if Karou in Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, mainly because you believe she can do all these things because of what you know of her. She isn't breaking out unexpected ass-kickery out of nowhere, she's trained all her life. She speaks so many languages because she uses her wishes. Besides, I don't want to read page after page of training montages, or the scenes where the characters spends months in a library learning an obscure language. The fact is, that stuff is boring. I love a good Mary Sue character, all I ask is that her backstory supports it.

The calm before the storm, aka the kiss before the sh*t hits the fan
The cliche - Our protagonist finally gives in to her desire for the brooding hero, probably at the beginning of the third act. The next morning, it all kicks off. The moral ladies, as my catholic sex ed teach would say, is that sex will incur wrath. In this case, the wrath of the plot.
Why I don't mind it - Dramatic plot twists pack more of a punch when they come out of left field. One gut punch after another means that they start losing their impact, and reveals don't get the weight they deserve when you're still reeling from the last one. A nice bit of down time gives the reader a breather, and if you're "awwww"-ing while you read and grinning like an idiot, the subsequent betrayal or drama hits ever harder.

The Tragic Upbringing
The cliche - She's not a bitch, she's just guarded because of some trauma in her past, usually the lost of her family, which is why she's free to run around all over the kingdom pursuing action and adventure. But a regular tragedy won't do, it's probably somehow, almost, nearly but not quite the protagonists fault, possibly relating to powers that are revealed later, leading to guilt as well as trauma.

Why I don't mind it - As long as I don't feel like I'm being fobbed off, I have no issue with this cliche. Name a great adventure in books or movies, and it usually starts with a devastating loss for the main character. (Braveheart is stil the most haunting example of this. It still gives me chills to this day!) It's hard to explain a character giving up their life if they're happy and settled, or fighting for change if they have everything they want. If they're already living happily ever after, where's the motivation? Where's the journey? Where's the redemption? Where are the stakes? All key ingredients in a gripping read. Just don't use it to try an excuse your character having no redeeming features!

The insta-love
The cliche - Girl meets boy. Her eyes meet his, which will probably be described as the colour of some jewel or other, and, despite the fact they barely know each other, it's love. Not lust, although that's there too, love.
Why I don't mind it - A friend of mine is a relationship counsellor over in Australia, and part of her training was being shown a show reel of highlights from Disney, The Notebook, Dirty Dancing etc. to show what they're up against with people's expectations. We're conditioned from childhood to believe in happily ever after and the whole "Disney Prince" thing. So it makes sense that this would be a big factor in books. Eyes meeting across a crowded bar when you've had too much tequila or painfully awkward blind dates that you want to kill your friends for setting up do not make for good read in a fantasy book. Besides, the plot is usually trying to get enough information across, insta-love negates the need to spend chapter after chapter on setting up another plot thread. And we accept it because that what we've been taught.

The One
The cliche - Surprise! The heroine we've been following as she scrabbles around in the dirt with the commoners is actually the long lost princess from that long ago conquered kingdom that keeps getting mentioned. Who saw that coming? Except everyone, because it was obvious from the get go.

Why I don't mind it - Come on, who doesn't like to think that they're Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries with a long lost kingdom waiting out there for them somewhere? Who doesn't love a rag to riches story? Fantasy is just that, it's endless possibility and about reaching as high as you can and dreaming without limits.

So there you have it. A takedown of some of the most regular criticisms I hear about YA. And I don't give a damn, I still love it! Does anybody else get stick for their reading choices? Or are there a few cliches you're sick of seeing in the genre?


  1. I definitely agree about the love triangles :) When they're done well, omg it is intense! But now, even if I know it is going to be done well, just the thought of a love triangle can put me off reading a book :( I also really like the calm before the storm and the one cliches. Great post, Mikayla!

    Zareena @ The Slanted Bookshelf

    1. I love a good love triangle. Like you say, if it's well done the tension kills me! But I'm sure some authors think that love triangles are compulsory in YA and stick one in for the sake of it, hence the bad rap I think they've gotten recently.

  2. This is such a great post! I've found that any cliche can be absolutely amazing if done right by the author, like you said with love triangles that up the stakes and explain more about the main character in a way that's subtle and effective <3 same with the calm before the storm (that part about how 'sex will incur wrath' in the plot made me smile). The only cliche I truly would love to see gone is insta-love; I can see why it exists and you have great points but it immediately makes me think negatively about the book :L
    Enchanted by YA

    1. I think any of them done well is fine, the problem is some authors seem to think they're all compulsory and throw in love triangles here and insta-love there when the story really doesn't need it. I read a YA fantasy recently that hit every cliche on the list and just had me rolling my eyes every other page. I think that's what sparked this post actually.

  3. I couldn't agree more with you on this post! Yes, there are a lot of cliches, but in reality, many people enjoy them more often than not. These factors usually make a book good in my opinion, especially in fantasy!
    Great post :)
    ~Erika @ Books, Stars, and the Pages in Between

    1. Thank you Erika! I agree, most of these I love as long as they seem organic to the story and don't feel like they've been included to tick a box.

  4. Great post, Mikayla! I totally agree with you on the Mary-Sue front - if a girl can do everything she's a Mary-Sue, but no one seems to mind that Aragorn in Lord of the Rings is literally good at everything he tries. It's so frustrating! Besides, in my experience, some people just are good at everything - I've had some insanely bright friends over the years who excelled in every class in school. They were just that clever!

    Ah yes, Braveheart. It's so historically inaccurate, but I still love that movie. Even if it is heartbreaking.

    1. I think if it's organic to the story you don't even see it as Mary Sue-ism. It's when a character picks up a weapon they've never handled before and beats a warrior, or is a brilliant dancer in a single scene despite no training, or ends up the love interest of every character of the opposite sex that it's glaring. And in really bad cases, it's all of the above and more!

      I love Braveheart, even though it's so inaccurate and so anti-English. If you pretend it's not based on real people and historic events it's a damn near perfect film.