A countdown of the twenty-five most overused things in MG & YA fiction

Copyright notice: This article is copyrighted Joelle Anthony 2007. If you like this and you want to share, I am thrilled. However, I would prefer that you link to this post or my website as opposed to cutting and pasting it to your blog. If you feel like you really want to cut and paste it, I respectfully request that you take the ENTIRE article and not just the list. Previously, when people have posted just the list, it has been misunderstood as a list of things I’m telling people to never do whereas if you read the whole article you see that that’s not what I’m saying at all. Thanks!

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#24 – Shy or withdrawn characters that take refuge in the school’s art room/ compassionate art teachers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!

October 28, 2009 – I have added a bit of an update here.

© Joëlle Anthony, 2007

Originally published in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin, July/Aug. 2007

In case you’re interested, all of these websites are talking about the Red Hair article. Some are just links back to here, but a couple of them are having great discussions about race and the last one’s about redheads.









This article was written by Joelle

0 thoughts on “A countdown of the twenty-five most overused things in MG & YA fiction”

  1. This is great! Let’s see what I do. I often have a vegetarian in my novels, whether it’s an adult novel or young adult. So that’s funny. And in Mercy, Unbound, she calls her parents by their first names—because she doesn’t believe they’re really her parents. In Broken Moon, she is writing in a journal for the entire book. In an upcoming book, my hera is going to have red hair; I recently found out that Emily Dickinson had red hair, so I can’t wait to use that!

    Thanks, Joelle. I love your site by the way.

  2. Question about #1: what kind of lists? Like “top ten favorite” kind of lists or “things to do” organization lists?

  3. Hi, I came from Agent Kristin’s site. Glad to add another blog to my publishing blog list!

    When I was younger, I would read about a redhead character and instantly flip to the back page to see the author’s photo. I was always sad to see a blond or brunette. Growing up red, I was pretty sensitive about the red hair issue. I get comments abotu my temper, people ask me if I dye it (and woe onto them who do!), I have had teachers single me out for talking when I wasn’t and my mom use to say it is my hair, it calls attention. Redheads have sort of been ruined by all the redheads in books. We are only 2% of the population! For that reason, I almost never had red haired characters, nor do I ever have my main characters be red. I feel like it is too gimmicky even though I am a real redhead! I’m glad I’m not the only one to notice!

  4. Great list! Many of these were ones I hadn’t noticed before, but now that you mention it I could name many books that fit ones in your list. And I loved Crutcher’s quote. Many writers say that they can’t read if they’re also writing because it messes with their voice. However, I find that when I’m immersed in my own story, I am also a voracious reader and movie-watcher. I want tons and tons of stories. It’s as if I have some well that needs to be refilled.

  5. This is such a great list – I had to laugh…having been a judge for some contests recently, you nailed it, Joelle. I loved it…I will have to link!

    All best

  6. Oh, crud. The MC of my series has a dead mother. But she’s not an orphan. And it really isn’t talked about all that much. But it will come into play in the last book, so it is important.

    Okay, I feel better now.

  7. Wow, this was a great list! Hope you don’t mind if I link to it on my site.
    Anyway, my respones –

    #18 – I’d add that best friend could easily be replaced by older sister.

    #16 – I’ve heard editors caution about this. Seriously, writers, always check to see what the modern names are also, what the modern nicknames are. If a kid is William, what is he most likely nicknamed today? Billy, Will, Liam, Willy, Bill, etc.

    #11 – Well, how else are you supposed to make a character sympathetic? … Wait, you mean, I have to give real reason why you should care? Not just that you should wanna huggle them because their mommy died?

    #5 – Isn’t it a proven fact by now that the only emotions that count are those that happen right around your glittering rainbow orbs that are a window to your soul? AKA eyes for people who don’t read fan fic.

    #4 … I swear, almost every single on of Meg Cabot’s females wants to be a writer or an artist. Or discovers they are a writer/artist. Ditto in her adult books.

    #1 – Actually, I wonder if the lists things is just related to all the diary style YA that’s coming out.

  8. I think I used to use the eyebrow thing and the lip thing more than I do now. Maybe once a book or so now. LOL And I did have a character who bit her nails, but she had broken the habit and it came back because she was in a strange situation where it was appropriate for her to revert to the behavior.

    LOL. I loved ‘the list’!

  9. This is great–thank you for your time and research! I also want to add for alternative writers of YA, like the token ‘of colour’ friend = the overused gay friend–usually a guy and usually a guy who just HAS to comment on the way his “girlfriend/sista” dresses, wears her hair, talks…and also overused is the ‘too-too’ goth kids who use crystal and hate the straight kids…extremeeeeees…extreeeemmmmes=

  10. HA!

    I am, however, surprised by #5 as that trait being mentioned a lot was one of the salient features of ARE YOU THERE, GOD, IT’S ME, MARGARET? I would think most people would avoid using that one.

  11. Wait. What about the authors who use all cutesy names? For example, you’ll get Jaleesha, who’s best friends with Shaleena and Fawn, and they date boys named Tron, Jamil, and Luca. Such a cast of character names drives me nuts.
    This is a stupidly disproportionate bunch of weird names. In a real school, you get a few unusual names, and some of them are “cutesy” (I taught a girl named Heaven-Leigh a couple of years ago.), but you also get plenty of very ordinary names mixed in. For every Shaquila, there will be 2 Jennifers, a Britany, an Ashley, and something “old fashioned” like Anne.
    I haven’t noticed so many books with what you listed in #16, but I see the mass giving of cutesy names all the time. Ick!!

    And by the way, I am a real culprit of #5 when I write. (But I have never yet put a redhead in a manuscript!)

  12. Your thoughts have pushed out more thoughts on what I used to think of as the “Friends Conundrum.” As in, how did the characters on “Friends” have no friends who were racial minorities? In NY with no Hispanic, no African American, and only one Asian friend? And a duck???

    Yes — that one brown friend: used way too often. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  13. These are great! And I think your point about people needing to read the types of book they want to write is sooooo important.

    I also still want to see the photo of Mr. Fatboy.

  14. Re #14 Yes! Exactly. I meant to add to this topic but forgot, so I will now. I had to keep the list tight, but what I really noticed, and would’ve liked to say is that it is primarily in books where there is only one black character amongst white friends that this happens. It’s usually a white writer too. It’s almost as if white writers are afraid to use the word black. I’ve read books where I’ve thought the caramel colored friend just had a great tan, only to have them discriminated against later because they’re black. I find that a confusing surprise!

  15. Re #14: The white character and her white friends have ONE “coffee-coloured” friend in their gang. All too common in movies, too, and not only YA ones.

  16. Whiny, witless sarcasm in teen dialogue and ‘tudes is at the top of my list. Too many stories seem to assume that this somehow automatically makes a teen character authentic. It’s so boring!

  17. There’s nothing wrong at all with using ANY of these things on the list. All I’m saying is that these things are used over and over and they strike ME as attempts at being unique, and maybe they’re not. That’s all. I had loads of them in some of my earlier manuscripts and now I don’t.

    All I’m saying is if you read a lot, you’ll notice patterns and overused patterns might be something a writer wants to stay away from. This list wasn’t intended for anyone to live by. Thanks for dropping by my site.

  18. I laughed at the ‘coffee colored skin’ thing. I have trouble remembering that I’m allegedly supposed to identify my characters by skin SHADE — since it’s not something I think about, I don’t tend to write it – or if I did, it was because I was prompted.

    And hmm. Now I must go and look… but it’s so personal obnoxious to me, that I don’t think I’ve actually done it.

    Question though: what do you think would be more suitable for people to say? Or should they leave that one alone?

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