20 Mistakes To Avoid When Writing Young Adult Fiction/Romance
YA Fiction is an incredibly popular genre of literature, and most people have picked one up and devoured it in less than a day, but there is a trend in the genre where in certain instances, people forfeit quality for a cheesy dramatic plot. A lot of these stories are just regurgitated cliches with vaguely interesting characters and just enough drama, fluff, and mildly (or extremely) sexual content to keep the reader paying attention. (No shade to the authors, because obviously, any author who writes and publishes a book works hard, no matter the end product.)
There are a lot of aspects of YA Fiction that repeatedly rear their ugly heads and annoy readers or flat out scream dangerous messages to the young people that indulge in them. I thought I’d put the spotlight on a few in the hopes that it will help clean up the genre’s reputation as new and more awakened authors contribute content to it.
Below you will read about some common mistakes that YA Fiction/Romance writers make that either ruin the story, promote dangerous messages, or unrealistically portray teenagers.
Making A Good Story
These are some things you should avoid doing when writing YA fiction/romance in order to make a generally enjoyable and enticing story.
Forgetting The Supporting Characters
The supporting characters are an important part of any story, even if the main plot revolves around two people. Supporting characters provide subplots, information to the reader, and more opportunities for your audience to connect and relate to your story. It’s always good to give your supporting characters love and attention when creating and writing them. Sometimes they end up carrying the story.
A mistake that a lot of authors make is that they give the reader a couple defining characteristics, a name, a relationship to the main character, and then just make that character pop into the reader’s view whenever the main plot needs them to. No backstory. No life of their own. Just support to the plot, and that’s a huge waste of potential. You don’t want your readers to put down your book and either forget the supporting characters existed at all, or believe that they were extra pieces of a puzzle.
Using Slang Badly
Writers should not feel the need to include current slang in order to make their story more relatable or popular amongst their targeted demographic. Slang is constantly changing, evolving, and most importantly, dying. Not to say that you should only write in traditional terms or put “thy” and “thee” everywhere, but using standard English and avoiding the trendy but temporary slang words is key.
If you must use slang, try to use the bare minimum and only in fitting circumstances. If your character is the type to say “OMG her dat boi memes are on fleek” then, by all means, go right ahead, but you probably cringed when you read that. That would have been totally normal 2 years ago, but every bit of that sentence has died over time, and no matter how much you think a slang word will stick, don’t risk it.
Sympathy and Envy Mongering
Two emotions that YA Fiction and Romance always try to invoke in their readers are sympathy and envy. The author either wants the reader to feel bad for one or many of the characters, or they want them to be jealous of the awesome (and usually unrealistic) lives the characters have. Don’t be one of these. It’s tired and boring and not original in the slightest.
Are sympathy and empathy both totally okay emotions?
Are they all you need to write a good story?
Nope. Not at all.
The reader needs and wants to feel more than jealous of and sad for the characters in the story. The best stories are the ones that trigger a complex whirlwind of emotion. Sympathy and envy are the easy way out, and you get out of those emotions what you put into them.
Unrealistically Portraying Teenagers & Teenage Life
Teenagers look up to and compare themselves and their lives to the characters and lives of the characters in your story. Keeping in mind that your audience is young and impressionable is essential for authors of the genre.
Love At First Sight
Love-at-first-sight does not happen. Infatuation, maybe, but love is more complicated than that. Writing a plot based on “love at first sight” can leave a bad taste in your readers’ mouths from the start, and that is something you should avoid at all costs. On top of that, love-at-first-sight is a very easy-way-out move and if you’re dedicated to your characters and your story, there’s a good to fair chance that you can come up with a more satisfying build up.
Unrealistic Romantic Situations
If you’ve ever opened a YA Romance, chances are you’ve read a scene in which the protagonist and the love interest end up in a stunningly beautiful place and the love interest sweeps the protagonist off their feet prior to riding into the sunset. This, unfortunately, does not happen very often, especially in teenage relationships. The most romance you’re going to get (usually) is the love interest offering to pay for the protagonist’s bag of skittles with the leftover money from their paycheck they earned at McDonald’s.
Just because teenagers don’t really go to great lengths to rent an entire ice-skating rink in the middle of the night so they and their crush can skate to Ellie Goulding music doesn’t mean there can’t be cute and memorable moments. Great doesn’t always equal grand and that’s important to remember. A lot of the time, teenagers appreciate fantasizing about things that are actually possible.
Not all stories have to end happily, and you’ve definitely been told this before, but nobody ever takes into account how stories about teenagers have so much potential when it comes to endings. Teenagers read books about teenagers and unfortunately, this means that a lot of them will take what you’re writing about and try to change their own lives to match. Be honest in your depiction about what actually happens when you leave high school.
The majority of the time, high school sweethearts won’t stay together. Long distance won’t work, they’ll find someone else, the spark will die out, their personalities will undergo drastic changes, and their goals and plans for the future will turn out differently than they expected. “And they lived happily ever after” is criticized harshly for a reason, especially in YA and YA Romance. Most stories don’t end happily, but there is more than one story in a person’s life and giving a person their happy ending as they graduate high school is a great injustice, to your character and your readers.
Avoiding The Dark Parts Of Teenage Life
Teenagers, despite what a lot of the media claims, go through some really serious and stressful and damaging things. Teenagers suffer from mental illness and deal with the intense pressure of the education system and hold their heads high in the face of stigma over every little detail about them. They suffer from eating disorders and body dysmorphia and self-harm tendencies, and that doesn’t even bring into account the bullying and family issues and the stress of constantly learning and feeling things for the very first time with little to no guidance or assurance or resources to ask for help. It is hard being a teenager. Do not forget that, and don’t leave the actual teenagers reading your story feeling underrepresented and/or abnormal because they aren’t as stress-free as the characters they look up to.
Exaggerating How Teenagers Interact With Each Other
A lot of teenage interactions are short, awkward, and uneventful. Teenagers aren’t super eloquent and socially apt, but YA Fiction seems to believe they are. It’s quite rare that a teenager will just walk up to someone they like, say “wanna go to dinner on Saturday?” and all will be fine and dandy. It’s quite rare that a teenager will saunter up to someone who talked about them behind their back, say something super clever and damaging to their enemy’s ego, and saunter off like the king/queen of the world. Those interactions look great in our heads, but they usually contain a few stuttered words and “um”s and blushing. Confidence is usually a trait that people develop later in life, so try not to push it if you’re trying to be realistic.
Maturity of Teenagers
Teenagers are underdeveloped human beings with minimal experience in most areas of life. They do not have it all figured out. A lot of YA books revolve around characters that are extremely intelligent, disciplined and ambitious at a level of maturity a 25-year-old be on. This is not accurate. Making characters “awkward” or “childish” does not have anything to do with how mature they seem to readers. There is a distinct difference between an awkward girl with childlike innocence and a girl who makes mistakes, does not have her life figured out, and is not yet comfortable with casual social interaction. The latter things I mentioned are pretty universal when it comes to teenagers.
There are more than two paths in life. It seems that in YA you’re either going to graduate, get married, pop out a couple kids and live the rest of your life in the suburbs, or you’re going to leave home, go to college, travel for 20 years and settle in some random country in Europe writing poetry until the end of your days. There is no in between, which sucks. There are a lot of interesting things you can do in life, not to say that either of the two life paths I mentioned are uninteresting. You could take a gap year and travel the world, go to college, move back home for a couple years then maybe get a job that has you traveling and exploring new things for the rest of your life. You could meet the love of your life in college and have some kids but put them in online school so you could travel with them. You could live your whole life in an awesome cabin in the forest casting spells and adopting wild squirrels. There are so many ways life can be and restricting it to opposite extremes takes the imagination out of the future.
Not All Teenagers Think Their Relationships Will Last Forever
This one is pretty self explanatory, so long story short, not every relationship a teenager enters into is with the end goal of staying together forever, or even more than a few months. Most teenage relationships are pretty short and not very meaningful, and portraying every single couple in your stories as “we’ve been going strong for 2 years and plan on getting married right after graduation” is inaccurate and will probably cause your readers some disappointment in the future.
Relationships Aren’t A Teenager’s Only Concern
Most teenagers are more concerned about the F they got on a History test than they are about who they’re going to stare at next period. Everyone has more than just their crush to worry about. Some teenagers have to worry about where they’re going to get their next meal or how they’re going to get a ride home from school or even how they can apologize to a friend they’ve hurt. It’s not all about relationships for teenagers, in fact, relationships are a pretty small part of teenage life. If all your character has to think about is the hottie they sit next to in Biology, perhaps you should work a little more on character development.
Most teenagers are not model-level attractive. All teenagers have break-outs and leave the house late with greasy hair or with their shirt on inside out. No teenager shows up at school every day looking absolutely flawless, as if they’re about to walk down the runway. Please keep that in mind, because portraying teenagers accurately, especially when it comes to physical aspects such as weight, acne, etc. is super important. In YA and YA Romance, you must keep in mind that the teenagers you are trying to appeal to should not feel like a piece of trash because they aren’t as perfect as your characters. Yes, YA Fiction is Fiction, but just because you know that it’s unrealistic doesn’t mean your readers do. Readers of YA Fiction compare themselves to the characters in your books whether you like it or not.It is not hard to realistically portray physical appearances of teenagers.
Avoiding Dangerous Messages
A common problem found in YA Fiction is the lacing of dangerous messages found in the smaller details. You may miss them the first couple times you read a story, but if you go looking for them, you will find them, and perhaps you will find the source of a lot of mistakes you’ve made. YA has a bad habit of endorsing mindsets that lead to bad decisions. Some of them, however, can be avoided in your own writing.
The Need To Change The “Flawed” One
Nobody in this world is perfect. Expecting the person you supposedly love to be flawless all the time is not realistic. People make mistakes. People are not always happy and bubbly and confident about themselves. People do not always act the same one day as they did the day before. Human beings are flawed and should be portrayed as such, especially in the stage of their life which is the most confusing and scary. Teenagers are underdeveloped human beings, and for some reason, teenager girls in YA Romance expect teenage boys to be charming and loving and never ever make a mistake, which is ridiculous. Creating love interests that appear flawless and can make no mistakes is detrimental to your audience. It raises your readers’ expectations to an unattainable level which causes them disappointment and might cause their future partners unrepairable damage to their self-esteem because they’ll think that in order to find a partner, they cannot be flawed and cannot make mistakes.
Glorification Of Illegal Activity
It’s not “cool” or “edgy” to pump yourself full of deadly and mind-altering substances you know absolutely nothing about. It doesn’t make you “badass” and it isn’t a personality trait unless that trait is stupid. Whatever your position is on drugs or alcohol or whatever, there is no excuse for putting the idea in the heads of young readers that doing things that are illegal and addictive and that might even get you killed is ok. Not only because most of your readers are younger than 21, but because it will always be dangerous to take drugs, commit crimes, and drink. Your choices are your choices. Don’t impose your habits and excuses on kids who don’t know any better.
News flash: it’s 2017, people. Nobody cares who you’re kissing or dating or having sex with. People are finally getting used to the idea that maybe, just maybe, it’s not the end of the world if you do whatever you want, as long as you’re not hurting yourself or anyone else. This recurring theme of “I hate this person because they do what they want with their body” is getting old and annoying. Believe what you will regarding religion and morals and what is right or wrong or whatever you want to believe in, but the second you start turning your story into a commentary on the decisions and beliefs of other people, you’re in the wrong. There are other, more creative reasons to make your characters hate each other than their sexual activity.
Forgetting The First Times
One of the most exciting parts of being a teenager is that everything you’re experiencing, you’re experiencing for the first time. Everything is confusing and exciting and 10x more painful or memorable or enjoyable, and that’s neglected all the time in YA. I don’t mean the common trope of the first kiss or the losing of virginity. I mean love and infatuation and loss and heartbreak; it’s all happening to them for the first time in their lives, and these events make up their memories that they will carry with them forever. Teenage years are incredibly heavy times for people. It is, after all, the years in which they learn the most and the fastest and where the majority of their brain development takes place. These moments that you’re writing, the first kiss, the first time having sex, the first time your character loses someone they love, they’re all going to determine how your character will develop in the future. Treat them that way. Teach young readers that it’s normal and perfectly okay to be scared and inexperienced and lost. That’s the bitter-sweet part of youth and it’s beautiful.
Bad Boys And Boring Girls
Bad Boysare, in reality, bad news. The real “bad boys” in this world are slimy, manipulative jerks who trick girls (usually more than one at a time) into thinking they have feelings for them, using them for things like sex or money, and then either end up controlling their entire lives, introducing drugs and problems, or breaking their hearts. It’s sad, but it’s reality. Yes, there’s always a cause for this behavior, and sometimes these bad boys grow out of it, but that’s not always the case. Portraying these bad boys as “changeable” is not only dangerous for the female readers but also the men in their future. If you make girls think that they can change whomever they’re with to be the perfect prince charming, they will never be satisfied with someone who is flawed (spoiler alert: everyone is flawed) and they may destroy the self-esteem of whoever they’re with by making them think they need to change to be lovable.
Boring Girls are, sort of, connected to bad boys in this sense. They show up in every story, which makes sense financially because authors who make more relatable main characters sell more books. It’s just demographics. But at the same time, this stretch for a wider audience can end up influencing girls’ expectations of themselves and their love lives. If you make every protagonist completely boring, compliant, and devoid of strong, defining traits, girls will take that as advice. They will learn that all a girl has to do to make people fall in love with them is sit quietly and be pretty, which is horrible, in case you hadn’t noticed. Teach girls to look up to strong characters with rich personalities. Nowadays, that counts as an original idea.
Portraying every aspect of teenage life and teenagers themselves as if you opened a book full of cliches, closed your eyes and pointed at something is not ok. High schools and families and personalities are different wherever you go, and making blind generalizations about aspects of teenage life can not only change how your reader interprets their own lives, but how adult readers assume teenage life is when they’re not around. It is important to not reinforce the assumption that there is always a popular clique and mean jocks and awkward nerds and dead-beat stoners because these stereotypes are a way for people to justify their snap-judgements, and not only does that say a lot about you as an author, but that will breed a whole new generation of judgmental, close-minded people.
Glorification Of Unhealthy Relationship Behaviors
I’m gonna say this once: It is not “hot” to have the love interest constantly putting restrictions on their supposed loved one. It’s not okay to borderline stalk someone and use “I love you” as an excuse, even if the person reciprocates your feelings. It is unhealthy to ignore someone when they say “no, no, not now” or “no, stop, not here” when you’re in the middle of initiating sex or even just kissing. It is disgusting when romance, especially YA Romance, which has mostly young, impressionable readers taking in your messages, promotes these behaviors like they’re something to strive for. Like it or not, your writing is going to alter the way they imagine a “perfect” relationship. If you aren’t willing to take that responsibility seriously, you should not be writing YA, and especially not YA Romance.
I think one of my favorite aspects of the Six of Crows duology is the fact that Kaz and Inej do not end up together.
And that’s not because I don’t ship them.
It’s because Inej, unlike so many YA heroines, isn’t what “heals” Kaz. Her love doesn’t magically fix him or make him a better person. He wants to change for her– he wants to get over his phobia of human touch. He wants her to love him. But it isn’t some overnight happening. He doesn’t suddenly overcome his affliction because of his love for her.
In the end, Kaz is still morally ambiguous, sometimes outright corrupt, and still has severe PTSD trauma.
And while Inej might love Kaz despite those things, she is not willing to lower her worth to accept them in a relationship. “I will have you without your armor, Kaz Brekker. Or I will not have you at all.”
That was one of the most powerful YA heroine lines to her love interest that I’ve ever read. So many fictional girls (and real girls, for that matter) stay in the hopes of fixing a man, of healing his brokenness. Inej wants to heal him, but she understands that she cannot. Only Kaz can heal himself. Only he can want it enough to change. And it won’t be some overnight affair. Wanting to change and actually changing are two entirely different things. Kaz will have to go through agonizing changes if he ever wants to grow.
So far, he has accepted that he is the “demon of the barrel”. He still wants to burn the world down. He is still angry and hurting. He talks about wondering why over the years, with every violent turn his life takes, why his phobia has only gotten worse. It’s because he’s let himself rot in it. He’s stripped any and all goodness in the world down to the barest threads.
That’s why he is not ready for Inej. Inej, who might have her own issues and flaws, but who still has hope for a better world. Who is still willing to fight for it.
It’s not Kaz’s inability to touch her that she wants him to work on. It’s his mindset. His finality in the evil in his heart and his acceptance of it. He will never get over his phobia until he can understand goodness, the goodness of touch, the goodness of man.
And Inej will not accept him while he still holds on to that armor of hatred. And I think that is beautiful. It is healthy. It shows a level of self-respect that is often sadly absent from our fiction today.
Non-consensual physical intimacy, especially in situations where it’s portrayed as being done for the benefit of the victim or situations where the victim forgives the forced intimacy because they decide they like it after it’s already been forced on them. Examples:
Forcing a partner to accept physical comfort when they don’t want it.
Kissing a partner in the middle of an argument.
Framing consent as unnecessary simply because one person is attracted to the other.
Stalking the other person, even for their own safety.
Forcing the other person into some form of physical intimacy because they “liked it last time.”
Implying that it’s normal for a certain physically intimate act to hurt and/or their partner should grin and bear it.
Skipping over their partner’s preferred forms of intimacy in favor of what they want to do with/to their partner.
When in doubt: Consent should be explicitly given!!
Non-consensual communication. Examples:
Physically stopping a partner from leaving in order to continue talking with them.
Bringing up a topic the other person has made clear they don’t wish to discuss yet.
Forcing the other person into conversations with people they previously showed they did not wish to talk with.
Manipulating the conversation so that the other person shares a secret, especially one that doesn’t affect their partner.
Emotional manipulation. Examples:
Telling the other person to do something (i.e. ‘go away’) as a test, where the person is at fault if they follow through and do as their partner asked.
Blaming the other person for things beyond their control, especially “I wouldn’t be like this if not for you/your interests/your goals.”
Claiming they’ll die (or kill themselves) if the other person leaves.
Not wanting the other person to have friends of the same gender as their partner (i.e. a man not wanting his girlfriend to have any male friends).
“If you really loved me you would do x, y, and z.”
Demanding to be the most important part of their partner’s life, above and beyond their partner’s other responsibilities.
Cheating on their partner as a form of punishment.
Acting as though physical intimacy (or any other sort of intimacy) isn’t important, but then blaming the other person for not supplying it.
Acting distant or cruel until the other person does what they want, or because the other person didn’t do what they wanted.
Demeaning actions and words, especially in instances where they blame the actions and words on internalized sexism, racism, etc as a shield, in instances outside of high-stress arguments, and whenever the character isn’t sincerely sorry for what they did or makes no point to change. Examples:
Stating the other person’s interests or hobbies are inferior or a waste of time.
Telling them they were look better if they did x, y and z.
Demanding they stop doing something or start doing something else based on their gender, race, etc.
Placing the other person in a subordinate role without their partner’s explicit consent.
Not sharing certain pieces of information because they believe they know what’s best for their partner and don’t need the other person’s consent to act upon it.
Bonus: Glorification of a partner simply for not demeaning the other person, (i.e. for acting like an average, decent human being,) especially when the partner in question boasts how amazing they are for loving their “curvy”/non-white/bisexual/not-like-other-girls/etc partner.
Absolutely one of my favorite fairytale retellings. I finished this book in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down! The story line was rich. The world building was amazing within the first couple of chapters. Rosamund Hodge was very descriptive Which I loved. It created vivid scenes and made me feel all the feels. Beautiful read. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on more of her retellings.
“Don’t look at the shadows too long or a demon might look back”
every time you
tell your daughter
you yell at her
out of love
you teach her to confuse
anger with kindness
which seems like a good idea
till she grows up to
trust men who hurt her
cause they look so much
(to fathers with daughters) milk and honey, rupi kaur
Everyone is afraid of something. We fear things because we value them. We fear losing people because we love them. We fear dying because we value being alive. Don’t wish you didn’t fear anything. All that would mean is that you didn’t feel anything.
Let male characters, especially the love interests, cry and panic and get anxious and generally have negative emotions that manifest in other ways than the typical brooding/ standoffish/ angry thing. you are doing the story and your own romantic expectations a disservice by only allowing love interests to express emotions that are culturally deemed “sexy,” and missing an opportunity to make that character well-rounded and interesting.
look at how fucking fond he looks. look. he looks like he’s pining HARD. he looks like he just fell in love. you’d see this face on the cover of a mediocre ya romance novel that hasn’t sold many copies but is still desperately taking up space on the shelves of barnes and noble. and do you know who he’s looking at? LANCE. he’s in love with lance. holy fuck. holy fuck, you guys.
Let’s get this out straight away: You cannot disregard character arcs. The
way you can think of character arcs is that readers usually come for the plot
but stay for the character because you can have a kick ass plot but if the
characters don’t have depth and don’t grow or change throughout, then the
readers can’t connect to the story. Readers need to care about the character to
care about what they are going through and the best way to do this is through
their arc. Now, though attention to character is always important, certain
genres demand more than others just like certain genres demand more plot than
others. For example, literary, contemporary YA, and romance put more emphasis
of character than more plot-driven genres like thriller, adventure, fantasy and
sci fi. In any case, character arc enhances the story but it can be tricky to
understand how create this arc and how to use it to better the story, so here
are some tips:
Really, think of it as a curve. Okay, so
maybe not a nice smooth curve, more like one with a bunch of bumps and squiggles
in it. Also, the direction of this curve depends on who you want your character
to become. Usually, a protagonist will arc up, starting at point where they
have some personal obstacles to overcome, whether this is just a few things or
a major attitude adjustment. You can also have characters that arc down and progressively
get worse, like a villain or a tragic hero. The point is that as the time goes
on, your characters should move on the Y axis (sorry for the math). You can
actually plot it out if it helps you understand the rises and falls of your
Find what each character really needs to change. What is holding them back from achieving their goal? Why is it so
important that they change? What would happen or who would they be if they don’t
change? Alternatively, what can go wrong if they change or change for the worse?
Remember that not every character arc is a positive one and sometimes readers
need to see the characters fall to understand what is at stake and cheer for
them more when they get back up.
Don’t make it sudden or pointless. Like
anything else in your story you want to make the character’s advancement (or
deterioration) have a cause and effect relationship. Something that happens in
the story causes the character to have to change or at least consider how their
actions are impacting others and their own life. A drunk who gets into a car
accident and nearly kills their kid. A hero whose selfishness nearly causes the
destruction of a village. Typically, the biggest shifts happen near the climax
where the stakes are highest and the character has to make the biggest
Don’t make the character passive.
Passive characters, in particular passive protagonists are unbearable. These
are the ones that have the plot happen to them rather than contributing to the
direction and outcome of the events. A character needs to take charge of their own
destiny even if it’s a story where destiny is literally coming after them. Like
I said before, some genres have more room for this than others. A high-stakes
thriller that’s more plot driven has moments where the characters have to
struggle to keep up with the events happening to them, but they should still be
making the major decisions that ultimately lead to the conclusion. When the
characters aren’t being decisive they can’t grow or change and their personal story
stays flat and boring.