Problematic YA Tropes: Lazy Foils

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Author’s Note: I started writing a post about YA Tropes that I found problematic, but the list grew so long I decided to dedicate a short post to each topic. Also, I am a YA author and I love reading and writing this age group. But because I love it so much, I think we writers can do better by our readers. Hence why I’m calling out a few of these problematic tropes. Here goes:

Tropes in YA novels are commonplace, and calling them a trope doesn’t necessarily mean they are inherently bad. Sometimes they serve a purpose and are accompanied by nuanced and in-depth writing that nullifies potential harm. But when you read as many YA books as I do (120+ last year) you really begin to see those repeated tropes as an endless parade of boring. Even worse, there are many that do actual harm to readers.

Lazy Foils

From Merriam-Webster.com:

foil: (noun) someone or something that serves as a contrast to another

Technically, foils aren’t a trope; they’re a writing tool. One that I think too many authors use poorly. This is the trope (yup, I’m still going to call it a trope) that Stereotypes and Not Like Other Girls and Perfect LI’s were leading into. It’s using the stereotypical characteristics of Character X to create the characteristics of Character Y (and/or make Character Y look better in contrast), but not actually doing anything in your writing to build Character Y. (Or relying too heavily on Character X to define Character Y.) This is going to be repetitious from my other posts, but bear with me. Here are a few examples:

  • Ex is catty/mean/shallow to make MC/LI look sweeter (Sweet Special Snowflake and Not Like Other Girls)
  • Ex is possessive/abusive/jerk to make MC/LI look nicer (Perfect LI)
  • All females besides MC or LI are catty, slutty, & bitchy (Stereotypes)
  • All males except MC or LI are jerks, sexual predators, or Neanderthals (Stereotypes)
  • Super cruel one-dimensional villain who serves to make our hero look better
  • Spunky best friend to make MC look like an introvert
  • Sexy, experienced best friend to highlight MC’s naiveté and innocence

There are arguments in favor of these characters, so lets get them out of the way now. Yes, those types of people do exist in real life. Yes, opposites attract and introverts become friends with extroverts. Yes, people are prone to think their love interests’ ex’s are catty/slutty/bitchy/abusive/possessive/jerks because we are human and we want to believe that we are superior in every way to that ex. And yes, the bad guy is usually cruel and awful, because that’s what makes them the bad guy. But if we use them over and over and over again in very stereotypical ways, does that make for good writing?

Many times when I see the characterizations listed above they are a shallow, under-developed stereotype written to help define the MC or LI. And it’s not a bad thing to create characters meant to develop your main characters: that’s what foils are for. But if the foil is a shadow of an actual character with wants and needs of their own, then you’ve left out some important story development.

‘But this is a writing tool’, you say. Well, yes, it is. And it’s been used by countless writers before you. And it can be done well. Nothing in writing is unequivocal. There is always a use of a trope or tool or unconventional method that works well and becomes profound writing. But there are also many ways to use them poorly and make the writing fall flat.

Let’s talk about the super cruel one-dimensional villain: of course they are awful! Who wants to read about a hero stopping a ‘villain’ from delivering free ice cream? But think about the villains who made you keep turning the page. Were they one-dimensional? Was everything about them ever completely and totally evil and they had no reason for being evil other than to just be evil? J.K. Rowling humanized Voldemort, inspiring us to give him sympathy, yet in the end I still wanted Harry to end him. I didn’t even feel bad about it. And Victoria Schwab made me love Holland in the Shades of Magic series so much that I really, really needed him to get a happy ending despite all the horrible things he had done. (But I also wanted him defeated.) Voldie and Holland were far from one-dimensional. And the reader didn’t need their bad deeds to make Harry and Kell look better. Harry and Kell showed the reader through their own actions, often unrelated to Voldemort or Holland, that they were worth rooting for.

The catty ex is a huge trope in YA, and though it has its place it’s kind of (as in super, super) over done. In A.G. Howard’s Splintered series she does use the ‘Not Like Other Girls’ trope and the Catty Ex trope, which is not my favorite, but she mixed it up. Taelor (the catty ex) fits all the stereotypes, but Howard broaden that definition by showing the reader through small glimpses that Taelor’s Oh-So-Perfect-Life was maybe not so perfect after all. Could Howard have done more? Definitely yes. She still used some stereotypes and tropes, but she gave us something more than the basic every day and she definitely developed Alyssa’s character without needing Taelor to constantly define her.

Probably the worst use of this (to me) is making all (or most of) your female characters catty/slutty/bitchy, or making all (or most of) your male characters jerks/sexual predators/Neanderthals in order to make your MC or LI look better. For one, it’s such a narrow world view if your characters reside in a story where the MC and LI are so pristine (Sweet Special Snowflake) that everyone else is demonized in comparison. And it’s lazy to surround your characters with stereotypes to create their personality. If you want your guy to be a feminist, show that he’s a feminist in some way that doesn’t involve him fending off a sexual predator from your girl. If you want your girl to be nice and down-to-earth show that in some way instead of having the catty girls act as a foil. If she’s only sweet and special when other girls are bitchy, then she’s probably not that sweet and special to begin with.

I guess the moral of this story is do more character development of all your characters. Even though this story may be about your Sweet Special Snowflake, the villain and the side characters are stars of their own show. Maybe they don’t feature prominently, but give them a life off the page. And at least some glimpses of that life on the page. And develop your MC and LI fully without always relying on another character.

And of course there’s more reading!

Literary Foils: Definition and Examples by Liz Bureman on thewritepractice.com (A good basic explanation of foils, keeping in mind that they are a tool of literature and not bad unless they’re lazy and stereotypical)

5 Steps to Writing Good Foil Characters by Joseph Blake Parker on Deviant Art (I like this one because it talks about giving foils a part of the story beyond just being the foil.)

Creating the Perfect Foil by Julie on Pub(lishing) Crawl (“An effective foil is often a strong and fascinating character in his or her own right.”)

Other Posts in this Series:

Problematic YA Tropes: Stereotypes

Problematic YA Tropes: ‘Not Like Other Girls’ and Perfect LI’s

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2 thoughts on “Problematic YA Tropes: Lazy Foils

  1. Pingback: Problematic YA Tropes: ‘Not Like Other Girls’ and Perfect LI’s | Jennifer Austin – Author

  2. Pingback: Problematic YA Tropes: Stereotypes | Jennifer Austin – Author

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