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

Problematic YA Tropes: Damsels in Distress and Toxic Masculinity

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

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.

‘Not Like Other Girls’ and Perfect LI’s

There are a list of tropes that can be encompassed in or are related to the heading above. Examples:

  • Hot Mary Sue’s who do no wrong
  • She doesn’t know she’s gorgeous but she is; also One Good Makeover Will Change Your Life
  • Never saw a guy/girl so beautiful
  • Sweet Special Snowflake attracts the player who gives up their loose ways for SSS
  • Guy dumps his catty/slutty/bitchy girlfriend for SSS
  • Girl dumps her jerk/sexual predator/Neanderthal boyfriend for SSS
  • ‘Strong and powerful’ LI’s who always tell the girl she’s gorgeous
  • ‘Not Like Other Girls’

Let’s start with the ‘Not Like Other Girls’: Why is this so problematic? It’s a way to describe a character as not having traditional feminine characteristics (especially when those characteristics are possessive, mean and catty). But it also implies not so subtly that in order to be deemed worthy a female must reject traditionally feminine characteristics and be more like a man. It’s sexist. And it’s damaging to females (and males) in many ways.

The idea that to in order be more worthy, a female must be more like a man, is a concept that’s been around for a while. A long while. Even though woman throughout history have been placed in a delicate box of femininity (especially that delicate flower of white femininity) there has always been that insidious idea that to be worthy you must be more like a man (intelligent, rough, methodical, less emotional) yet women were also thought to be less if they exhibited those characteristics. It was an endless cycle that you couldn’t be worthy if you weren’t like a man, but if you were a woman who acted like a man you weren’t worthy either. There was no winning.

The NLOG narrative pits females against each other. It’s usually accompanied by catty/slutty/bitchy antagonists or ex-girlfriends (see Problematic YA Tropes: Stereotypes). It teaches females to want to deviate from traditional female roles (which is okay) but not under the auspice that they need to change in order to be accepted, that only girls who don’t like to shop, hate pink, and play sports are worthy of respect. But it also implies that ‘other girls’, as in girls who do like traditional female pursuits, are catty/slutty/bitchy. So don’t like make-up or you might be like ‘those girls’.

And as far as beautiful people and Sweet Special Snowflakes, let’s be real. Some of this is wish-fulfillment on the part of the author. No love interest is without flaws. In fact, no main character should be without flaws. Make things messy, make things real, make the conflict feel like it could happen to your reader. Wish-fulfillment and fantasy are great, especially since reading is an escape, but I personally could do with a little less of LI’s who always, every date, remember to tell you how pretty you are, take your hand, tuck the hair behind your ear. Every experience is different of course, but I can say for certain that I never dated a guy like this in high school.

I guess what I’m saying here is that while many of these tropes aren’t inherently harmful, especially if we see them once in awhile, they can become boring and potentially harmful if seen too much. Plus, it’s more of that lazy writing I talked about in my Stereotypes post. Make your characters less stereotypical, hold back on that authorial wish-fulfillment just a tad, and think about what message you’re sending to your readers.

More reading because I know you want it:

Not Like Other Girls on tvtropes.org

The “Not Like Other Girls” Trope on Women’s Comedy (I think her post was better than mine, so be sure to read it!)

3 Signs Your Story’s Characters Are Too Perfect by Suzannah Windsor Freeman on Write It Sideways

Should the “Special Snowflake” Trope be Retired and Left 20,000 Leagues Underground or Is It Still Fun? by Cait on Paper Fury (Read this one for sure! If only for the laughs and good times!)

Other Posts in this Series:

Problematic YA Tropes: Stereotypes

Problematic Tropes: Lazy Foils

Problematic YA Tropes: Damsels in Distress and Toxic Masculinity

Problematic YA Tropes: Stereotypes

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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.

Stereotypes

You might recognize a stereotype when it looks like this:

  • Mean cheerleader/jock/rich person who has it all
  • Sassy Black or Latina friend
  • Flamboyant & effeminate gay male
  • Butch & masculine lesbian
  • All females besides MC or LI are catty, slutty, & bitchy
  • All males except MC or LI are jerks, sexual predators, or Neanderthals
  • “Not like other girls”
  • Dark-skinned aggressor
  • White savior
  • Greedy Jewish person
  • Muslim terrorist
  • The long suffering but always sweet and thankful person with a disability (i.e. Inspiration Porn)

I could go on and on about stereotypes. This list is just a taster. There’s everything from blonde stereotypes to redheads, Jewish to Muslim, jock to geek, city to country, and on and on. My personal pet peeve is the mean cheerleader. This is probably because I was a cheerleader, and I was neither bitchy, catty, nor slutty. Yes, I know people like this do exist, but I see it so often in Contemporary YA the minute that bitchy blonde rears her oh-so-perfect head I roll my eyes and let out an audible sigh.

I think what annoys me most is that it’s lazy writing. The author wants to convey a character in as few words as possible with pre-built connotations (i.e. stereotypes). Because we all understand stereotypes. An author doesn’t have to show us a character if they can select from a predetermined set of options that we’re all programmed to get. Voila! One or two words and we know everything we ever need to know about this villain or side character. They aren’t important enough for the author to develop them beyond the stereotype, so they aren’t important enough for the reader to care. They can be humiliated, rejected, hurt, abandoned and they’re just a stereotype, so who cares?

Maybe when this is just the “mean cheerleader” trope it does little harm (besides irritating me) but when we’re talking about people with marginalized identities, then things get a little nastier. I was judged by complete strangers because I was a cheerleader, so these written stereotypes only reinforce those opinions before they know me. No problem, I only had to deal with that while in uniform (we’re talking 25 years ago btw). But what about a marginalized person who can’t take off their identity? How does that affect them now?

I’d like to think that as writers we already understand that racial, gender, religious, disability, and sexual orientation stereotypes (among others) are offensive and problematic. I’m not going to go over all of that in this post. Partly because as a white, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied person it’s not my place to discuss. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, I suggest you do more research. I’ll leave some links at the bottom. And don’t write characters unlike yourself until you’ve done so.

I think we can do better, though. I’m kind of over the cookie-cutter, two dimensional villains and side characters I see in some novels. Dig deeper. Not because cheerleaders will feel hurt that you’re giving them a bad name (I think we can take it), but because as writers it’s our job to work as hard as we can to do no harm and to give all our characters nuance and depth.

9 Ways YA Authors Can Stand Up to Stereotypes About Young Women by Meredith Turits on Bustle

Why Stereotypes are Bad Even When They’re ‘Good’ by Oliver Burkeman on The Guardian

Stereotypes & Tropes Navigation on Writing with Color: This is a veritable treasure trove of information on writing (or trying not to write) stereotypes relating to ethnicity and other factors

Other posts in this series:

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

Problematic YA Tropes: Lazy Foils

Problematic YA Tropes: Damsels in Distress and Toxic Masculinity