I’m knee-deep in NaNoWriMo at the moment, prodding a moody cowboy through a vague shadow of a plot, but I managed to find time to do some research into tropes for a workshop with my editor. It was slightly shameful how much of TVTropes can be found in a random chapter of my novel, but then again I don’t think it’s a bad thing, especially when we’re dealing with the Brooding YA Hero.
Ah, Brooding YA Hero. He’s everywhere. He’s in this excellent Toast article, being all attractive and punching quarterbacks. He’s a Twitter sensation, making our hearts go all quivery. He even seems to have accidentally snuck onto primetime BBC hit Strictly Come Dancing in the form of the physically repulsive Gleb Savchenko, who escaped the Brooding YA Hero factory to do a paso doble or two.
The thing with this set of tropes made flesh is that it can be found through the ages. Go back decades and James Dean was stalking about being angry about everything. John Hughes’ entire 80s output was angsty teenagers surrounded by idiotic adults. And the 90s was Dawson’s Creek territory, floppy-haired James van der Beek and all. So as I said my editor, in her wisdom, asked me to list every trope in one chapter. The list was embarrassingly long because it was the main character’s backstory, but mainly it was a large chunk of Troubled But Cute, with a sprinkling of Don’t You Dare Pity Me!, Jerk With A Heart Of Gold, Dark And Troubled Past, Men Don’t Cry and All Girls Want Bad Boys. Clichés are hard to avoid, but they’re also hard to do well.
If he’s eminently TVTropes-able, then, what are the defining characteristics of Brooding YA Hero?
You’ve got to stare angrily or sadly at things. If you have any other facial expressions, they should be accompanied by judicious lip-biting and playing with your hair. Don’t forget to let those cobalt/silver/emerald/sapphire eyes flash furiously! (Or, y’know, your character could just have brown eyes. That’s cool too. Ease up on the precious stones, already.)
Your backstory must be nothing short of tragic. Nobody can get close to you, except that cute quirky girl who’s also conveniently an outcast. You’ll get together, but have enough ‘will they, won’t they’ moments to make several sequels and a merchandise range. I mean, come on, she totally looked at Brad McBradderson like she wanted to go on a date with him. Ditch that girl already!
When asked to reveal said backstory, there must be a single, crystalline manly tear. You’ll probably SHOUT A BIT and slam your hands on a table. You’ll probably be from the wrong side of town from a crappy home, and the outcast girl/world in peril/scumbag quarterback will be your single chance to redeem yourself. It’s all neatly summarised in Dangerous Minds, which is worth watching for three reasons: Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise, Michelle Pfeiffer attempting a Southern accent, and Emilio completing your trope bingo card in a single scene, and doing it so comprehensively I was reminded of my main character and felt guilty about not poking my manuscript instead of watching a pisspoor 90s film.
I think the tragic backstory trope gets a lot of unnecessary flak. It’s such a pivotal moment in a character’s journey, and in the case of the ‘anti-hero’ it’s a good time to persuade everyone that really, he’s not such a bad person and it’s because of all these historic awful things that he occasionally punches people, steals things, burns buildings down… er, anyway. MOVING ON.
If tropes are used in the same way as everyone else then of course they get boring, but if it’s used with enough of a unique twist, it’s all good. I mean, I spent three years studying the adventures of a hero with a tragic conflict-filled backstory, battling mythical creatures and ultimately finding true love. And he even had his own range of pottery-based merchandise.
So with a spot of avoiding cookie-cutter tropes, subverting them John Hughes-style, and avoiding your future reader eyerolling at yet another moody teenager, you too can write your own Brooding YA Hero adventure. Maybe.