YA fiction and “the death cliché”

Lately I’ve been thinking: is there a “death cliché” in YA fiction? I mean, there sure are a lot of dead people on the page these days. (And we’re not even counting the undead, just the normally, boringly dead.) Does every character have to have a parent, friend, or first love who kicked the bucket? And what about all these dead or quasi-dead protagonists?

I can’t help asking myself these questions. When I was writing the first draft of “The Beginning of After,” I stayed blissfully tuned out to YA books with themes of death and dying — I didn’t want to be influenced. Later, every time I saw a new book release that touched on similar subject matter to mine, I felt my heart sink a little deeper into that pit of “wow, my novel is so un-original” despair. But I had faith that Laurel’s story, and the way she tells it, was unique enough to survive getting lumped in with what some people might see as an annoying and depressing trend.

Or it is a trend? Death and loss are part of life…in a way, they are life (cue The Lion King”). They’re among the great themes of literature — beyond YA, beyond right now — and art in general. In my case, they became a prism through which I could explore the ideas that really tugged at me: survival and human connection. There’s another theme that transcends time and format because it’s an elemental part of reality: that would be love. But I can’t see anyone talking about “the love cliché” in YA or complaining that there’s just too much hooking up in books about teens. Why is that? Is it because as a society we’re conditioned to associate death with only pain, darkness, and regret? Is our threshold for “negative” subject matter so much lower? Do we tend to resent books that don’t let us completely escape whatever’s icky in our lives? I don’t know. It’s not something I ever thought I’d have to consider, but I’m glad for the chance now.


4 Responses to YA fiction and “the death cliché”

  1. Yeah, lately I too noticed that there are not many books that work without such things as “loss” and “death” and that those are the issues of which stories are mostly judged for.
    I like your idea that nobody ever complains about too much love in books but about too much death. I agree that death is never only something dark, sometimes it can provide you with the strongest love you´ve ever experienced. It is just a part of life (I loooooove The Lion King by the way ;) ).
    Love and death go hand in hand and death can never be horrible without love. If someone dies, who isn´t loved … has he ever truly lived? And does someone who is loved and remembered throughout his life ever truly die?
    It is a controversy but f.e. Harry Potter wouldn´t be quiet the success it is without the image of death.

    • I totally agree! Thanks for these insights. And love can be dark and painful too, in different ways…I have a lot of respect for JK Rowling for putting so much death in her books. It makes them that much more powerful!

  2. I blame Disney and Fairy Tales, where so frequently one is missing a Mother and/or Father, and is sort’ve forced to grow up ‘the hard way’ because of that. Sometimes I think it is a crutch – it’s easy to make a character ‘complex’ just by throwing some emotional trauma in their life and how they have to get past that. If someone can actually make me FEEL that loss, such as how JKR did as has been mentioned, then it’s a wonderful thing where I bond with the character more.

  3. Regarding ‘death’ issue in YA fiction: When it comes to plot, there’s really nothing that hasn’t been used … but ‘how’ it is used can make it new, or perhaps different. Trying to avoid cliches is difficult.
    The YA novel I’m (attempting) to write has a father who died, and a protagonist who now lives in a single parent family situation … nothing at all new there. But how I’m attempting to integrate that into the storyline is, I hope, from a different point of view.
    Of course … publishing being the business it is, (and I emphasize business), if you have a marvelous story but the editor who picked yours up from the slushpile decides ‘death’ and single parent family combo is overdone and won’t sell, nothing much can be done about that!!!!


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