Parents – They Get in the Way of Good Fiction

April 14, 2012 at 12:20 am (fantasy, Fervor, Links, Magic University, writing) (, , , , , , , )

I’m sure my title to this blog posting has people offended, or scratching their heads in confusion. My discussion today falls back to a conversation in my fantasy writers group where it was noted that in YA stories, parents of child or youth protagonists are commonly absent in one way or another. I don’t consider my work YA, but in my own stories I can honestly say that the same thing applies. Don’t believe me? Here are many examples of absentee parents and a number of reasons why they are no longer there:

Dead – One way to guarantee parents won’t be around is to kill them off. Sometimes it is both parents, like with Harry Potter, or my own character, Dee Aaronsod in Casualties of War. This usually means you’re going to have to offer up a surrogate, possibly another relative, like Dee’s older sister, Juliana, or some other guardian, but the replacement will never be as invested in the character as their actual parents would be. This is important for the story. Other times it is only one parent who has been taken before their time, like Katniss’s father in the Hunger Games. This leaves a custodial parent, but one who may be grieving, overwhelmed or distracted. This leads into my next example.

Mentally Unavailable – This is usually more likely to happen when there is only one parent remaining, and they’ve either suffered some kind of breakdown as a result of the loss of their partner, like Katniss’s mother, or are simply overwhelmed with trying to make ends meet on their own. They might mean well, but not have the time and energy to invest in their child and they end up neglecting them to some degree, as a result. In other cases they might be totally distracted by something that ranks as high a priority, or higher, as their offspring. An example of this is Mo, the father in Inkheart. He is so caught up in trying to protect and possibly retrieve his wife that he isn’t always there for his daughter when she needs him. Addy’s mother and father in my When You Whisper are both mentally unavailable, her mother because of clinical depression and her father because of his addiction and abusive nature. You’ll also have the family that is swarming with kids and the parents are forced to focus their attention and efforts on the youngest of their passel, leaving the older children to manage on their own.

Missing – Abducted, lost at sea, or merely having runaway to escape life, sometimes one or both of the parents are completely gone, but not necessarily dead. I took this to an extreme in Fervor, where the children and youth don’t know what has become of their parents or their surrogates, their Minders, who just up and abandon them. Sometimes the whole premise of the book will be bent on the child’s search for the missing parent(s). Other times it is a matter of an attempt at self-preservation, with the children left to fend for themselves.

Sick – Not as serious or finite as death, but still a threat and one that can incapacitate one or both parents. This is a common tool in fairy tales, where the child goes off on a quest for a cure for their ailing parent. In my Casualties of War, Clayton has been entrusted to the care of his older brother, Gillis, and separated from his parents as a result. When his guardian falls ill, he can’t turn to Gillis to solve his problems and Clayton takes it upon himself to try to help rectify the situation.

Divorce/Separation/Life Circumstances – More likely a theme in contemporary genres, the facts of life can impinge on a character’s circumstances. Voluntary separation or divorce will break up a family and may leave the custodial parent bitter and inattentive. The non-custodial parent might move away, or simply be resentful of the situation and not remain involved with their child. I use this technique in Intangible, where Troy’s parents have divorced, making his father unavailable and his mother too busy to be involved significantly in his affairs. The separation might also be involuntary, such as a military person who is shipped off to serve overseas, or a business person who has to spend lengthy periods away from their family for business purposes. This is just one more way of taking one or both parents out of the picture.

Sometimes we aren’t even given an explanation why the parents aren’t there, it’s just clear that they are not. My character, Nolan, in Casualties of War, is a parentless street urchin, but also very secretive about his past, so the reader doesn’t discover how he ended up that way. We don’t even know if he knows why he’s on his own.

The question, then, is “Why?” Why is it necessary to eliminate parents when your protagonist is a child or young adult? Well, the fact is that a good, invested parent will get in the way of the story. Such a parent will go out of their way to protect their child and shield them from tragedy, shoulder any major responsibilities, and help them deal with any obstacles they might encounter. This is okay if your story is offering a whole family of protagonists, but not if you want the focus to be on the individual. If it is a trial the child must endure, alone or with his or her peers, you don’t want a concerned mother or father meddling in the process. I think that’s the best explanation as to why you aren’t likely to see competent well-balanced parents accompanying protagonist children and youths. Parents simply get in the way of good fiction.



  1. All in the What? | Guild Of Dreams said,

    […] in point is the notion I explored in another blog post about younger adventurers and their parents – or lack thereof. If a writer wants to place a […]

  2. A Mother of an Idea | Guild Of Dreams said,

    […] in which the parents of adolescent protagonists are often kept out of the storyline in my blog post “Parents – They Get in the Way of Good Fiction” but this is about what happens when a writer reaches that point in a longer running series where […]

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