Parents take many different forms in literature. From Mrs. Weasley, warm and nurturing, to Darth Vader, who gives hugs via Force Choke. However, there’s been a quiet trend, at least in some of the popular fiction I’ve read, of parents who are killed off or written as weak and flaky. This seems to be an attempt to accelerate the maturity of the young protagonists—but does it? I find I lose interest when the ignorance of the parents serves only to increase the so-called worthiness of the main character. It’s like giving the protagonist a sign that says, “Look at me! I’m so legit because I’ve risen above those narrow-minded fuddy-duddies with the negative attitudes!” It feels like we haven’t graduated from 7th grade.
Real life, instead, has proven that who we are is who we are, and if we want to be someone different, it’s more complicated than severing ties with our parents. How we are raised is powerful. That example of when everyone comes home for the holidays is common for a reason. We all tend to slip back into our “place” that we occupied when we were younger. I go back to being the people-pleasing youngest child, even though I am a competent mother in my “real life.”
As fiction writers, we want to draw readers into our new worlds with a string of reality that will help our audience accept our character who has blue hair and six arms. So we strive to create a real person, with real struggles and characteristics. And a struggle with or against how the characters were raised is a natural way to do that.
Parents aren’t always the adversaries—always writing them as such is an easy way out. We are cheating our readers—and ourselves—if we never explore our character’s relationship with their parents. They deserve more than an existence as two-dimensional antagonists.
All parents have a direct influence (positive and negative). Biological parents engrave traits that are written in DNA. When I’m reading and see this inherited aspect, it helps me connect with the characters. We connect with Luke Skywalker because he has this innate desire to be like his father—as many of us do. We see that he has skill with the Force and he is good at making things, like his father. And even when his father is revealed to be Luke’s opponent, he goes further, hoping to change that relationship. This creates another dimension of Luke, allowing us to see how the Jedi training has brought him from a boy to a man who handles his power differently than his father.
Having a character struggle against his natural urges and win is an effective way to build a believable person, and also encourage readers.
We can also explore the dynamic effect that death has upon children. How do parents influence a child, even if they’re not physically present? Just watch your social media feed on Mother’s Day weekend—it is proof that whether or not people have their parents in their lives, they are affected. On that basis our fictional characters should be affected, too. Harry Potter wanted to find out as much about his parents as possible—and probably got more than he bargained for. He is repeatedly told how he is like his father. Harry is even treated differently because of his parents’ actions. Yet this strengthens the bond Harry feels with his parents.
Have your character find out during her journey that her parents weren’t who she thought they were. Allow that to either make or break the bond she feels with them.
Then there are the relationships that are truly destructive. Physical, verbal, and emotional abuse will always damage a relationship far beyond what humans can repair. But even that is an area that readers and writers may benefit by digging into. Seek out the reason for the abuser’s viciousness. Seek a healing for the person who is hurt. Forgiveness is a powerful story. One that we all benefit hearing about in a realistic way.
Write real mother-daughter/father-son relationships. Don’t just use the parental units as pawns to tick off your protagonist. Well, yes, use them to do that, but then go deeper. Explore it. Go into those uncomfortable places none of us want to go when we must confront people who are able to wound us to the core. Heal or break the relationship further.
Why go to that trouble? Because it is real. And in the midst of elves and superheroes and dragons, that thread of reality will keep your reader turning the page.
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Amy Davis is a writer, mother, lover of hot drinks and nerdy things. She is one of the founding members of Crosshair Press—an indie publisher—serves as the Acquisitions Manager, and blogs on that site monthly. She occasionally tweets on Twitter.