For years, we’ve heard about the lack of parents in young adult fantasy, and I just saw another headline last week. Why must so many YA heroes be orphans or disconnected from their parents? Why can’t authors give readers illustrations of loving families? Now that I’m both a parent and an author of YA fantasy, I have a new perspective on the issue.
It’s really as simple (and as challenging) as this: loving, involved parents wouldn’t allow their children to undertake the kind of risks or suffer through the difficult situations these protagonists experience.
I’m going to be honest here. No matter how noble the cause might be, whether he’s the “chosen one” or not, regardless of how much it might contribute toward him becoming a courageous and independent adult, if my son wanted to set out on a quest to save the world or oppose a corrupt government, would I let him go? Absolutely not. At least not alone, and let’s face it—having his or her parents along would significantly undermine the teenager’s role in any story geared toward YA readers.
I also think there’s a secondary force at work. On average (I apologize for the necessity of a broad generalization), a young person growing up without parents or the stability of an “ordinary” family life will likely have a more complex, and therefore more interesting, coming-of-age journey. All teenagers need to strike out on their own, to some extent, to cross the threshold into adulthood. But those who didn’t know their parents, or who for whatever reason never felt a strong sense of self within their childhood home, tend to require more meaningful opportunities to prove themselves in order to gain a sense of identity and appreciate their place in the world.
Does this mean that young adult protagonists must resign themselves to their fates as orphans? To an extent, yes. There’s nothing like putting together the pieces of a young hero’s mysterious heritage to help a character find a new sense of self, and authors will continue to be attracted to that kind of storyline. But in a world where divisions become more pronounced every day, technology puts an increasingly palpable barrier between human connections, and safety restrictions are at a maximum, modern teenagers have plenty of reasons to need to branch out and find their own self-worth, even from the security of a stable home environment.
And if authors approach the challenge creatively, there are a number of ways to give teen characters a loving family life while still sending them on an unsupervised adventure. The most obvious is to create a necessary separation between the character and his or her family. This can take the form of boarding school, like in the Sentinel trilogy by Jamie Foley; summer camp, as Amy C. Blake used in The Trojan Horse Traitor; or an institution put in place by the government, such as The Hunger Games. In my novel, Common, the main character is separated from her ma when she is banished from the kingdom and her mother can’t accompany her due to poor health. In The Rose and the Wand by E.J. Kitchens, a curse from a magic mirror transports the main character away from her family, forcing her to find her way back. The possibilities are endless!
But there are other alternatives, as well. In Spark by J.M. Hackman and The Tethered World by Heather L.L. Fitzgerald, each heroine embarks on her quest in order to save a parent in danger. Or the parents could be fighting for the same cause as the teen protagonist but in a different way, as illustrated by the Weasley family in the Harry Potter series.
So here’s to authors who manage to give their characters warm family environments, while also finagling enough independence to allow them to go on an adventure worthy of immortalization in a book! But let’s also cut some slack to the authors who produce the orphans of the literary world. In the end, what we all want most for our characters is a great story, which often means depriving them of many of our most cherished comforts in life—safety, freedom, or even parents—in order to achieve it.
An avid reader practically since birth, Laurie Lucking discovered her passion for writing after leaving her career as an attorney to become a stay-at-home mom. When she gets a break from playing superheroes and driving windup cars, she writes young adult fantasy with a strong thread of fairy tale romance. Her debut novel, Common, released in February from Love2ReadLove2Write Publishing, and her short story, “Threshold,” was published in a Fellowship of Fantasy anthology titled Mythical Doorways. Laurie is the Secretary of her local ACFW chapter and a co-founder of Lands Uncharted, a blog for fans of clean young adult speculative fiction. A Midwestern girl through and through, she currently lives in Minnesota with her husband and two young sons. Find out more by visiting Laurie’s social media sites: