Writer Wednesday: Kill the parents

Oh, it’s certainly that time of week again: today, we’re poking at a trope that pisses off people pretty quick: writers are either for or against it, but divided they stand and the rift that separates the factions is pretty spectacular.

If this particular trope annoys you, I’m here to tell you its a necessary one for the growth of your protagonist. Is it the only way? No, but it sure is effective.

Imagine, if you will: The protagonist stands alone, cut off from her tribe, and is forced to make her own decisions away from the influencers who would otherwise guide and shelter her from danger.

His parents are dead. Her parents are divorced. Her parents sold her to a drug lord. Her parents are negligent and never home. Her mother is stolen by an evil overlord (her father is the evil overlord.) Her father is dead, and her mother psychologically broken.

Let’s link these statements to books. Ahem. Respectively:

Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. The Walled City by Ryan Graudin. Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

The girl stands alone against imminent destruction, and eventually, the girl becomes a hero.

Parents? They get in the way of a good action sequence.

From the rooftops, I hear people screaming: WHY ARE THE PARENTS IN EVERY YA BOOK DEAD, MISSING, OR ABSENT? Because, I say: they get in the way of a protagonist becoming something more than what we expect of a teenager to be. Thankfully, this isn’t true of real life.

Today, we’re exploring the dead parents trope in YA fiction, monomyth, and why the protagonist matters most in young adult fiction.


Writer Wednesday: Kill the parents

25 Things you should know about Young Adult Fiction by Chuck Wendig

“Adults are rarely the main characters of a young adult book. Why would they be? They don’t have teen problems. They’re witnesses, at best. That said, adults can be the supporting characters (though usually still peripheral to the teen world — teachers, parents, older siblings) and they can certainly be the villains (which is true to the teen mold because sometimes, when you’re a teenager, the adults in your life can be giant, cankerous assholes). What I mean to say is, TEENS RULE, ADULTS DROOL *flushes Dad’s toupee down the toilet and sets fire to the house*”

Young Adult Contemporary Guidepost #4: Parents in YA Fiction by Lucy Silag

“Some writers + editors feel that spending a lot of time with a parent, teacher, or other adult is not a good idea in a YA book. You want to keep that intense dynamic going amongst the young protagonists, and to involve adults and their back stories runs the risk of getting into the dreaded territory of the boring–adult concerns like paying bills, going to work, buying healthy groceries, getting enough exercise and do the laundry can really deflate all the fun of a YA novel.”

Absentee Parents in YA: Yes-Yes or No-No? by Peta Jinnah Andersen

“Most fantasy books—Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book, Eva Ibboston’s The Island of the Aunts and The Star of Kazan, and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, to name a few—sideline parents. This isn’t just because parents aren’t interesting, but because most fantasy novels (including the above) follow the hero’s journey pattern, as described by Joseph Campbell.”

In Defense of Dead/Absent Parents in Children’s Literature by Nathan Bransford

“I’m not a psychologist or an anthropologist or even a cultural historian (though I play one on a blog), but I am a former twelve-year-old, and I can remember how thrilling it was to read books where the kids were off on their own, fighting and outsmarting adults, dealing with harsh landscapes, facing their deepest fears, making unforgettable friendships, and, while I didn’t know it at the time, learning how to be adults.”

YA Lit Really Screws Over Parents by Chihuahua Zero

“Many authors like to keep the parents out of the way. A lot of the time, especially in dystopian stories, that involves offing at least one of them. Look at the Big Three of YA. Harry Potter is an orphan, Bella’s parents are divorced, and Katniss’ father died in a mine collapse.”

Dead parents trope in YA fiction by Elizabeth Langston

“Dead or missing parents is a fairly common trope in YA. The theory goes that, in order for a teen to make independent decisions and drive the flow of the story, a strong authority figure (i.e. the parent) cannot be present.”

#RealYA How Does It Affect Fiction? by Shannon A. Thomson

“I actually get a little sad when I see people ask for authors to stop putting dead parents in novels. As someone who grew up in a situation where my mother died, I remember how hard it was for me to FIND a book like my situation. I honestly still haven’t. Here’s the thing. I don’t think the dead parents trope is the problem. I think it’s HOW it’s shown in books and other types of media.”


Want more? Check out last week’s post on Making Monsters, or the week before, when I gave you my favourite articles about Creating Immortal Characters.

Until next time, creepy people.

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