Distracted, diabolical, or dead is the standard for most fictional parents. If they don’t perish in a horrific accident (thus giving the protagonist an excuse to dress in black for eternity), they masquerade as the physical embodiment of evil, dismissing and restricting their children for baseless reasons until rebellion almost seems justified.
The villainization and genocide of fictional parents is amusing, since real parents rarely fit into those stifling caricatures. But writing true-to-life parents can seem impossible when you’re used to seeing all of the distortions. If you need to stop or slow down your protagonist, your first inclination might be to throw him into conflict with his overstrict father. So how do you reset your perspective? The process starts with learning to recognize three prevalent clichés.
Problem #1: Boring Parents
Children’s fiction is all about sparking the imagination through outlandish escapades (which may or may not feature a dragon). And nothing brings fun to a crashing halt quicker than the person enforcing bedtime rules.
Because fiction often associates parents with the negative aspects of adulthood, their presence bears the hallmark of dullness: cooking, paying taxes, and wasting time at desk jobs. Meanwhile, for the kids, every second overflows with excitement. Spending hours exploring the creek out back (and maybe finding a magic portal) is an “average” day for them.
To compensate for the stigma attached to parents, many books and movies turn them into comic relief characters. In Pixar’s Luca, the parents’ unfavorable decision (to send their son to stay with an uncle he hates) is offset by them cavorting through town (searching for said son, who ran away) in a slew of ridiculous scenes. The attempts at quirkiness fail because the characters themselves are poorly developed.
Disguising bland characters as funny sidekicks is the equivalent of painting brussels sprouts pink and telling a ten-year-old that the lumps are candy. No matter the color (or, in this case, the jokes), you can’t change what someone is made of. And when the only purpose that parents serve in a story is setting curfews and making bad puns, all readers will care about is getting back to the interesting stuff—you know, like magic portals.
Solution: Redefine Their Roles
In actuality, children’s fiction is filled with complex adult characters—Puddleglum, Mr. Benedict, and Artham Wingfeather, to name a few. Though none of them are parents, they do act as mentors and guardians. Yet they’re wildly popular among fans. Why? Because each one is a fully rounded and integral component of his story, while most parental figures are deadweights.
Writers who shape their protagonist’s parents according to pie-baking, pun-making, rule-enforcing stereotypes are, in essence, skimping on development. Instead of categorizing parents as barely relevant background players, treat them like side characters who contribute to the plot. Flesh out their strengths, weaknesses, wants, needs, and goals.
In Inkheart, Meggie’s father has the ability to summon people and objects from books when he reads out loud. His gift is one of the defining aspects of the trilogy, and without him, the displacement of his wife and the clashes with Capricorn wouldn’t happen. Understanding how the unique traits of your protagonist’s parents affect the story will prevent them from being as flat as cardboard and twice as useless.
Problem #2: Parents Who Prohibit Active Main Characters
The difficulty with writing young protagonists is their lack of autonomy. While a thirty-year-old hero is free to plunge headlong into danger on a whim, minors are subject to the oversight of their elders. Loving parents protect their children. And sometimes that means confiscating a sword from a twelve-year-old and saying, “No, you may not fight dragons.”
However, this healthy and normal dynamic backfires in middle-grade adventure novels, where the whole point is for twelve-year-olds to fight dragons. Then the parents suddenly become an obstacle, like in Luca. They forbid their son from visiting a scary land that he keeps asking questions about, so he sates his curiosity behind their backs—disobeying, fibbing, and sneaking off not excluded.
I’m not implying that negligent parents and rebellious kids don’t belong in fiction. If Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were a model couple, readers would have no picture of the loveless marriage that Elizabeth fears, and Hiccup and Stoick’s tense relationship is a central theme in How to Train Your Dragon. But doting parents and active protagonists aren’t the repelling ends of a magnet. They’re compatible under the right conditions.
Solution: Raise the Stakes for Everyone
Protection isn’t always synonymous with restriction—it can involve equipping a child with defense skills. In the Wingfeather Saga, the Igiby family embarks on a perilous journey to escape the Fangs. The adults of the group, Nia and Podo, try to shelter the children from harm but ultimately can barely keep themselves safe. Preparing the children for skirmishes proves to be a better option than hiding them.
Instead of segregating the parents, include them in the action. Force them into a corner until they have no choice but to let their children participate despite the risks. When the entire family bands together, the mission becomes a team effort instead of a quest the hero pursues solo after tiptoeing around paranoid adults.
Alternatively, placing physical barriers between your protagonist and his parents allows him to exercise his own judgment without resorting to defiance. In North! Or Be Eaten, Janner loses track of his family’s whereabouts during the confusion of an ambush and must navigate tricky situations without the benefit of parental wisdom until he reunites with them.
Problem #3: Parents as Wounds
Before a character can latch onto a compelling false worldview, he must experience enough tragedy and depravity to permanently warp his perspective. Which sounds uncomplicated when you’re portraying a woman facing a nasty divorce, or a war veteran dealing with PTSD. But twelve-year-olds? Due to the limitations of their age and maturity level, most children don’t encounter the kinds of horrors that adults might.
Death, however, touches everyone, and packing it into the protagonist’s backstory may seem like the answer to disrupting his otherwise painless existence. It’s easy to incorporate into any story regardless of the genre or plot, and since grief affects everyone differently, it can spawn whatever lies you want. The dependency of a parent-child relationship makes the irreversible separation especially effective. Need a lonely protagonist? Kill his mom. Need an insecure protagonist? Kill his dad. Need a depressed protagonist? Kill both parents, reducing him to an orphan.
Alas, a brief sojourn into the Disney vault will reveal the flaw in this so-called patent fix. The trope is so overused that it no longer carries an emotional punch. Instead of inventing unique trials that damage the protagonist, writers skip the brainwork and follow a path that countless children’s stories have trampled.
Solution: Corrupt Good Intentions
Both innocence and naïveté can be twisted. Childhood is when a person’s thinking patterns begin to form, so little events that go awry can have a lasting impact. In Raya and the Last Dragon, the protagonist struggles with trust issues because of a mistake she made during her youth. She shared a secret with a friend who exploited the information for political gain, and the betrayal led to the release of an ancient terror that’s still threatening the land six years later.
Although the destruction of the world by man-eating purple blobs might be an extreme example, simplicity is no less poignant. In Zootopia, Nick Wilde has a flashback to the moment when he ignored societal norms to join the Junior Ranger Scouts and his peers bullied him. The sting of that memory lingered into adulthood, jading his perception of himself and his role in society.
While specific cases may require a deceased parent, don’t submit to the misconception that death and abuse are the only circumstances hurtful enough to breed misbeliefs. Sometimes the most pervasive lies are born from nothing more than a small choice with big consequences.
Breaking the Cycle
Fictional parents tend to keep writers playing a game of hide-and-seek, always looking for loopholes in the boundaries that adult accountability imposes. Every story comes with different challenges, and the solutions I describe in this article aren’t one-size-fits-all. The absence of the protagonist’s parents is warranted in some stories. But creating realistic parents doesn’t have to be an ordeal. If you approach the task with creativity, an open mind, and a commitment to treating parental figures as necessary members of your cast, you’ll craft characters who enhance the story’s memorability.
Sarah Baran views herself as fiercely intimidating, but anyone who’s seen her trip over her own shoelaces knows the truth. She’s a paradox disguised in human form, a purveyor of caustic wit, a reluctant people-lover, and an idealistic cynic who sees the world through cracks in her rose-colored glasses. A love for writing grabbed her in a stranglehold when she was only a child, so she decided to give storytelling a whirl. If she’d known this decision would lead to an unhealthy obsession with daggers and many sleepless nights agonizing over finding the perfect words to describe a tree, she might have opted for a safer career choice. Regardless, she’s never looked back.
When she isn’t writing, Sarah dons the role of grouchy librarian and glares at children over the rims of her glasses. You can find her having a good time at humanity’s expense on her blog, TheSarcasticElf.com.