Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Pesky Parent Problem

Why are the pages of children’s literature filled with dead parents? The traditional answer is that heroes need room to explore and make mistakes on their own without pesky parental units interfering.  How is your teen slayer going to kill demons that only come out at night if she has a doting mother and father that expect her home by her curfew of 9 pm?

Parental figures can also be thinly veiled extensions of the author.  I have a friend who was advised to kill of her mother character because the mother acted like her.  Talk about killing your darlings!

But do you always have to kill off your main characters parents if you want your hero to have the freedom to grow?

There are alternatives.

1. Make your parents neglectful or disinterested.

In SHIVER by Maggie Stiefvater, Grace’s parents let Grace do whatever she wants.  They are so permissive and uninvolved in Grace’s life, they don’t even notice that her boyfriend is sleeping over.  Every night.

2. Make your parents the antagonist.

In THE RISE OF RENEGADE X by Chelsea M. Campbell, supervillain Damien finds out his father is a superhero.

3. Make your parents an integral part of your hero’s journey.

In PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S. King, Ken Dietz helps Vera come to terms with the death of her friend Charlie while she helps him get over the loss of her mother.

4. Kill off your hero.

Parents don’t have to be a problem in the afterlife.

Guess which alternative I picked in writing LEVEL TWO?

It was a little of number 4 mixed with a little of number 2 and 3.  My main character has a very close relationship with her father and one of my favorite scenes is a father/daughter trip.  My editor agreed and actually wanted me to put in MORE of the father.  I was pleasantly surprised - but it fact - it does work for my story.

What are some of your tactics for dealing with parents in your stories? Who are some of your favorite parents in children’s literature?

Lenore Appelhans is the author of LEVEL TWO (Simon & Schuster BFYR/Fall 2012), a dystopian afterlife thriller.  Visit her blog and/or follow her on twitter.


  1. I think a big part of YA is about encouraging teens to step up and take care of themselves and go outside of their comfort zones.

    I'd like to see more YA where the parents are urging their kids to take charge/action without being pushy or trying to make their kids ambitious in ways they don't want to be ambitious.

    Love the idea of a father/daughter trip!

  2. I do write a lot of orphans, but I'd like to think I'm allowed to since I parent a bunch of them.

    I've done #2 and #3 before, and I hope to do a lot more of #3 in the future. Next novel.

  3. Awesome! I went with 2 in INCARNATE, but I'm looking at a different option for the story I'm working on right now. Parents = pain in the butt. *g*

  4. My MCs parents are a hge part of his life and he admires them. He is an only child so theres that dynamic. They give him freedom to let his imagination run wild but always have a loving watchful eye on him. Of course five chapters in he is whisked away to a fantasy realm and leaves his family and earth behind. But its the fact that he had such loving parents that makes the decision harder. He isnt running from someone or rebeling against anything -- hes making a clear choice to embark on a new chapter. I think theres room in YA for the encouraging parent who gives their child room to grow while still being alive. Lack of accountability is really the opposite of maturation and growth. A hero should love and be loved and be held responsible to some sort of family or community. To me that makes the journey or twist or change in the heros life that much more compelling. It makes his decisions mean more than just "well no ones around to tell me not to so here I go!"

  5. <- Dead mother and drug addicted, disinterested father here.

    Like, my protag, I mean. Not me :P

  6. Miranda - That would be the healthy way, for sure.

    Adam - I love option 3.

    Jodi - Cool!

    Geoff - Fantasy realms are always a good option.

    Jay - I was going to say that drug addicted/mentally ill was a subset of #1.

  7. I like that you included a parent in the story. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one book where the parents are not only present, but know that their child is different (The Body Finder).

    Now I'm left wondering where this father/daughter trip takes place :-)

  8. Preoccupied divorced parents here. :)

    I LOVED Ken Dietz in PIVD. He was trying so hard and still doing everything wrong.

    Great post, Lenore!

  9. SP - You'll have to read to find out :)

    Emily - Also loved Ken! And thanks.

  10. I love this post! I've got mother with mental illness and workaholic father.