On parents in fiction…

I hope that I’m a good Mummy. I know I don’t spend quite enough time with my children, and that I find their games pretty boring (playing “shops” would have to be the worst, where you line up to buy the same six items over and over and over and over….) But I read to them and sing to them and take them to the park and tell them I love them, and I certainly believe in the power of parenting to help children become good citizens in the world.

But parents in fiction are a different story all together. Parents of fictional protagonists are a difficult category and, often, they end up being complete arseholes. The roll call in my books (the ones I can remember anyway) includes bullies and drunkards (many, many drunkards), ice queens, idiots, psychotics, and neurotics. Often parents are absent all together: dead, missing in action, run off. Why is this so?

First, because parents are inconvenient in fiction. Stories thrive on big conflicts. If, in real life, one found oneself inside such a big conflict (e.g. evil spirits outside your window), the first thing one might do is call Mum (or Dad). Mum (or Dad) would then either (a) encourage you to come home from the haunted cottage on the lonely windswept moor, resulting in NO STORY, or (b) come and help you fight the evil spirits, resulting in too many characters performing the same function. Good parents can really screw up a story, because their default setting in life is to help their children. Bad parents cut their children off, leaving them to resolve conflicts on their own.

Second, because characters are more interesting if they’ve got emotional baggage. It’s one thing for your character to  realise her dreams against insurmountable odds when she’s completely psychologically healthy; but give her a shitload of shame and crippling self-doubt from some past misadventure, and you add layers of complexity, even mystery. And where is the best and most common place to become dysfunctional? Yep, the family home.

So don’t read too much into my own family history from my novels. Sure, my dad was a mess and has appeared in several fictionalised forms throughout, but my mum is more like Stasya in Gold Dust. She’s warm, compassionate, practical, and patient. She’s the first person I’d have by my side, if I ever really had to do battle with evil spirits.

6 thoughts on “On parents in fiction…

  1. or c) Mum (or Dad) would question my labeling the spirits as evil. what did i do to bring these evil spirits upon me. was any of this a direct consequence of my actions? was i interrupting, talking over others, not listening. have i thought about trying to be friends with the evil spirits? and my favourite “why don’t you have a party and invite the evil spirits, then they’ll invite you to their parties.”


    “why don’t you play shops with the evil spirits?”

  2. Uh…yep. Parents are a pain in the butt, especially in YA.

    Right now, I can only think of two YA books on my shelf that haven’t killed off the parents…

    Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief: Mum (actually, Mom) is well and living in NY while Percy is at half-blood camp, where half-bloods (part normal kid, part god) learn to fight off demons. Percy’s dad is Poisidon. He’s in contact with both parents but obviously has exceptional circumstances.

    Artemis Fowl: His father is lost at sea and I think his mother is bed-ridden or in a coma from losing her husband. Meanwhile, Artemis Fowl swans about with his obediant bodyguard trying to exterminate faeries etc. At the end of the first book his mum wakes up (I haven’t read the rest, so I’m not sure how it works after that).

    Dead parents list from my bookshelf:
    Harry Potter series (Murdered by Voldemort)
    Alex Rider series (Murdered by another spy)
    Cherub series (Mum mucks up her perscription drugs & booze)
    A series of unfortunate events (Very suspicious housefire)

  3. So true! I remember reading a rule somewhere about writing for children / young people, which is ‘get rid of the adults, fast’. Boarding schools are great because all the parents are left behind (Harry Potter). Getting lost (eg. while camping / trekking / in space) is another method I’ve seen used a lot (Tomorrow When the War Began). But killing them off or having irresponsible parents works equally well!

    No adults make for a much more character driven story, especially in children’s fiction. But I do sometimes worry what my mum thinks of the parent figures in my stories…

  4. I love the mother in Giants of the North! I can relate to her to a certain extent. Being an aging hippie myself, I can understand her. My daughter probably thinks I am only a few degrees less off the wall and nowhere near as neurotic, but if any of you have ever “listened” to Giants of the North as narrated to Edwina Wren, tho I hate when she does foreign accents, her rendition of Victoria’s mother is spot on!

    I can understand Vidar’s hatred and fear of his father and anxiety that he might out turn out like him or repeat some of his mistakes, but I did not know Odin was such a creepy god. It has been a while since I have read any Norse mythology, so I should consult my books again.

    But I think it is wonderful that, Kim, that you gave parents a voice – at least in this book, only my second of your books, but not the last by a long shot! In spite of her mother’s trust in a psychic called Bathsheba which, to Victoria is totally illogical at best and downright dangerous at worst, she still loves her mother. And we do love our parents, don’t we, no matter how crazy or evil or neurotic or useless as parents they may be.

    Lots of food for thought, there, Kim!

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