326 – Parents in Fiction
Parents: Most people have them, but they really get in the way when your underaged hero wants to have dangerous adventures and save the day. Perhaps the parents should just be dead? That’s certainly an option, but there are others, we promise! If handled correctly, parents can be an asset to your YA story. It’s all a matter of setting the proper context, which is our topic for this week. Also, a hot transporter take. Honestly, is there any other kind?
Generously transcribed by Corwin. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast, with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi West Matlock and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is:
Oren: And I’m sorry, folks, I can’t go on the podcast today because my parents say it’s too dangerous. Oh no.
Chris: Oh no.
Oren: Or maybe my parents are going to do the podcast instead, since podcasting is hard and they would be better at it. I don’t know. My mom was on this podcast once, she was pretty good.
Chris: Are you sure they’re not just fan raging. [laughter] Stop all that dangerous criticism. It’s totally wrong.
Oren: Unfortunately, this is an episode where I can’t get through exclusively simply by reading quotes from other books. Because today, we’re talking about how to handle parent characters, presuming that your story is about an underage protagonist.
Because that’s really where it becomes an issue. It’s not so much of an issue if your character’s in their forties, their parents might still be around, but they’re not going to be causing trouble. So first I just want to lay out the basic problem because I genuinely see people who don’t understand this.
If you have a story about a child or a teenager going on dangerous adventures, in any rational scenario, loving parents would want to stop that. You don’t want your child going on a dangerous adventure. It’s dangerous. [Wes laughing] No matter how self-actualizing it is, they could die. It’s like “yeah, I let my kid go run around on the freeway because it taught them a really valuable life lesson.”
It’s just, no, never. “I let my kid go off to a war zone to learn the value of friendship.” It just doesn’t work, and it is completely unbelievable to anyone who is not in that story’s specific target audience. Teenagers in stories that are for teenagers and kids in stories that are for kids, will let the wish fulfillment carry them along.
And that happens anytime you aim a story at a specific audience, the wish fulfilment of that audience makes them a little less critical, but, other people are going to read your story, assuming it even is specifically targeted at a certain age demographic, you might want a general audience, and also they might want to go back and read it again later when they’re older. And then it will be kind of weird if they’re like “oh yeah, it was very odd that these parents were just letting their kid go out on this super dangerous adventure.”
And then of course the other problem is that often the parents are just in a position to do something about it. In a lot of fantasy stories the parents also have magical powers or what have you, in which case they would solve the dangerous problem for their child, because that’s what parents exist to do: is to stop your children from having to do dangerous things.
Chris: I have to say there are some situations in stories where we definitely don’t want to encourage kids to try to solve problems on their own instead of going to an adult. Bullying in school is a big one. People don’t understand that schools should be taking care of bullies, and we have so many stories where we use bullies to make a kid protagonist the underdog. And it’s just not a good idea because we really should be making schools take care of that problem.
Oren: You know, the kid who says “no, I’m not going to tell my parents because that would make me a snitch.” No, tell your parents, the adults should be stopping this. And that’s a particular issue because it’s a real world problem.
Chris: Right. Whereas when we have a kid running off and finding the Dark Lord, [Wes laughing] we’re not quite as concerned about the real world lessons that we’ll teach kids.
Wes: But maybe the Dark Lord’s also in middle school and you do just need to go to the principal. [laughter]
Oren: My first tip is you should plan ahead. I see a lot of stories not planned ahead, and then basically have to continually come up with in the moment excuses why the parents can’t get in there and fix things.
And this also applies to really any adult in a position of authority but parents are the most common version. It’s not that you can’t do that, but the more often you do it, the more contrived it will seem even if each individual explanation makes sense. So the first time you need the parents to be out of town so your kid can have a vampire fight in their house, you can say that they had a business trip. But if you do that a second time and be “well, they were invited to a dance, so they’re not here this time.” [We laughing] Even if it makes perfect sense for them to be invited to that dance, it’s really… Twice in a row.
Chris: Pretty soon the parents are always gone somewhere and it feels very contrived. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, every episode they come up with a new reason why the transporters won’t work. Otherwise they could just extract the characters who were in danger from danger. [Oren laughing] Right. So they have to do that. Technobabble is never great, but we just know you’re just making things up because you do this every episode.
Oren: It’s just a sign that you maybe shouldn’t have introduced that level of technology. I kind of feel like Star Trek might’ve been better if they’d had the money to afford that shuttle-landing scene. The reason why it has transporters is because they couldn’t afford shuttle landings in the original series. That would have saved so many problems later. [laughing]
The point is that if you have a robust conceit to explain this consistently, you won’t have to come up with a new one every time, and it will just seem far less contrived. Of course the most obvious one that everyone goes to, is that the parents are dead. This is one of the reasons why we have so many orphan protagonists.
Wes: [speaking creepily] Right, you got to deal with them, permanently… [laughter]
Chris: The nice about dead parents is it doesn’t actually take very much explaining.
Wes: That’s a good point. [laughing]
Oren: I will say though, that dead parents are perhaps a bit overdone. It’s a joke. People make fun of stories that have dead parents, and I understand why people do it. It’s easy. I do think there are other explanations you might use that will help your story stand out. Parents actually have value as characters. They are actually useful, they’re not just there to make it harder for your protagonists to go on an adventure.
There are other things they can do. Killing them ahead of time means that you don’t have those options anymore. I don’t think it’s bad for every story to have dead parents, or to kill them off, it’s just that if that’s their only tool we’re using, every story become very trite and predictable.
Wes: If you don’t kill them off, but say that they’re on Wizarding business for the summer, is that still just leaving it open that they could just come back? Is that too much maybe temptation?
Oren: It depends on the context. “It depends…” The editor’s favorite phrase. [laughing] If the parents are just away for the summer, that’s a decent explanation for a book that takes place within the summer. Now, of course, it could still get kind of ridiculous. If your protagonist starts setting off magical fireballs on a regular basis the parents will probably hear about it, and they would probably come back from their trip. [Wes laughing] But you know… The protagonist has almost died in a fire several times.
Chris: I would also ask how old is your protagonist? If they’re not old enough, then there would be some other guardian there instead.
Wes: It might be then worthwhile to also think and age depending, but maybe you just need to send the protagonist away for the summer. Go to summer camp and your parents could show up I guess. There’s other adults around too.
Oren: So that’s the issue is that if you send your child somewhere else, then the parent responsibility kind of falls onto whatever adult authority figures are there. Now, of course, that does give you options. If, for example, you wanted to have a scenario where the adult authority figure was either indifferent to the main characters’ danger, or actively causing it. That’s a pretty big statement to make about their parents. It’s not that you can’t do that. There are parents like that, they are a legitimate thing to put in your story. But it’s a pretty big thing. That’s going to take a lot of focus and it’s going to significantly inform who the character is.
On the other hand, if they go to wizard summer camp, and the wizard summer camp counsellors are just very bad at their job that doesn’t necessarily require you to completely build your character around that, because this is just a summer camp. These are not people who we’re supposed to raise and care for them. So I was just going to say that it’s a little more flexible, but it doesn’t completely solve the problem.
Chris: Going back to parents as antagonists.
Oren: Oh, yeah.
Chris: Which is definitely underused. One thing I noticed is, yes, it’s definitely very intense to have a parent that is antagonistic. There are lots of writers who do want to do that, but I’ve definitely noticed a trend where lots of writers, they will do this, but then they will always make it an adopted parent, never biological parents. For instance, take Shadow Weaver and She-Ra where she’s a mother figure, she’s not Adora’s biological mother.
That’s not making a great statement. I think that some of the times the writers might be doing this for the same reason as they think somehow it’s less intense, or there’s no way a biological parent could be abusive, which is not true. You know, we’re definitely putting adopted parents at a lower class. You know, if you have for instance, a father figure who ends up being a bad guy, I would think about why this person just can’t be the biological father.
Oren: There’s a difference between being an antagonist, and being an abusive or otherwise bad parent. Because your parent could be an antagonist and still be a loving, caring parent. That would just mean that they want to do something that the protagonist doesn’t want them to do, or they want to stop the protagonists from doing something. I really, really liked the premise of Runaways. Now I had some issues with its execution, but the premise of Runaways being that these are all loving parents who care for their kids, they’re just bad guys and their kids are not bad guys, and so their kids end up trying to stop them.
I’m not saying that there’s anything necessarily wrong with having abusive parents in your story, it’s just that that is a very big choice. I’ve definitely encountered authors who have made that choice and don’t understand its ramifications, both in how it affects, or should affect the character, and just in how unpleasant that is to read. Now, there are still reasons to do it, but it is not something that should be undertaken lightly. Whereas having your parents be a super villain is just something you can do much more easily, right? It doesn’t have nearly the same level of distress you’re causing to the reader.
Chris: There’s a big, very common trope that is very sexist about having a long dead mother. Where usually the father is still alive or he dies during the story, the mother has been dead for a really long time. And then as we mentioned in our last podcast, she is only described as beautiful and kind. That has been her entire personality. This happens, I think, largely because of stereotypes about women, and stereotypes about mothers, that their entire existence has to be for their family. They’re not people that live for themselves at all.
Like there’s no way a mother can be antagonistic, she would obviously support the protagonists in every way, shape and form, so it’s easiest just to have her be dead. I would definitely discourage that, and if you are going to have a dead mother in your story, I would think about how our dead fathers like that presented?
Every time there’s a long dead father the protagonist is always going to discover something cool and important about them. Like “oh, it looks like they’re descended from this line of kings, or, you know, he invented an important device that I have the key to.” That’s how dead fathers are presented, right? They’re glorified and they’re plot important and they have interesting personalities. So if you are going to have a dead mother think about that and actually making her something other than just kind of excellent.
Oren: Yeah. And if they are both dead, another thing I see a lot is what if both parents are dead, it is extremely likely that the character, whatever their gender is, the character will be compared primarily to their father. It will be like “Oh, you get that from your father”, whatever their traits are. That’s just subtle sexism because these are adventure stories and we associate adventure things with masculinity. That’s just why that happens.
At this point it’s common enough that I would say that if you are setting out to write a character with two dead parents, err towards having them take after their mom. Because there are so many stories about people with two dead parents who take after their dads that we just need to balance the numbers a bit at this point.
Chris did mention emotional support, which is a great role for parents, particularly if the kids are super powered. If a kid is super powered, that’s one of the great explanations for why the parent can’t either solve the problem for them, or stop them from going in to solve the problem, because if the kid is super powered, then chances are there isn’t someone else who could fix it. Although that could change, if you’re in a story that has lots of superpowers, you might run into this problem again. Assuming that you’ve fixed that part of it, if your character is the only one with this power.
Then the parent can’t really help them physically, but can offer emotional support and is a great person for the protagonist to talk to, vent to, figure out their problems with. As Chris mentioned, when this role happens, it’s almost always a woman, it’s almost always the mom. Look at it and see if you can make it the dad. I really liked the dad in Legendborn, the main character’s father who shows up. He’s so great. He’s my favorite character. He’s emotional support. I would say use that as a model.
Chris: Another parent that I know I saw in your notes, Oren, is Scott’s mother from Teen Wolf.
Oren: Melissa, she’s great.
Chris: She is actually really handy, not just for emotional support. She sometimes provides Scott with emotional support, but actually, the cool thing is she’s a nurse. So every time they have a character who is injured, but it’s clearly in a supernatural way, or they have black blood or something, [laughter] and so it would be weird to try and bring them to a normal doctor, they go specifically to Scott’s mom, and she hooks them up with what they need in the hospital, to take care of their injuries. Because she knows about the supernatural.
Oren: Melissa is also a great example of one of the ways you can keep the parents from interfering in the adventures, that is very hard to pull off with teenage characters, and that’s having the adventure happen behind a masquerade. Now, in some cases it’s pretty easy in Madoka or in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the masquerade is so intense that adults just don’t know and can’t know, they magically cannot perceive what’s happening. So that’s pretty easy.
In an urban fantasy story like Buffy, or Teen Wolf, they basically have to lie to their parents and this causes conflict, and that’s okay, for a short time, after a while it gets contrived really fast, and that’s where Teen Wolf pulls ahead of Buffy, because Buffy has to lie to Joyce so often you’re eventually just like “please just tell Joyce what’s happening.”
Wes: Joyce deserves to know. [laughing]
Oren: And they do eventually tell her, but it’s too late. By then Joyce has already become a frustrated character, because she’s constantly trying to stop Buffy from saving the world, and she doesn’t actually know that, but it’s still just like “please someone tell Joyce what’s happening.”
Whereas Teen Wolf handles it much better, Scott lied to his mom a little bit at the beginning, but she figures out what’s going on pretty quickly, and then basically becomes part of the team. It also helps that Melissa is just a better parent than Joyce and doesn’t publicly humiliate her offspring. Don’t have your parents publicly humiliate their offspring unless they are supposed to be bad. [laughing]
Wes: Is there ever cause for if the parents are capable to step in, it just seems like that would be cheap. The kid protagonist is doing so much work. And then the parent’s like “all right, good job. But I got this now.”
Chris: The thing you want to watch out for is if you do have a conceit that’s kind of illogical and you’re not pointing at it, you don’t want to make it more obvious by bringing in your parent once, when they should be doing that all the time. If it’s actually unbelievable that they would be letting their kid like run off until late at night and not asking where they are, what they’re doing… Then it’s better if you just don’t get them involved at all, because you could call attention to it.
In other places if you have an actual good reason for them to not be involved, most of the time, having them step in once in a while can work. For instance, there was a scene in Buffy where Buffy is fighting Spike who is probably getting the better of her, but then Joyce comes in and hits Spike in the back of the head with an axe that she took out of the fire equipment from the school. It’s enough to just kind of scare Spike off, it’s not like he couldn’t take Joyce, but he already had his hands full with a Slayer. Having to deal with two opponents is enough. Even though Joyce herself is not powerful, she’s putting on a good show, she looks confident, maybe he doesn’t know how capable she is. So I felt like that was a fine moment that gave her some level of participation. But if you’re going to do that, you just need a reason why they’re not doing that all the time.
Oren: Assuming that your conceit for why they aren’t doing it all the time is strong, having them step in can be a heart-warming moment. Now you don’t want it to happen at the big conclusion, unless it’s a really, well-made prior achievement turning point. Especially if it happens earlier in the story, it can be a nice moment.
It can also be a mark of failure if the kid is trying to do things on their own and then their parents have to save them. That can be a decent way to show that things didn’t go well, and that’s a way for them to fail without dying. You need to have a pretty good explanation for why they’re not going to do that again later when it’s time for the actual final battle.
Another thing that parents can do is to be mentors. I’m also a big fan of parent mentors, almost as big a fan as I am of parent antagonists, and also antagonistic parent mentors. [laughter] My three favorite things. But they can teach the protagonist things because that is partially a parent’s job is to teach their kids things. That is a very natural role for them.
You do want to be careful, if there’s one archetype more likely to get readers to ask “well, why aren’t they solving the problem” than parents, it’s mentors. You need a pretty good reason why the parent mentor can’t solve the problem and it can’t be “because I want them to grow and face challenges.” [laughter]
Wes: How else are they going to learn? [laughing]
Oren: Unless you have very low stakes conflict.
Chris: For parents to be mentors and actually teaching their kid how to do dangerous things you need a really hardcore family. Some stories have that believably, for instance, in the Supernatural setting, we have these hunter families.
It helps of course, that Sam and Dean’s dad has just gone. The beginning premise that their dad has gone missing and they’re looking for him. It’s just clear that this guy is really hardcore and they were raised into it that way. Teen Wolf also has this hunter family, they’ve been doing this for generations, they’re just a hardcore group of people. They also clearly have steps for easing their kids into it. They don’t just leave them alone in a room with a werewolf as a rite of passage.
Wes: What I like about Supernatural though, is the whole tough them up and expose them to danger thing. It works in that story because of how Sam and Dean’s mom dies, and then they’re basically on the run non-stop because their dad doesn’t know if they’re going to get attacked again. They’re always in danger, which excuses weapons trading and being in violent situations and all of these other things that normally just wouldn’t work if you’re like growing up in a stable household. [laughing] Which is a little different with some other hunter families. But I liked how they did that in Supernatural.
Chris: It is definitely trickier at that point to justify why the parent isn’t taking care of a lot of the problems. The parent could be injured for a while, or just have declining health, even though they’re still alive. Otherwise, if you just to have a cast where both the parent and the kid are important, sometimes they’ll get separated. That means the parent is also an important character and it’s not “teen saves the day” all the time.
Oren: It’s much easier to have the parent be the mentor character if the parent is actually the protagonist. They do naturally step in when things are particularly dangerous. I’m assuming you’re not doing that. Once that happens you don’t really need advice on how to handle the parent. But this tends to work well in situations where the protagonist is the recipient of some mystical power that only they have, they have a really important responsibility, because that’s a good way to explain why the parent would be willing to train them for this, and why they would think it was important, because there’s no one else to do it.
Also, if the parent has, for example, lost that power, if the power transfers from parents to child, or if they had some kind of injury that lost their power that’s a pretty good way to explain that. They might still be able to teach you how to use it, but they can’t use it themselves anymore.
Chris: I think in some stories, a good explanation is just that there is a danger or antagonist that is specifically coming for the kid. The parent might still be pretty capable, they have to train the kid because the kid needs to protect themselves. The reason why the kid ends up in so many dangerous situations is because they’re the target. So the parents try to be around, but maybe the target is trying to isolate the kid.
Wes: What about just giving the parents their own problem to solve? I’m thinking about Stranger Things, the kid protagonists, they have their own problems that are scaled appropriately. And then the parents and the adults, they have their own problem.
Chris: I think that also uses a level of unawareness and it works partially because Stranger Things doesn’t take place over a long period of time. So I think that’s kind of a combo approach, the adults are busy handling their own thing. A lot of what the kids are doing also looks fairly innocent. For instance, when they meet Eleven that helps the parents stay unaware, and this isn’t something that lasts for years.
Oren: Season one in particular is a really delicate balancing act, and it doesn’t work as well in two and three because it was very hard to do in the first place. That concept works better in television than it does in prose, because television is more used to spending time with different characters doing different things that are somewhat related.
If you tried to do that in prose and had shifting POVs between your children, teenagers, and adult characters, I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but it would be really hard. I wouldn’t advise most writers try that, I just think that would be a waste of time.
Chris: Avatar The Last Airbender is a pretty good example, it’s not a perfect example. There are definitely some scenes where you kind of wonder, but we have the parents that are less powered than their kids, but also the fact that there’s a war going on. Now Aang himself, he’s 12, and we make a big deal of the fact that he’s the Avatar and the importance of that role, but he’s still a kid.
But for Sokka and Kotara it works a little bit better because there’s a war going on, and so in the beginning, their dad is off in the war.
Oren: And the war being there just provides them with a strong reason for why adults aren’t around because they are all fighting this war. Now there are some places where it’s a little contrived, like “why doesn’t Bumi go with them?” And it’s like “because he has this weird nonsense about waiting around for no reason.”
And yeah, I get it, he’s supposed to be eccentric, but he’s not incompetent. That reasoning was clearly just there because they couldn’t afford to have Bumi be this incredibly powerful earth bender flying around with the three kids.
Wes: Although I do want to watch that now. [laughter]
Oren: Yeah, that version of Avatar where Boomi just goes with them. But then they would never find Toph. Ah, that would be the worst.
Wes: That would be the worst. We need to somehow have all of them.
Oren: And you know, I’ve said this before, but that is actually one of the reasons why Korra doesn’t work as well, because Korra is surrounded by adults, some of which are parental figures. They aren’t very good. That’s kind of Korra’s solution is that the adults just are kind of bad at bending. Even though Lin Beifong seems really cool, when you actually watch her fight she’s not really that good, she’s not nearly as good as you would expect.
And the same thing happens with Tenzin and a lot of the other more benevolent adult characters. Or sometimes the story just ignores them and pretends they aren’t around, so that in season three they send Korra, Bolin, Mako, and Asami, their most elite teenagers, on the frontal assault, while they have the trained soldiers make a sneak attack diversion. I feel maybe you should reverse those roles.
Chris: I think Legend of Korra was facing one of the problems that you’ve seen sequels, where you introduce new characters, but you can’t let the previous set of characters go. They’re trying to both have their set of young uns and have the children of the previous set of young uns, who are now adults, and make that all work together.
It just would have been better if they’d been able to just let the previous set go and focus on the new crew, maybe set it farther into the future, honestly, or into the past, so you don’t have to worry about that. But they just had too many characters and too many adults and a lot of trouble balancing all of that.
Oren: Speaking of balancing things, we are just about at the end of our time. So I’ll just reiterate what I said at the beginning, which is that you can totally have your parents. They don’t have to be dead. And then that allows a lot of options for what you do with their characters. But you have to plan ahead.
If you’re going to have a child protagonist or teenage protagonist doing dangerous things, you should figure out in advance what it is that makes them able to do it, despite the interference of their presumably loving parents. If that means their parents aren’t loving, that’s a viable option, you just have to be aware of what it means.
That will be the end of this episode. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com.
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