What’s With the Dysfunctional Families?

This is an enormous trend in all of literature: horrible families, environments, etc.  The protagonist grows up in a terrible environment as the setup, then goes on to do lots of cool things through the rest of the book.

Why is this so popular?

You see it in so many books.  Oliver Twist (Dickens).  Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo (Obert Skye).  The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan).  The Thief Lord (Cornelia Funke).  The Accidental Hero– also called Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation (Matt Myklusch).  Ranger’s Apprentice: Ruins of Gorlan (John Flanagan).  Harry Potter (JK Rowling).  Tunnels (Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams).  Series of Unfortunate Events (Lemony Snicket).  All these people…  Oliver, Leven, Percy, Prosper and Bo, Jack, Will, Harry, another Will; Violet, Klaus and Sunny…  They all come from these harsh environments where the parents (if any) are dictators, the neighbors exploit and bully, and the school ignores and tramples.  (It’s amazing how many of the books above utilize standardized tests as the way to show the schools’ indifference, but that’s beside the point.)

This could be called a cliche in a certain light.  So why do writers keep doing this?

First reason: because it’s worked for others.  The root of all cliches.

Second reason: because it’s extremely hard to write a character living a spectacular life and doing fantastic things and having fantastic adventures when they have a loving family sitting at home bawling their eyes out.  I know, because I’ve tried.  Phoenix took a six-month hiatus from her family, and at every turn was trying to get back home.  It was so hard to get her to do anything while keeping her in character.  She had a nice family, too– I made sure of it.

If you have a loving family at home, do you just go away for months on end without warning and not come back, write, or send postcards?  Unless you’re unusually callous, no.  Thus, unless your character is unusually callous, it would be out of character for that character to be scampering about an idyllic world, keeping her family in suspense and ignoring them.

There is a pretty easy remedy for this: have the character be on the run from the authorities.  Eoin Colfer did a good job in Half Moon Investigations, where the main character disappears from his family and can’t go back because he’s being hunted by the police.  Another convenient trick is to fake the character’s death, as in Eoin Colfer’s Airman.  (Hmmm…  Someone’s been thinking about this a lot.)  Another way to get your character to do crazy things without going insane is for everyone else in their family to be insane– as we see in Artemis Fowl (guess who wrote that).  One parent was delusional, the other was presumed dead.  Perfect environment for an evil genius to conduct less-than-legal operations with fairies.

In epic fantasies, the intrepid adventurer mustn’t be tied to anything.  Can you imagine the way the Hobbit would be if Bilbo just used the Ring to get back home to his ailing mother?  Smaug stays there, kills more dwarves, the book goes unfinished.  What if Frodo had been forcibly dragged out of his home by Gandalf?  Samwise almost was…  But neither of them had much existing family back in the Shire, so it didn’t matter too much.  And after all, they were too loyal to just sell the One Ring at a pawn shop and head on home.

One thing we do see in LotR and Star Wars is the running-from-the-authorities thing.  Both Frodo and Luke Skywalker had their homes ransacked by evil forces: Nazgul and stormtroopers, respectively.  (I think the former only happened in the movie…  Which I now feel foolish saying, since both only happened in the movie.)  Thus, they were catapulted into the inexorable path of fate.  After fate peeled them off of its face, they were sent on their way to see through their destiny.  How very touching.

I realize I’ve been rambling through this post, but I’m just explaining the different ways of setting up a fantasy.

The beauty of the Chronicles of Narnia is the fact that no time passes between the time that the children go into the wardrobe and the time at which they come out.  I love it.  Though the children do feel they should be getting back to their home (hence Lucy’s outbreak of “Did you miss me?  I’ve been gone for hours!”), no time actually passes, so they don’t actually need to.  In a way it justifies the flippant nature of children.

Now, back to reasons for dysfunctional families.  Reason three: everyone can relate to that character.  Every kid thinks that their parents were unfair, their school was terrible, and their neighbors were out to kill them in creative ways.  The reason for this is twofold: 1) the kids have absolutely no idea of the big picture– if they did they might realize that they have an awesome life– and 2) basic paranoia.  Kids are conceited.  They think that they’re the greatest thing to come into the world since porcupines first became cute.  So, naturally, everyone will try to suppress their free thinking (Oh, how about I drop a bowling ball onto the trampoline from the roof?).  Every little kid on earth has the thought at one point that they have a bad life.  Misery loves company, so they go find some fictional characters to mope with.

You know why so many characters in children’s books are conceited, spiteful, know-it-all’s and yet the stupidest people ever?  (I won’t name the specific character I’m thinking of as I write this, but most of you’d be surprised.  His initials are H and P.)  Because those children’s books are written in a way that kids can identify with the main character.  Most kids have absolutely no sense of morals when they’re young and so don’t enjoy books where the main character always helps the people in need rather than giving his worst enemy his comeuppance.  Once you get into teen fiction you get to nobility and heroism.  At least, you used to.  Nowadays its more of “Last one to kiss Erica is a spiny toad!”  (The funny thing is that one of the people trying to kiss Erica probably is a spiny toad.  That’s paranormal romance for you.)

The point is that these horrible characters with horrible lives are invented to be related to.  It’s funny when you think about it that kids would love a character who wouldn’t do the right thing if a gun was put to his head, and who probably lives in a place where a gun is regularly put to his head.  Kids are weird, and I kind of wish I wasn’t one.

I don’t know exactly how to finish this up, but…  I apologize for rambling, but I hope it was helpful.  It kind of was to me.

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14 Comments

  1. I know what you mean! I really can’t remember a book I’ve read where the family was happy and blissful. Either the father was dying of cancer or the mother was hiding a deep, dark secret.

    Another way that a character can be on a great adventure and still have a wonderful, picture-perfect family left behind is for him to be running from the government and have lost his memory. Hence, he doesn’t know why he’s running from the government, but he knows he can’t go home and endanger his family with whatever it is. This is what happened in the Homelanders Series, by Andrew Klavan 🙂

    Reply
  2. Charley R

     /  June 16, 2012

    I understand your point here, but I think there are lots of ways to be creative with family in fantasy. I work mostly with older characters, admittedly, but often if you’re using a historical setting, then there are excuses for kids to be off running around with others their age – parents did less parenting, unless you were the cossetted son and heir or daughter/marriage pawn. Younger heroes and heroines are more awkward to extricate, but there are ways around it! I’ve always been fond of the Changeling approach – character vanishes, leaving someone/thing in their place, either willingly or not – but it all varies on the setting and stuffs.

    Hope that makes sense! xD

    Reply
  3. Love this post! Heh heh… my main character in my book used to have a family of seven… until everybody but her older brother died…

    I find that when people usually have one or no parents in books, a lot of authors actually don’t write them in because let’s be honest here, the parents get in the way of things. I love my parents to death but if I was leaving to save the world I wouldn’t want them to get in the way…

    But really if that’s the reasoning for the dysfunctional family you’re usually just a lazy writer. XD

    Reply
    • Indeed. Why not give both the parents awesome parts in the saving of humanity and all that? Wouldn’t want them to miss the fun.

      Reply
  4. The Deltora Quest is another one where memory-loss is used, but in that one the guy who lost his memory was an adult. But the protagonist of the Deltora Quest was a 16 year old boy with a really nice family… He got landed with the mission because his father was injured and mildly crippled, so he couldn’t do it himself. That gets me thinking of the Rowan Series, by the same author as the Deltora Quest. Rowan was a coward, but he was kind of fated to rescue his village – it was either he went on the missions or the village be destroyed. His mother couldn’t keep him back in circumstances like that: he faced his fears and helped save his village. So I guess in both series, the parents (or in Rowans case, parent) realised that their son was doing something that was more important that his safety.

    Reply
  5. Interesting post. The dysfunctional family cliche is one that has always bugged me. Probably because dysfunctional families are full of drama, and I would much rather read about a murderer than what Aunt Betty said to Cousin Gretta that made Gretta leave the state and become a basket weaving hermit.

    I gave the main character of my NaNo novel a nice family, and ran into the same problem of her not doing anything. But I think I’ll be able to fix it by making her value justice above following her parent’s rules. Good internal conflict, that.

    Reply
  6. Well another reason that main characters come from dysfunctional families is because, everyone loves a underdog….sorta but not really. It’s because most people who read want to see a development in character(hence the lit. term: developing character) they want to see how much they overcome and become awesome while doing it. Which goes hand in hand with your nobility and heroism point. Nice post. Even if you thought it rambl-y.

    Reply

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