Getting Rid of Parents (Fiction Only)

Many difficulties come standard in the task of writing child protagonists.  To a certain point, a person is a person no matter how small, but there are subtle differences in younger characters.  Their behavior can be slightly different from that of an adult— less logical at times, or not quite sure of morals yet.  Their physical limitations, of course, must differ.  A ten-year-old boy cannot take the same amount of knocks on the head as the adult hero of an epic fantasy (there is considerable debate on whether the hero himself can take that many hits realistically, but the point remains).  Most importantly, however, there is a child’s place in society to consider.

Any middle grade fantasy will grind to a halt when the child’s parents decide she can’t cross the street without permission.

Source.

But books about children have been around for centuries, from the Brothers Grimm to C.S. Lewis.  Many people have solved this problem for their stories, many different ways.

As the comic above shows, orphaning the protagonist is a tried-and-true method.  A child’s parents would never let their kid run off with a couple shady looking characters armed with a prophecy and a slightly pointy stick?  Goodbye ma and pa.  You could pull a middle grade fantasy out of a hat and chances are good the protagonist is an orphan.  Harry Potter.  Ranger’s Apprentice, by John Flanagan.  Castaways of the Flying Dutchman, by Brian Jacques).

That embodies the best quality of writers, doesn’t it?  If something won’t let you continue, kill it.  In this case, it just happened to be the poor kid’s folks.

The other options are slightly less dramatic.  One similarly popular one is kidnapping the parents, as happens in The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan.  This conveniently gives us a reason for the kid to be alone, plus a plot for the kid to follow.  If they have to find and free their parents, they don’t have to be convinced that they should save the world— they just do it by accident, believing it’s the only way.  (You also saw this in the movie Spy Kids, and Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke.)

One technique, made famous by Harry Potter but definitely existing before then, is the option of sending the kid to school.  School is one of the only places in a normal kid’s life where their parents are not present.  It also gives an extremely large pool of people the same age as the main character— instead of being constantly surrounded by adults that look down on them, they’re around people their age, who treat them as equals.  Yes, they have input from teachers, but their friends and allies are almost exclusively people their age.  That’s very important.  Again, this is a wildly popular technique and you can probably think of examples for yourself.  (In case you can’t, Harry Potter does this, as does The Lightning Thief, and The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson.)

The next technique lends itself best to the idea of a broken home.  Perhaps, instead of having loving yet strict parents who have the child’s best interests in mind, the parents are lax and possibly even mean to their children, allowing the protagonist to have adventures without caring what they think.  Unfortunately, this puts a bad view on parents, and some adults don’t like that.  Nevertheless, it is a tool in this area.  In fact, it’s often a tool used in conjunction with several other tools, to make it less apparent.  Another fix to this potential problem is to make the parents actually extended family— instead of mothers and fathers, the evil people are aunts and uncles, or stepfathers or -mothers.  Harry Potter uses this trick as well as the others, as does (yes) The Lightning Thief.  Other examples are The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke, a couple Redwall books, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Here’s another plot-themed one: the child is stolen away from her parents.  This is reminiscent of several fairy tales, including East of the Sun and West of the Moon (retold as East, by Edith Pattou).  Brandon Mull also uses this in both A World Without Heroes and Sky Raiders.  It’s pretty easy to explain, and pretty easy to use as long as you have the right world for it.  It, again, provides a convenient plot for the book to follow as the protagonist seeks to get home to their loving, unsuspecting parents.

Yet another technique is for the main character to lie about their adventures— or to run away before their parents hear about it.  It’s very similar to the last one, but not quite the same; it casts more shadow on the main character’s personality, which means it’s less used among young protagonists.  However, if the parents cannot know about this because it would destroy them, it can keep the main character from seeming too despicable.  This is used in the kids TV show Word Girl, and (with an older character) in Divided We Fall, by Trent Reedy.  The running away side of this is used in several Redwall books, as well as Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull.  Usually the running away doesn’t last long, but the lying tends to stick around until it resolves at the end.  Extra conflict!

Lastly— and my favorite, because it’s so versatile and seems unique every time you see it— is setting-based.  What happens if the very world requires that the children be separated from the parents?  Something forces children to be the only kind of protagonist that could ever tell this story.  In Partials, by Dan Wells, a worldwide disease has wiped out humanity except for a few survivors.  While some adults have survived, there aren’t enough to uphold the social structure, and therefore teenagers are brought in to help fill the holes.  In The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, ghosts can only be seen by young people.  Adults can handle the paperwork, but hunting ghosts must be done by the children.  When it’s a duty to civilization, not even parents can stand in the way.  Other examples of this are The Lightning Thief (few demigods live very long, with all the attempts on their lives) and a few Redwall books (honestly, everything on this list happens in there at some point).

You may have noticed a pattern by now.  Almost everything on this list can— and often is— used in conjunction with several others.  Harry Potter, for instance, has dead parents, despicable relatives, and school.  The Lightning Thief (and I’m only using the first book as an example) uses one missing parent, one kidnapped parent, despicable relatives, school, and a setting requirement.  Among the Redwall books, many techniques are used in conjunction as well as alone, for a variety of effects.

Now that I’ve waxed eloquent this long, how do I expect you to use this post?  As a challenge, to see how many techniques you can use at once?  As a checklist, to make sure you’re on the right track with at least one of these?  Absolutely not.  It’s a challenge, yes, but a different kind of challenge.  Can you think up a new way to get around this age-old problem?  Once C.S. Lewis sent the Pevensies away from their parents to live with a couple careless people, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Brandon Mull did essentially the same thing in Fablehaven.  Once J.K. Rowling sent Harry Potter to school, everyone seemed to have a book about going to a magical school.  Can these techniques be copied successfully?  Absolutely.  But are we completely out of other options?  By no means.  You’re better than that.  It doesn’t matter what you’ve written in the past, but for the future, you can think up a better way to get rid of those overprotective folks.

At least, I hope so.  I want to figure out something for myself.

Every time I think I’m done with this list, I look over at my bookshelf and pick out another book that has a different take on this problem.  I might be out of books, but how about some examples from your favorite books?  What are some ideas for conquering this problem without these techniques?

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62 thoughts on “Getting Rid of Parents (Fiction Only)

  1. This is such a great analysis! I love this post so much because it is a good point that a child must somehow get away from the parents in order to truly have some kind of an adventure. I think you covered many of my favorite books so I have no other examples to give you. Well done!

  2. Hmm, let’s see. For my current book, one is an orphan, another one is an orphan, another one…ran away, I think, and another one just doesn’t live with her parents because she was sent away to…well, it’s similar to the school, option, I suppose, though it’s not quite a school. And the last one is…also an orphan. Boy.

    I can’t really think of anything else off the top of my head. In Dealing with Dragons Cimorine ran away, Maximum Ride was, I think basically just an orphan, in Dragon Slippers she’s an orphan, and UnEnchanted was…I’m not even sure how to describe it. She was physically the only person who could do it, and her mom knew it, and just couldn’t really try to stop her. And, Clockwise… Well, her parents are just utterly oblivious. What would that one be? I guess it would sort of be a kidnapped-case, since she travelled through time without intending to.

    And those are all of the books within arms reach around me.

  3. You found my favorite comic!

    Getting rid of the parents is always my problem. I’ve used all but two of these techniques (broken home and setting-based).

    Good post.

  4. Ah, the age-old question.

    First, though, might I ask if you’re planning on writing middle grade fiction?

    Okay, now back to the age-old question. How have I used this. Well, beginning with the “series” I wrote at age 9/10, the main characters’ parents didn’t know they were going off on adventures or whatever. Then the “book” I wrote at age 11/12, I used the runaway technique. In my first true novel, the MC had no world-saving to do–her parents supported her activities. In Living Rain and Breaking Rain, FMC’s mother is reluctant to let her daughter go world-save, but she has been telling her daughter she needs to go out and do something besides care for the family and she knows it’s necessary (so there’s part of one of the techniques listed). MMC was intending to sneak off, but ended up with a confrontation and his parents’ reluctant blessing. He still doesn’t tell them where he’s going or what he’s doing, and later they find out and disapprove.

    That’s just the first one though. The second book, MMC again has reluctant agreement, gradually winning the parents over. FMC has reluctant agreement as well but, her mother understands and supports her desire even though she’s still worried about her daughter. So I’m not sure what category that gets.

    Generally, I try to leave the parents in there. Sure, the book’s about the kid, but in real life parents don’t suddenly cease existence. Keeping them in the book can be an opportunity for conflict or support for the main character. And don’t the parents deserve a little respect in fiction? I mean, they’re the one who raised the world-saver! So I usually try to leave the parents in there and find real reasons for them to allow the child to go off on this mission. Sure, there’ll be times where I’m going to write a story or someone else is going to write a story that’s just for fun and we can just completely ignore parents and everything for this once, but I keep ties to reality and parents/family? Let’s face it, that’s reality. My dad says sometimes that families are the building blocks of societies and life. I agree.

    I think I just wrote a whole post…whoops. Getting off my soapbox now. Tata.

    1. Yes, I am planning on it. I plan on writing just about everything, but the next novel I write will be middle grade.

      That’s definitely something to think about, but if the parents are always there, when does the main character get to do any of the hard stuff, the stuff that makes it interesting? Furthermore, when are they ever in any danger (this is speaking of fantasy rather than contemporary, though— contemporary doesn’t generally use that many life-threatening situations, as far as I’ve seen), if the parents forbid them to go near that danger? Parents are great, but they’re often an enemy to any sort of plot.

      1. Ah, I see.

        Oh, the parents aren’t always there–that’s where some of the things you listed (and I listed) come into play. The parents are simply usually present in the book itself. Not in every scene.

        When are they in danger…well, in my contemporary novel, no, there was no “danger,” per se. But in the other ones I mentioned, specifically Living Rain and the sequel, there’s danger. Of course, I’m still working on actually writing stuff with danger, since I’m not too good at it yet, but it does exist. I already explained how I have that working out, but it could probably still use some work to make it a little more believable. My main “excuse” that I’m using seems to be “They’re getting older, so we have to let them try new things” or something along those lines (that is, the parents’ perspective). So yeah, it could probably use a little work. But basically what I was saying was, I don’t think it’s necessary to rid the fictional world of the parents entirely in order to still have a great book–and if one can accomplish the believability of the parents knowing at least some of what’s going on with their child/children, it makes the whole thing even more believable as a whole because the parents didn’t conveniently disappear the whole time. Make sense?

      2. Indeed. With dead parents, you can just call the kid an orphan and be done with it. With living parents, reader parents are going to wonder why in the world they would ever let their kids do stuff like this.

      3. Which automatically lets any explanation you give be questioned immediately, instead of accepted. You have to have an ironclad reason for this if you’re going to do it that way.

      4. Hmmm. So, it’s basically like having an argument with the reader. I see what you mean, there.

        Needs a bit of work on my end, I suppose…perhaps I shall try to avoid that more. But that brings us back to the whole “How to get rid of the parents without being cliche or unappreciative?” thing. Better study up…

      5. Well, at least something is good–I think you’re beginning to succeed in training me (at least me, probably others as well) to read a book and look for something to learn. How a plot point worked, something that I could put into practice, something to watch out for…

        For instance, in Partials, I noted how Dan Wells raised the stakes by making them personal for Kira. In UP, I realized how the writers used a small object they’d mentioned in the beginning later on in the movie to play a bigger part.

        There’s more things I’ve noticed lately, but those are just examples. My point: Good job. Eventually maybe I’ll start figuring out how to make those things work myself.

      6. Because that’s a little disturbing. I think. I mean, it seems unsuspecting, being able to write better, but maybe your particular method has an ulterior motive I should be concerned about.

  5. I read the Lighting Thief!!! It was fantastic!!!
    And I can think of – and am using – another way around it. Send the kid on an adventure with their parents. In this case, the parents are black-ops agents and the kid’s going along to help with their cover.

    1. I heard somewhere that your viewpoint character should be the character with the most at stake in any story. If the parents are always there, doing all the cool stuff, when is the kid at stake? This is why Frodo had to go off on his own if we ever wanted any semblance of a story in LotR. This is why Obi-Wan had to die, and Yoda. If there’s someone more powerful than the main character who can solve this problem, why make the main character do it?

      1. And Qui-Gon. You’re forgetting Qui-Gon. Everybody does, and it’s not fair.
        I’m working it so the grownups are solving the big problem, and send the kid home, where she solves their problem. (It’s complicated family stuff – I mean, not the problem, the solution.)

      2. Unfortunately, Obi-Wan was pretty much ready for the tasks he had to do after Qui-Gon died. Luke was nowhere near it, and thus Obi-Wan’s death is much more striking. Sorry to put down Qui-Gon, but it applies quite a bit less in this instance.

        Ah.

      3. Yeah, probably. He idolized Qui-Gon, but not quite enough to get through that training without turning bad anyway. Perhaps it would have taken longer, but it still would have happened.

      4. Good for you – that’s why I write SW fanfic, if you stick to the movies you’ve got about thirteen years of free space you can use without overstepping the bounds.

      5. I try to be careful – never inflict more on them than the published books do, never introduce a character who might be expected to turn up in one of the movies. (Which, in the case of Obi-Wan Kenobi, means I can go a very long way.)

  6. Haha, loved this. Especially those gifs, nice touch. xD And I also liked the challenge.

    Let me see…

    Well, my novel’s a bit cliche that way because the kid character is an orphan. Then again, he isn’t the sole hero, he’s one of five adult characters, but his family (his CLAN) was murdered. So, yeah. Orphan.

    But, hmm. How could you solve the parent problem?
    Maybe–as far as the plot permits–make something weird happen to the parents that make them incapable of taking care of a child. Ooh, maybe the parents could turn into children themselves. Or maybe make the parents join forces with the kid and they go on a family adventure! (I think someone mentioned this already?) But I don’t thing YA and mid-grade fiction with parents being part of the adventure really works. I mean, I wouldn’t want to read something like that if I were 11 years old.

    Or here’s one.

    What if the parent was secretly the bad guy? Of course, if *I* were writing this, I’d make it all dark and emotional, but if it were for children, by a children’s author, it could be tempered and made funny.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post.

      Yes, orphan. That’s probably the most popular of these techniques.

      No, indeed. You want the main character to do just about everything for themselves, even if the parents are around.

      That would be difficult, because in middle grade, you want a couple stable characters who are never going to betray the MC. If there’s a traitor anywhere, he’s probably going to seem a little strange from the very beginning— in that way, betrayal is more restricted when writing for kids, because you can’t rip their souls out through subverting expectations.

  7. Amazing post! Lots to think about. I also like the whole “the kids vanish (not by their own choice) and the parents can’t do anything about it” kind of idea, like in The Time Travelers by Linda Buckley-Archer. Or some mysterious other force pulls the kids away from the parents. Or you could always have the parents kick out the kids for some mysterious reason.
    But amazing post!

    1. Indeed. But having the parents kick the kids out… That’s a really traumatic thing, and I’m not sure that would fly in middle grade fiction.

      Thanks!

  8. Good post, all very true. The Rowan series, by Emily Rodda, attacked this by making it so that Rowan was the only person who could solve the problem. In the first book, there was a blank piece of parchment that had a map appear on it whenever Rowan held it. Without this map, the quest would be even more hopeless than it was already. Rodda did a really good job of this — and in fact, the whole series was really delightful.

    In the Deltora Quest, also by Rodda, Lief’s parents supported his adventures — Lief’s father had hoped to fulfil the quest, but he couldn’t so he passed the task onto his son.

    Next time I write middle-grade fiction, I’ll see if I can do something unique.

  9. Good post. Also, your use if GIFs is great.

    This, admittedly, is one of the big problems in Noxumbra. The parents CANNOT be there… So I sent them on vacation (this is another technique, I guess.) The MC is nineteen, so she doesn’t need supervision, but it feels too coincidental.

    I may have to play around with that setting-based idea. That sounds interesting.

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