Parents Are Expendable

family-161068_640In a lot of fiction, whether in comic books or fantasy, the parents of the main character (MC) are often dead, unknown, or unavailable. Whether it’s one parent or both, it is a very common theme. Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Katniss Everdeen, Kvothe, Merlin, Lyra, Luke Skywalker, and many, many more have complicated family structures.

The lack of at least one parent is a common theme which creates sympathy and depth in the MC. For some reason, damage grabs our interest and pushes us to feel empathy towards another. It’s rare to see a character who has two loving, supportive, and living parents, whether together or not. The most prominent characters usually come from sorrow, neglect, and/or tragedy. Even the parents that are alive are less than satisfactory as mothers and fathers.

Then, almost always, we have a guardian (or multiple guardians) for that character. Someone who cares for them, guides them, and treats them as their own. This “guardian” is usually like a guide. Pushing them towards the “good”, and keeping them from the “bad”. Teaching them about life and encouraging them to overcome the “evil” that they face. These characters are generally older, experienced, and a lot of them end up sacrificing themselves for some reason or another in the end. They almost always die or disappear, leaving the MC drowning in depression until they bounce back.

I often find myself wondering why parents are so expendable in fiction, and why it is almost necessary to keep them from being a living part of the story. I understand that we need to feel for the MC, and that sympathy is an excellent way to create empathy and a strong character. We love to see the MC rise from the ashes, overcoming all of the hardships of life only to become strong and brave. But wouldn’t it be more enthralling, and challenging, to create a character who was just an everyday person, with a regular life? A character that real people could relate to?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that everyone comes from a normal, happy, cookie cutter life. Broken homes are all too common, and many children have faced some sort of abuse in their lives, but that doesn’t make them extraordinary. I didn’t have what I would call an ideal childhood, but I don’t feel special because of it. I don’t feel like everyone needs to have a sad tale to tell for them to be a good person or to succeed in life.

I feel like it would be extremely refreshing to experience a book in which the MC was just a regular person with regular parents. No dead mother, no dead father. No abusive or cold caregivers, no lack of love or attention. They don’t have to have a perfect life, the parents don’t even need to be together. I would just like to a piece of fiction where the MC is encouraged to achieve their goals not because they started so low, but because that’s what they want to do.

As much as I love fiction, I feel that in situations where the MC has had a hard life, we are being taught that to become great we must have a sob story. Many of us do have sob stories, but I for one don’t want to be recognized and applauded for the darker parts of my life. I want to be recognized for my skill. I don’t think that to love a character we should have to pity them. I would like to see a character who is so well-written that I can’t help but enjoy them. I want to see a character that doesn’t need sympathy to pop. I would like to see a few parents who aren’t either dead or useless. I want to see parents that aren’t expendable.

MCs don’t need to be shattered every time. We can enjoy them for who they are, not what has happened to them.

What about you? Do you agree that parents in fiction are often expendable? Do you know of any fiction where the MC doesn’t have a twisted, depressing, or broken past?

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35 thoughts on “Parents Are Expendable

  1. You know, I never noticed that. A lot of MCs do have some sort of parental baggage. I actually can’t think of any MC who comes from a stable home situation, at least not from American fiction. And I agree, it would be a challenge to create a relatable character who doesn’t have some sort of baggage to make us say “Aaw.” I wonder how you’d go about creating such a character.

  2. This is actually something I’ve thought about extensively in my own stories. I haven’t been able to break the mold yet–I almost had it once, but then the mother had to go–but it’s one of my life goals to write a novel where the protagonist has normal, happy, living parents. There are a few books I can think of where the MC has two loving parents and a fairly normal past to start with, at least (The Giver, Vodnik, The Hourglass Door, even Matched), but even with those, there’s always some secret being kept or something along those lines.

    That being said, I think there is a necessity of crushing our characters in some way during the story. Not because the characters need to be pitied, but because that’s how characters are made strong. My favorite characters are the ones who surmount the insurmountable, because those are the ones who show me that the impossible can be done. I once heard it said that the plot of just about every story can be summarized as a three-act play: Act One, you get your character up a tree; Act Two, you throw rocks at him/her; Act Three, you get your character back down to safe ground. There has to be conflict and opposition in order for the character to grow and change.

    I’d be interested in reading something that breaks that pattern, though. It’s entirely possible that I’m just too set in my ways to imagine that it could be different. 🙂 And maybe I’m misunderstanding what you meant, in which case please correct me.

    • Nope, you got it right! I do understand the necessity, but I’d like to see if it could be done differently. I liked your description of the acts, I just think it would be interesting to play with the typical storyline to make it something more realistic, and perhaps unique.

      • I’ve been thinking of ways for a long time and it is very difficult. Especially since most books in that genre follow the same story line. Perhaps the problem is driven by the fact that we believe that is how a story should be.

      • So I was thinking–have you read “Little Women”? How would you classify that with regard to this? Yes, the father is gone at the beginning, but he does come home. And there’s not really a crush-the-soul sob story involved, just the stories of four girls trying to figure out life.

      • I have, and I love that book. You’re right, that’s a great example of a good book that didn’t use the usual parent relationship in the story. Some historical fiction does it as well, but not much fantasy.

  3. All the characters you mentioned come from fantasy/sci-fi fiction. I think, upon examination, you will find the idea of the “expendable parent(s)” is a necessary element in the story; they are all examples of “the hero’s journey”, the basic element being the need of the hero (or heroine) to overcome adversity (and better adversity to begin an adventure than to be deprived of your first, most trusted guardian(s)?). Whether living or deceased, parents form an integral part of our psychic makeup. All families, loving ones and others not-so-much, are complicated, even the cookie-cutter varieties (and perhaps those especially. I think if you widen your interests in what you read, you may find what you’re searching for, or at least a different perspective.

    • Yes, those were mainly examples from the fantasy genre. I do read many other types of books, but even in biographies and other types of non-fiction, the general point is that the MC starts out low and overcomes challenges. Many even come from difficult homes. I understand that parents are a part of who we are, but I disagree with how much of a part. Of course, every family has complications, but I would like to see a different type of fantasy/sci-fi where the character’s parents are available, or the character isn’t as shattered as usual.

      I would like to see the fantasy mold broken eventually, which is, I suppose, the point of the post. I guess I should have clarified that I was speaking about fantasy and sci-fi based fiction as opposed to books in general.

  4. Interesting post! We have a long tradition of missing parents, particularly mothers, from stories. I imagine this absence in literature stems from the reality that until quite recently there was a high maternal mortality rate (which, quite frankly, still isn’t low enough in some parts of the world). Modern stories draw from these older sources. Plus, when the protagonist is young, having a strong parental figure weakens the plot. There are so many books that would’ve been resolved in just a few pages if the main character had the guidance of parents. Plots often depend on the main character surviving on his/her own.

    • I totally understand why stories are structured that way, and most of it stems from the bible, if viewed from an anthropological stance. A child rises from hard circumstances involving parents and other challenges, overcomes them, and then lives happily ever after.

      I don’t think that having a strong parental figure always needs to weaken the plot, they usually have guardians which play almost the same role as a parent.

      I suppose my post is more about the possibility of other story lines and options as opposed to always following the norm.

  5. I get what you’re saying, but happy families are all alike (and boring), aren’t they?! Plus, as E.H. Bates said above, there has to be some conflict to drive the plot forward, so familial strife can be that driver (or at least one of the plot threads, as in Harry Potter’s time with the annoying Dursleys). My hypothesis is that so much of fiction (and poetry, frankly) has family angst in the pilot’s chair because, in some ways as writers, we are trying to parse, understand, learn from, and impart wisdom or knowledge to the reader from our own experiences or things we’ve come close to experiencing. I believe it was the poet Louise Erdrich who talks about writing as a parent and how, sometimes, as a parent who’s a writer, we can pull punches and “save” all the children we write about rather than letting the narrative take a more natural course. Speaking from experience, I know to some degree I try to “right the (perceived) wrongs” or at least shed light on them when I write. I don’t know of too many happy families in literature and, if they are happy, then either (a) their apple-carts of their happiness is upset and that is the narrative arc or (b) some other permutation of that theme, such as they’re happy but they don’t know it. In the end, I think (as Twain said) even humor [writing] springs from a source of sorrow and ruthlessly happy or pollyanna situations or characters can make for one-dimensional writing. I’m not sure how to achieve what you suggest (a character grounded with loving, supportive folks). Even Ayla, in Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series, whose attributes and skills seem too good to be true at times (which was a tad too much, though I loved the first few books in general), confronts nearly nonstop conflict and grief. Fascinating idea that “parents are expendable.” This is my 2 cents’.

    • I wouldn’t say that all happy families are the same or boring, because happiness and normalcy are both subjective. What might be the perfect family situation for one may be complete hell for another.

      I think I am more trying to think outside of the writing box than saying that every book should have normal parents. I’m not sure a sad story for the MC is a necessity if the writing is strong and the story can stand alone.

      Parents in fiction are generally expendable, but I am wondering if it always has to be so. If we can write short stories and poetry that don’t even mention parents, or feature strong parental figures in a positive light, why can’t we stretch it out?

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  6. I sometimes think that parents need to be expendable in fiction so that the MC has a good background, but not only the MC. One of my favourite books has many of the characters lacking in the parental goodness department and it makes the plot better and makes me connect further as a reader, because these characters that I grow attached to each time I re-read the book retain their qualities and faults, qualities which lift them despite their parents or lack of parents, and their faults make them all real

    • It does make it better, but I just wonder if it could be done without while maintaining a strong story. Tragedy in stories stems from a long, long time ago. Perhaps it’s the way it’s done now because it’s just proven to be successful and we all build on what has worked for others.

      • It has been done, think about ‘Macbeth’. While nothing is known of Macbeth’s parents, Duncan is a great king and this extends into his parental role (he makes his son his heir despite Macbeth’s bravery and being his kinsman at the start of the play). Banquo is a fantastic father to his son Fleance because he saves the boy from being murdered as he was about to be.
        Then there’s ‘Frankenstein’. Frankenstein’s parents treat him as ‘their idol, their plaything’ and absolutely adore him to bits!
        Both are amazing texts and there are probably so many more examples of great parents.
        Macbeth did end up as a Gothic villain, but he was a brave character from start to finish, the character has the soliloquys in specific places to highlight when he reaches a need for conscience and he does regret where his path took him.
        Frankenstein does create the creature which ends up ultimately destroying his life, but the whole novel is Walton’s retelling of what Frankenstein told him, and the reader sees this overall narrative voice when Walton comments on what a ‘noble’ creature Frankenstein is, and how if he is so incredible now, close to death, then how awesome must he have been in his prime, showing that the good parents have produced a good offspring. If Frankenstein himself still presents a challenge as a good character then Elizabeth is described as angelic and is seen as as good as good can get, and she was raised by Alphonse and Caroline.

        Alternatively, William Frankenstein (who was killed by the creature) was basically he epitome of the negative shallowness and prejudice of the novel as he insists the creature is evil and wants to eat him, when h creature merely wishes to speak to him.
        Of course, this all remains circumstantial as all characters are merely authorial tools in the end…

      • It has, but not really in fantasy or science fiction. Once you get into different genres you see it more, but I was more or less referring to fantasy. Frankenstein is sci-fi I suppose, or horror, but that’s one I’ve never actually read so I’ll have to take your word for it.

      • ‘Frankenstein’ is sci-fi, Gothic tragedy, romance, some even think it’s Shelley’s take on feminist thinking, since her mum was radical before she died. It is very difficult to read the first time through, but on the second and third it gets much better!

  7. This is definitely a recurring incident in fiction, I agree with that for certain. Actually it may even be on the Mary Sue Litmus test. I can’t remember for certain.

    I do actually notice this with my own characters, too. The story I’m currently writing has a main cast of five adult characters, but even then, the MC has a lot of angst because he’s a thief due to his parents selling him to a thief queen when he was very young, because his family was starving. Three of the other main characters also have imperfect families – two are orphans, one because his parents were killed by a demon, and one was raised by his mother because his father WAS a demon. Then of course, the one character who had a perfectly normal household where the worst thing that happened is he disappointed his father slightly by becoming a politician and ambassador instead of a soldier is killed by the middle of the book.

    But when I think about why the characters have the backstories they do, why their parents weren’t…for lack of better term, nuclear (like the nuclear family, unless I’m getting words mixed up) … That’s just the way it is. Tristan wouldn’t have been a thief if his parents didn’t sell him. That would have never happened to him, and he wouldn’t be remotely the same person he is. For him to be who I need him to be, the result is that’s his backstory.

    Other characters, different story, that have missing or bad parents, when I write about the people they become and the ways in which they succeed, I don’t tend to write it as the idea that they had to have the sob story to succeed. They succeeded despite the sob story, and they wouldn’t have succeeded if they were too busy sobbing about their story. I think most writers do that, too. It’s not about being special, it’s about going where you need to and even want to go no matter where your starting point. I understand too that staring from some sort of broken home doesn’t make a person special. But it does change the circumstances. I don’t think the end of my (hopefully) success story in writing will be any more impressive if I had or had not had my parent’s divorce in my past. But it changed the course of the story, what I had to do to succeed, because I did have it, and I did have one of the parents who…to inaccurately sum up, discouraged me from writing.

    I agree I’d like to see more MCs where parents missing or bad are NOT a trial. But I don’t think that when they are, unless it is to shoe in a sob story for empathy or a drip of some Sue quality, is a bad thing, either.

    • Yes, it’s desirable in a story to have your MC face challenges with family and it does influence the story in a positive way most times. I just wonder if it’s always completely necessary. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I’ve loved all of the characters referenced in the post and the stories that were a part of. It’s just an interesting observation and it makes me wonder if it’s always necessary.

      • ^^; I didn’t mean to attack, just in case it came off that way – I would have edited the post to be softer after I finished getting out my ideas, but then I was typing it up near the end of my shift at work…
        It is certainly something that I’ve also noticed, and I do think on occasion, it’s just done because it’s easier to get rid of the parents for whatever ultimate goal. But then, I do think often it is purposeful, even if there could have been another way.

  8. In my story I tried to have two parents for my main character, but I couldn’t get the mother to get out of two dimensions. The story didn’t really need her anyway, so I cut her off. It wasn’t so much to create a sob story (although the MC does feel strongly about her death) – more that I found it difficult to fully realise two parents rather than one. But I’m a novice writer, so that might just be me. 😛

    SPOILERS AHEAD: In Philip Reeve’s Larklight trilogy, the mother is missing in the first book but then found. For the next two books she is one of the main characters.

    • I know, it is really tough. I find it much easier to avoid parental relationships in shorts because you usually have less characters (unless you are Stephen King, then you always have a plethora of MCs).

      There are stories out there, like ehbates mentioned (Little Women), that have parents in the story with strong and positive roles. I enjoy those stories and would like to see more of them. I’ll be taking a look at Larklight as well!

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