Friday, February 1, 2013

Parents - To Kill or Not to Kill?

If you're here, it's probably because you're a fan of books for readers under the age of 18. I truly believe that Young Adult writing is one of the best genres to write in because of both the freedom and the focus it gives you. You have write a gripping story, because your audience is going to appreciate that a lot more than sixteen pages devoted to making a cup of tea.

Of course, YA has its limitations, and one of those is parents.

I don't mean real world parents. Those are important. But if your character is going to go off on some adventure, risking his or her life to do some very dangerous things, a caring parent is probably going to object. Which is why you have to get rid of them. 

People often remark at the number of dead parents in kidlit, but step one on the teenage hero's journey isn't necessarily the Call to Adventure, it's the 'my guardian has kicked the bucket, now let's get on with the fun stuff'. Basically, your character can't do dangerous if there's a responsible adult around to stop them. So they have to go, and here's how:


Dead parents are popular - look at Harry Potter. And it's the same in some great horror books too: in Department 19 by Will Hill, the main character's father is killed by vampires and his mother kidnapped; in Lord Loss by Darren Shan, the parents are very memorably killed off in chapter two. In fact, death seems to be the most popular choice, but it does have a drawback: if the parents are killed, it usually means the story must revolve around a quest for revenge, so if you'd like your story to take a different direction, you might want to avoid the brutal, messy death at the hands of the main villain. 

Of course, they can still die in a way that doesn't merit immediate, burning revenge. There are dead parents in Raven's Gate, by Anthony Horowitz, but because they died in a car accident years before the main story, the main character doesn't feel the need to rush off on a quest to bring them back from the underworld. In fact, the death of his parents is the catalyst for Matt's current predicament: he's been placed in the care of his horrible aunt, and after he gets into trouble with the law, he's delivered into foster care. Here the dead parents don't form the plot goal, but they do help give the story its foundation.


Ah, neglect! Where the parents care so little about their children that they don't have a clue what's going on. This used to happen a lot in Roald Dahl books, where the parents are absent, and their lack of involvement is simply a given. But in today's world, where kids usually aren't allowed to play in their front yard without a watchful eye, it's gone out of vogue a bit. 

I think that a busy work schedule has replaced neglect, and we usually have a single parent who is working hard to provide for their child, which is why they fail to notice that Billy or Sally are now possessed by demons. Check out the excellent Invisible Fiends series by Barry Hutchison for an example of this.

The terrifying Mr Mumbles from Invisible Fiends

The Replacement Mentor

This is a handy little workaround that many books use, like Spook's Apprentice by Joseph Delaney. Basically you have an adult in a guardian role who isn't adverse to a bit of danger. Usually it's their job to make sure the main character is relatively safe while still introducing them to the dark and scary things that inhabit the world.

They're Alive, But Apart

This is probably my favourite option, because you don't see it all that often. The parents are there, not dead at all, but manage to keep their noses out. Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy is a great example - Valkyrie's parents (her dad in particular) are such great characters, but they exist completely outside of her magic-wielding world. Val works hard to keep them separate, and at points it is her shielding them from horrors they don't even know about rather than the other way around.

So know you know how to get rid of those pesky parents, and you don't even have to resort to violence! 

If you've got other suggestions for ways to disappear your story's guardians, I'd love to hear about them in the comments section.

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