At Lit Hub, an interesting post: Why do we write about orphans so much?
I could ascribe it, I suppose, to a sort of Generalized Anxiety Disorder … What, after all, is the worst fate a child can imagine? The loss of her parents is up there. And my current artistic interest in orphan characters may just be a relic of that time. I sometimes think that everything that inspires me to write was cemented for me by age thirteen.
Plausible, I guess, for this particular author (Liz Moore). But naturally there is a more general answer to this question as well:
The orphan character—especially one who is an orphan before the novel begins—comes with a built-in problem, which leads to built-in conflict.
Yep! Built-in problem. That is the big reason a lot of us write about orphans, I’m sure. I mean, in The Floating Islands, losing his parents was the impetus for Trei making that long uncertain trek south to find his mother’s kin. Same for Black Dog. That kind of thing happens a lot, obviously.
Of course an author can also go for a horrible, toxic parent-child relationship as the main source of conflict and tension, but I would personally find that really unpleasant to write, so it’s not likely to be a main focus in any of my stories.
But even the idea of instant tension and conflict misses a very simple, practical, virtually universal factor that I suspect is the other main reason underlying a frequent dearth of parents in MG and YA fiction:
If your main character has two living parents, you as the author have two more characters to deal with. If your protagonist’s friends have intact families as well, secondary characters can multiply rapidly. It is just easier — practically speaking — to reduce the crowd up front. By killing off the parents, as an added plus, you then get the built-in problems that go with that. Given that basic truth, it’s a wonder any children in fiction have living parents. Let me see, how many of my own protagonists have two living parents when the story opens? . . . In Islands, Ariane, but of course she was orphaned later on. Tehre! There’s one. One. I think just one. And that is not a YA novel, either.
Yep, my younger protagonists certainly do tend to have parents who are either dead when the story opens, or die during the course of the story. This definitely has nothing to do with the kind of personal childhood worry about the potential for losing parents that Liz Moore describes in her post. It is driven primarily by plot considerations and secondarily by the convenience of reducing the number of secondary characters.
On the other hand, I do love well-drawn, loving, competent parents, on the rare occasions where a fictional protagonist is lucky enough to have them. I can’t think of very many YA protagonists who actually have both their parents meet that description. Miles Vorkosigan, if you’d count that series as YA-ish for at least some of the books. Anybody else? Lots of MG / YA protagonists do manage to hang onto one great parent, but two?
Okay, got one. Nita in So You Want to be a Wizard. Her parents are pretty oblivious at the beginning of the series, but they eventually get clued in. I don’t know that they ever played a huge role, but they are loving and supportive and not (as I recall) incompetent.
Can anybody else think of an instance?