Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Sometimes the answer is simpler than it seems

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?

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13 Comments Sometimes the answer is simpler than it seems

  1. Elizabeth

    !!!!!! Nita Callahan’s parents are a huge deal — her mother, at least, is a major driver of the plot in A Wizard’s Dilemma, and her dad is a strong secondary character in Wizard’s Holiday.

    Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave has Merlin’s relationship with Ambrosius as a prominent part of the second act. I suppose it’s from before YA was a thing, though.

  2. Elaine T

    I thought of Nita from Young Wizards. The Teen suggests Percy Jackson’s mother and step father (once he has one), and, with qualifiers, Endymion Spring where the mother is trying, and the (separated) father is trying hard, but … story… and it gets solved.

    L. Shelby’s Non-YA Serendipity’s Tide has both parents and a large family that actually gets to play a role.

    Seems like Rumer Godden has at least one, but I can’t dredge it up – maybe the one about ballet featuring the boy?

    In YA fantasy, not main characters, but there is the Weasly family, although personally I think both parents have issues, but they try.

  3. Elaine T

    Me again, the Teen just added the Eric Rex series while adding: Granted there’s not much sign in the first book since Mom was kidnapped to kick off the story, but even then when they can communicate she’s helpful, supportive and caring, and in the later books the king, a character implied to be his father, is also supportive. Although the family isn’t intact due to assassination attempts, it’s a supportive set of parents anyway”.

  4. Rachel

    Elizabeth, I didn’t realize the series was so long! Goodreads says ten books, now that I look. Is the whole series good? I think I only read the first couple.

    Elaine, you’re right, Serendipity’s Tide is indeed a good example. I love that family.

    That Rumer Godden story is Thursday’s Children, which is a lovely story, but you have to wait quite a while before you can see that the mother is actually more or less a sympathetic character. She is so indifferent to Doone for so long; the slow way Godden shifts the reader’s view of the mother and father and Crystal is one of the best things about the book.

  5. Elaine T

    Patricia Wrede wrote an early one where a Mom goes adventuring with kids in tow. And Eff’s parents are supportive in the FRONTIER trilogy.

    Neither I, nor the Teen recommend all of the Young Wizard books, although Teen goes farther with them than I do. I stopped with #3 which was irritating, and I realized there was a sameness about them so I dropped the series. Teen went on long enough to meet Roshan, and is sort of keeping an eye on the series to find out what’s going on with him.

  6. Craig

    _A Wrinkle in Time_ and sequels have a good mom & dad in the background, don’t they?

    Among the old Heinlein juveniles, _The Rolling Stones_ clearly fits this bill, by focusing on an entire family going adventuring together; I forget if there are invisible good parents in any of the others.

  7. Rachel D.

    Concerning the Young Wizard series:
    I agree that they’re not all worth recommending. Personally I loved #5The Wizard’s Dilemma and #6A Wizard Alone, but after that I stopped liking them as much. #5 is the one where her mother is a major character, as mentioned by Elizabeth above, and is much more personal is some ways than the rest of the books. #6 has a great autistic character who might be my favourite character in the series.

    I think #1 and 2 are the most similar, as they basically follow the same plot line, but more distinctness comes with later books.

    I also happened to love #3, but that’s mostly because I’m a computer geek, and all the stuff about the beginning of sentience in the computer-like race thrilled me.

  8. Rachel

    I don’t know whether I’ll ever go on with the Young Wizards series, but you all are making parts of it sound intriguing.

    Wrinkle in Time, of course. It’s been so long since I read the Heinlein YA that, yeah, I don’t remember about parents in the other books. I think there were parents on stage with Podkayne of Mars? But I don’t remember them all that well.

  9. Mary

    Hmmm. . . I was thinking of
    The Cloak Society
    (Villains Rising , Fall of Heroes) by Jeramey Kraatz , not so much for their actual parents — at one point, one of the young superheroes dryly observes that he’s sure that somewhere out there, there are superheroes with parents both present and good — but for three superheroes who were raising three children with powers (one orphaned, two abandoned).

    They were excellent parent figures. And I particularly liked how well it deal with the big problem with YA stories: if the stakes get high enough, the adults ought to intervene, and to explain why not, you have to make them evil, incompetent, or absent.

  10. Hanneke

    I always thought it was a matter of agency, as Mary notes. With young protagonists you have to do something unusual in the way of family dynamics to make the young main character(s) the one(s) to make the decisions and go out and do things.
    Unless you keep the story small, mostly about not really dangerous stuff, or set in circumstances where the parents have very little or no way to protect their kids from the dangers (i.e. in a war or something like that – but even then children will mostly be kept close to try to protect them).

    I’ve read some of the “keep it small”, more or less ordinary life sort of books in the last few years that I enjoyed for the family interactions, that had good parents supporting their kids in trying out their wings (figuratively, as all three sets of books are not SFF; they’re all MG or YA – I’m not sure about that distinction).
    – The Penderwick books by Jeanne Birdsall, about four sisters and their father who is a delightful parent; their mother is dead which does diminish the supervision they get.
    – The misadventures of the family Fletcher, a household of adopted boys with 2 gay parents and good family dynamics.
    – Hilary McKay’s Casson family series, starting with Saffy’s angel (each of the children gets their own book) has artist parents who are rather disorganised (giving the kids more freedom than usual) but loving and supportive.
    There are a few older books, from a time when kids were allowed more freedom and unsupervised play outside, where there are parents but those are mostly kept out of the story; Monica Edwards wrote two such series which I like quite a lot; both sets of kids have loving parents but they don’t interfere as much and supervise as closely asthe modern parents do. They’ll help their kids figure out the right thing to do and how to reach their goals, then let them do so by themselves. Arthur Ransome’s books are in the same category, but with even more absent parents.

    I remember liking that Patricia C. Wrede book Caught in crystal, where the single mom goes adventuring with her two kids (when forced to by circumstances: she’s been an adventurer when younger and much preferred to raise her family in settled and more stable circumstances).
    A quick glance around my SFF shelves shows that mostly the protagonists in these are old enough to be out in the world on their own, and stories at the YA end of that spectrum that do mention parents often start when the youngsters set out to make their own way, like when they go to college, or get sent to stay somewhere for the holidays where there is less supervision – thus making the parents absent and invisible.
    Maybe you could count Fawn’s parents? Though she ran away from home, when she went back with Dag they were protective.

  11. Rachel

    I thought of Fawn’s parents, but really they were so oblivious to Fawn. Dag summed it up by being astonished that they could love their daughter without paying the slightest attention to her. So, ugh.

    There are a few older books, from a time when kids were allowed more freedom and unsupervised play outside, where there are parents but those are mostly kept out of the story

    If I were writing a contemporary, I definitely would not show hovering and helicoptering positively. I think it’s so bad for children to constantly have every minute scheduled and supervised. I thought my mother was a touch overprotective when my brothers and I were growing up, but compared to the stifling parents of today, no way. And all the social pressure that push parents to stifle their children. Ugh. It must be really hard to be a parent today.

    I don’t know what it’s like for German parents, though. Probably at least a little different from in America.

    Anyway, if you write a family where the parents are giving their children more room, it would then be easier to let the kids have adventures while the parents remain out of the picture. I think. Probably.

  12. Rachel

    Mary, thanks for mentioning The Cloak Society. That sounds like a story I’d enjoy.

    And yes, I think you have to be pretty creative to keep the parents out of the story IF they are both living and good, competent parents. Still, I think it can be done! It’s just so much easier to kill them off.

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