Storytelling Tropes: Absent Parents

A series looking at common storytelling tropes in literature. This essay looks at absent parents, and how to use, avoid or subvert them.

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© 2018 Epytome / Used With Permission

Sometimes, when doing a book-marathon of Young Adult novels, one might think to themselves, “Well, there sure are a lot of dead parents in YA.” If you think that, you’re right. It is a common trope, and it has almost become a running joke.

Young Adult fiction isn’t the only genre with dead or absent parents, but with its burst in popularity, flack comes with the territory. Under the microscope, however, one can tell why this trope is common, why it often works, and why it probably isn’t going to be going anywhere any time soon.

Lack of parents in a story about adolescents to young adults means less supervision, less handholding and more freedom for the characters to explore without parental consequence. Examples of this include the Harry Potter series, Maze Runner and the Hunger Games. The Harry Potter series, despite having an orphan protagonist, has plenty of parental figures for the main character. To avoid the perceived restrictions of having parents around, the parental figures aren’t around in the same capacity due to the bulk of the narrative taking part in a boarding school. The characters are free to do whatever it is that needs doing, knowing they will receive lecturing later, but also knowing that no one is close enough to stop them (or sort out the matter for them).

The Maze Runner series does not focus on parents at all, and it works within the story’s narrative and theme of reaching adulthood. The clear segregation and alienation from adults is used to help treat them as the ‘other’; as antagonists with unclear motives. The boys initially do not want to change anything – to keep the status quo – and to, essentially, stay young. They’re aware of the dangers of the maze but it isn’t until it is proven by someone willing to change that they realise the maze needs to be navigated, and that staying as they are would be detrimental.

Within the Hunger Games, Katniss’ father died prior to the start of the story, but her mother may as well be absent due to her grief and depression. This relationship with her mother is necessary for establishing Katniss’ personality, and showing how she is capable of being so adaptable, why she has so much drive which will help her in the titular Hunger Games. The lack of parents is also used to demonstrate her relationship with her sister, Primrose, who is arguably more important than any other character in the book – bar Katniss herself.

Some YA novels have put parents at the forefront of their narratives. In City of Bones of The Mortal Instruments series, main character Clary is dragged into the world of angels and demons after a rogue Shadowhunter kidnaps her mother, Jacelyn. It twists the usual formula of mothers protecting their children, and sets up the theme of families within the series. Clary’s mother is physically absent, but her presence is felt throughout.

People’s relationships with their parents can be as unique as any other relationship, and as such it can be quite daunting trying to mimic such relationships in writing. Characters’ relationships with their parents can become quite formulaic in trying to appease a wider audience, and as a result can risk detriment to both plot and character development.

Living but absent parents can fall into a multitude of groups, however they are often narrowed down to two. In the first group, they are dead-beat or outright abusive, often used to tug on a reader’s heartstrings as well as to either explain a character’s own troubling behaviour or to demonstrate the contrast between the parent and their child (often the protagonist, sometimes the brooding love interest). The second group starts with a character being angry with the parent’s absence, with this fuelling their agenda or angst, only to then be rectified upon the discovery that the parent never wanted to leave. That they were held away by forces beyond their own. This development is then used as a catharsis and the turning point in a character’s arc.

Sometimes in stories a parent’s absence can be from the child’s own doing. Emancipation is a real thing, but in most fiction these narratives come with a predictable result: they reach out to their parents and make amends. It should be stated now that this is an idealised outcome, but also not necessarily a positive one. The onus should be on the parents to try to make amends, and, if necessary, to accept any wrongdoings that they did to drive their child away.

In real life incidents, children aren’t always capable of repairing relationships as the damage can be just too great. Parents could reject their children due to serious discriminatory beliefs, for example, and it would be understandable for a child to break away from such a toxic environment. In such instances, it could be an idea to emphasise that a parent’s acceptance does not define a person, and lingering on rejection could lead to a downward spiral of poor self-esteem. A person’s character arc could come from self-love, a lesson learned after a parent has turned their back.

A person’s relationship with their parents doesn’t need to be defined, particularly in science fiction or fantasy novels. It could be a cultural aspect that makes adolescents and young adults more independent, such as in a war, or something that the society simply encourages for various reasons.

An author can, however, choose to go the other way and make the main character’s relationship with their parents a focus in their novel. It could be useful in developing a theme, specifically one that emphases growing up, such as a coming of age ‘trial by fire.’

Literally dead parents are a tricky business. Sometimes parents are killed off unceremoniously before the start of the novel. Without giving this greater thought, the author can run the risk of forgetting the parents ever existed – meaning that the character rarely, if ever, mentions them. Their death could be seen as little to no consequence. In the Harry Potter series, Harry’s parents are killed off before the narrative begins, but their deaths run as the backbone of the entire series. They fuel Harry’s drive, as well as his untouchable longing to have parents and to experience the love that his friends have from their families. Their death is a presence in every book, and it feeds the story for it.

Sometimes authors choose to kill off parents within the story, which can be a tricky manoeuvre. If done well, it can kickstart a plot – or be a pivotal moment – as well as achieve maximum emotional investment from readers. It can be heart-breaking but also rewarding, and the finale of the book can feel earned. To achieve this, one needs to show the bonds between two characters – the parent and the child – and demonstrate why this is the worst possible moment of their lives. If the characters rarely interact, or if the parents are away (or barely considered in the narrative), then this could rob the moment of the emotional tug that authors want to achieve.

If done poorly, however, it can feel like a cheap ploy to do all of the above. Readers are clever, and should be treated as such, and can tell when their heartstrings are being tugged for no reason other than shock value – this is true for any death in a novel. In this, the death has to feel earned. Harry Potter’s parents died trying to save him, whereas Katniss’ father died in a mining accident – a tragedy that struck but could have been avoided if the regime they lived in hadn’t been so heartless.

The easiest way to subvert this trope is to simply write in present parents. They’re there, not just as characters, but also as ones that are as integral to the plot as any other secondary character. The relationship between the child and parent could be the focus of the narrative, such as Merida and her mother in the Pixar film, Brave. The story revolves around their relationship and their contrasting personalities, resolving that despite their differences they still love and care for each other, and, most importantly, they respect one another. They are both given believable character arcs and the payoff to their repaired relationship feels earned.

Subversions of this trope have become tropes in their own right; for example, a believed-to-be-dead parent coming ‘back from the dead,’ as seen in the Star Wars. While this, at the time, was mind-blowing for audiences, it is now a known twist that authors can enjoy pulling. As with any twist, the realisation or reveal needs to be earned, and the intricacy of the relationship needs to be nuanced in a way that the audience can still appreciate – or more so – once the reveal has been done.

As with any trope, it is important to remember that these story elements and recipes are popular for a reason. They’re not necessarily bad, particularly if they are done right. It would be impossible to write a book without a trope in it, but that doesn’t stop well-made, satisfying books being written, published and sold.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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