Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Parent Figure in YA Fiction

I find it a little unbelievable when I read YA books in which the parents are perfect paragons of human wisdom. Not to say some parents in real life aren’t wise and filled with unfailing loving kindness—er, at least part of the time. It’s just that books featuring parents who screw up, occasionally or all the time, seem more realistic. Besides, having inept parents makes life more challenging for the characters.

A lot of it has to do with plain old good plotting sense. Fiction is more exciting and more satisfying when the main character has to solve the central problem by him- or herself. Another good reason for stories featuring bumbling, absent, or downright irresponsible parents is that in real life, teens often have a sense of facing problems to which their elders are oblivious. Parents are forever worrying about whether their kids have on clean socks while the kids are facing life-and-death situations, or at least what feel like life-and-death situations.

What’s your take? Do you prefer fictional parents who set a good example for teen readers—and who provide a backdrop of security and order? Or would you rather see your characters work out all their own problems without the net of parental grace to catch them if they fall?


Catherine said...

oh definitely no safety-net, otherwise the conflict is pretty much all gone.

And I think that a lot of writers are aware of this, which is why so often we have dead or absent/divorced parents in YA.

Besides, ultimately a YA book is not going to be about the parents, but about the child, so the sooner the focus shifts to the protag the better.

hannah said...

Since "realistic" is basically my gospel, I feel like absent parents are waaaay overdone in comparison to how often they occur in the real world. My parents are around. So are most of my friends's parents. This doesn't mean they have to be completely involved in what's going on, but a book reads a lot more realistically to me if I can imagine the parents in real life.

Obviously a matter of opinion, but some of my favorite manuscripts are the ones that take the Boy Meets World or My So-Called Life approach--making the parents fully 3D characters with their own problems--and stagetime--that are fully integral to the plot, even though the main character has, obviously, the main conflict.

Trish Doller said...

I think a parent(s) presence in the story is dictated by the story. In MWOTH, my MC's parents take away her summer plans, replacing them with something far less desirable. They are peripheral, but they're still in the story. In one of my WIPs, on the other hand, the MC's dad is a secondary character and his story affects hers.

I agree with Hannah. Parents are a part of a teenager's life, even if the role they play isn't large.

Sasha said...

Hannah and Trish, great point. What prompted me to write this post was remembering that I was once criticized for writing about parents who were present but flawed and/or oblivious to how much their kids were going through. And there are plenty of books, especially those written for younger teens, that involve parents who are perfect--and if the kids had only followed the parents' advice, their lives would be perfect too. ROFL.

Stories featuring flawed, 3D characters, teen and adult, are so much more interesting.

And Cat, that's totally true from a plotting perspective.

Emily Marshall said...

This is a really interesting topic. I've actually been criticized several times for having parents that are "too mean" to the MC, despite the fact they do really nothing mean. It's funny, though, because most of the criticism comes from critique partners who are parents themselves. I've never had a non-parent make that comment at all. To be honest, I actually like YA books when the parents aren't that present in the book. They can have a large role in influencing the MC's actions, since I think that's normal for a teen. But if the parent is too much in the story, I generally don't like it. Maybe because I remember at that age, I was incredibly embarrassed to be around my parents.

Meggy said...

I often see the opposite: parents who are just outrageously self-centered and horrible in books. Having a parent at either extreme can be hard, I think.

Vanessa Concannon said...

I don't exactly have a preference--sometimes I like to see a nice, well-meaning parent in a book. That doesn't mean safety net, though, any more than it does in real life.

Two of my favorite types of fictional adults are in the movies Donnie Darko and The Chumscrubber. Donnie's parents are good, well-meaning people, and they can't fix everything for their kids even though they wish they could. On the other hand, the parents in the Chumscrubber start out absurd and as the movie progresses, they get even crazier, while the kids are the ones who make (the most) sense.

I think it's pretty fun to write a town run by teenagers, though. Absent/irrational parents are a good contrast when you have a bunch of teenagers trying to Figure Shit Out.

The Snow Cone said...

I've heard it said that "someone" once said, that rule #1 in writing for kids is, Kill the Parents. I tried Googling the phrase to see if I could find the "someone" who actually said it, and (in addition to lots of hits about kids who actually kill their parents :-( ) I found this article:
about the abundance of orphans in kids movies. Interesting.
Hannah makes a good point that it is weird for every protagonist in YA Lit to be parent-free, but I think that parents' pre-occupation with problems of their own can effectively remove them as a viable safety net, while not physically taking them out (so to speak).

Anonymous said...

My take is that I don't care if the parents are wonders of the world of not -- but the central conflict of the story has to be solved by the teen MC.

For me, the real issue is that the parents have to match the MC's personality. Like it or not, we're a product of our upbringing -- either the opposite of our parents or some conglomeration of them. So it ticks me off to see parents with convenient personalities nowhere in line with the main character's.

Anonymous said...

I have a new book coming out in September called My Father's Son. It certainly doesn't glamorize parents.

No matter how old we get, I wonder if we ever see our own parents as people, or do we always view them through the lens of their being our parents. That's a question I ask in my new book. Here's a little bit from it:

My Father's Son (Terri Fields-Roaring Brook)


“I turn up the volume as a woman at a news desk announces, ‘This just in…the alleged DB25 monster has been arrested.’ Good. The camera switches from the anchor to a mug shot…but it is my face—or at least my face as it will look thirty years from now…A new image replaces the full-screen mug shot as I see two cops hustling my handcuffed father into the back of a police car.”

Suddenly everything in a routine life of school, basketball, and trying to figure out how to ask out the girl of his dreams is turned upside down as Kevin has to face the worst imaginable possibility: that the father he idolizes may be the man responsible for a series of vicious killings.

Kim said...

If you read the original Grimm's Fairy Takes, I don't mean the sugary kids versions that sometimes appear these days, you will find lots of dead or missing or dangerously alive parents. It's not a new theme, but it's an important aspect for exploration in YA.

A little kid's world is filled with giants - every adult is one.

A teenager's world is changing as he/she joins the giants and has to learn how to do it. It's as if the problems of the child and the power of the adult are combined in one person.

Much of the tension of YA lit can be distilled into the question, "Can I be a better giant than my parents?"

Lenore said...

What really bothers me is when the parents are complete morons. I'd like to see paragons of wisdom more, actually.

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