Where Are The Parents In YA?

“Anyone can write in dead parents. It takes guts to make adult children deal with living parents.”

This marvelous quote came from this article over at Fantasy Faction.  Somebody tweeted it yesterday and I was immediately like WIN!  This is something I have totally changed my opinion about since I first started writing when I was…twelve.  It’s been 20 years.  I’m allowed.  I have distinct memories of my mom reading my first finished book in high school (possibly it was just the first few chapters) and asking, “Where are the parents?”  Predictably my response was “You’re so missing the point…” (which wasn’t shocking…she read a satirical and totally comedic essay I wrote in my 9th grade English class and asked if I wanted to go to therapy).

I figure it is a sign of my adulthood that I’ve had that exact question about a lot of what I’ve read (or more likely, watched on TV) in the last couple of years.  See previous rants about the CW regarding permissive and largely absentee guardians. It’s become a real pet peeve of mine for both the parents to be killed off just to install the hero or heroine in a situation with a guardian who does not even qualify to be called such,  just so that the teen can do whatever the heck s/he wants.  While I totally get that (Parents, not shockingly, want to stop bad stuff from happening to their kids.  They don’t always manage it, but they try.), I think that there’s definitely a missed opportunity for conflict by eliminating parents.

Your heroine needs to kick ass and save the world…and still make it home by curfew or she’s gonna be grounded.  Meaning she has to sneak out to save the world from the next disaster.  And it’s not just situational conflict that can arise.  There’s the inevitable emotional conflict that comes up as teens are attempting to assert their independence from parents who still think of them as children.  Hellooooo?  That’s classic teen angst relatability right there.

Someone I think has done a marvelous job with this is Susan Bischoff in her Talent Chronicles series (Hush Money, Heroes Til Curfew).  The evolution of her heroine Joss is made that much more powerful by the friction she has to deal with by going against her parental units–most specifically her dad.  If she’d had absentee or dead parents, there wouldn’t have been anybody to push against for her to actually attain character growth.  It wouldn’t have been as satisfying or believable.

Now I’m not saying the parents have to take center stage.  This is still YA I’m talking about, after all (though the article that spawned this post was actually talking about adult characters in fantasy).  But parents exist.  They are an integral (and often annoying) part of a teen’s life, so instead of axing them because they get in the way, make the most of the conflict that they inevitably generate.  Use them to show character growth and complicate your hero/ine’s life.  Remember, it’s your JOB to make everything tough.  YA authors are the only ones who are supposed to abuse their kids.  On paper.  You know just the fictional kids.  That totally didn’t come out right…


15 thoughts on “Where Are The Parents In YA?

  1. You are so right. Parents influence you, usually, hopefully, for the better — or at least you learn the most important life lessons from them in some way.

    Some of the time, the lack of parents is used to an advantage, but when there is no mention of them, just, “my parents died in a car crash when i was six”, it feels like a cop out. Whether the character is battling vampires or high school tests, an alive parent or dead parent should be significant in someone who is still immature, growing, learning.

  2. Good post! I’ll be repeating myself here from when i was whining about Vampire Diaries, but Buffy’s mom, while frustrating and annoying, was part of what made Buffy’s life and struggle interesting. That frustration and struggle is a huge part of the teen experience and I think it has an important place in YA if you can possibly manage it. Not all kids get parents who know how to establish boundaries, and not all kids get parents who care to do so–fact of life. And not all stories and characters lend themselves to devoted parents. But I think you’re right that, too often, parents are written out merely for the sake of convenience.

    Even in adult contemporary romance (and other modern genres) we find so many characters who can easily walk away from their regular lives to partake of adventure. They can be whisked off at a moment’s notice without having to worry about calling their mom on Sunday or who’s going to feed to cat. Even their job is a freelance affair in which they make their own schedule, so there aren’t any really tough consequences to think about at the beginning.

    Yet part of the wild popularity of Nora Roberts has been her ability to write exciting stories and still include family, whether it’s blood relations or dear friends. In most stories, the h/h don’t exist in a vacuum, but have to deal with and relate to people who care about them–and that’s something to which readers relate. Even if those relationships aren’t the purpose of choosing romance, the experience of those relationships is often something readers long for. Whenever there are well drawn supporting characters of any kind, readers seem to appreciate them.

  3. Kate, I’m with you, it’s too easy to kill off parents for story line, when in reality the character arc would be richer with it in. I always think of Nora’s MacGregor series and think, where would the story be without parents? Where would we all be without our parents giving us complexes we need to sort out.

  4. I was going to mention Buffy, but Susan already did. 🙂 The conflict with her mom made the show better. I don’t write YA, but I can definitely see how it would be much harder to write the parents in.

  5. Great post! I don’t read a lot of YA because they can tend to get formulaic. I did enjoy Warped because the heroine had to deal with her father as well as the complexities of him having a new girlfriend on the scene.

    I bought Red but haven’t read it yet. Yikes, better remedy that!

  6. I completely agree that parents can be very important (and useful) elements in a story. And not just YA. I have realized lately that I tend to write in mothers who are either dead or bitches, and fathers who are completely awesome. I definitely think I’m working through some internal issues there (a very present, overbearing mother who I love but who drives me nuts, and an absentee father). It’s messy in my head, but it makes for great angst and drama in my writing. Lol.

  7. One of my favorite YA novels is Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved, in which the parents are very much there. In fact, the mother speaks the one simple sentence that shatters Louise’s illusions and allows her to see the truth about herself and all her relationships for the first time.

    And another–The Great Gilly Hopkins, where foster mother Trotter is there for Gilly to rebel against, until her real mother and grandmother appear and Gilly has to use what she’s learned from Trotter–even when her heart is elsewhere.

  8. One of the many reasons I stopped watching Glee was the absence of parents. It was just lazy- and I could go into all the other reasons but I’ll stay focused.
    In my book, Sara is in the foster care system and is found by her uncle- so through the series they have to figure out how to be a family. There are also magical creatures, boys, and evil monsters 🙂 But I haven’t eliminated the parental units and instead made them into a strong part of what is happening.
    I remember when my kids were about 8 and 3 and I had just read some YA piece and realized that all YA books had missing parents. I began to panic because I was home schooling then and I was worried that my kids would never grow and have adventures because I was always around. (I’m not totally stable all the time)

    1. Which was exactly MY point as a teenager. However, part of the reality of life as a teen and part of the authenticity YA ought to have is a parent. Whether that parents is good or bad, gives a damn or doesn’t, isn’t really the point. It takes a much more talented writer to pull off an enjoyable YA with parents who are actual characters than it does to just kill them off before page 1.

  9. I do get it. My first published novel is about a father and daughter, although the father is a pirate. However, in the one that I am currently working on, both parents are out of the picture. I, myself appreciate it when my favorite author changes it up for me. With or without parents, it’s a good story and good writing that keep me reading.

  10. What came to mind for me was Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Chronicles of Nick series, in which the main character obviously has extremely high regard for his mom. Therefore he has to fight to keep her away from the paranormal stuff he’s being drawn into.
    Worth reading, if you’re interested in this issue. I thought she did really well with her jaunt into YA.

  11. I agree with that question. Okay, so I don’t have parents in my current two released novels—but their absence is an integral part of the stories. Since one of the series features a new narrator for each book, book two of that one will feature parents some, as well.

    I also have a WiP on the back burner that’ll be more MG end of YA, with a parent. I wanted to have both parents, but it isn’t working that way.

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