Sunday, November 29, 2009

Oh Parents Where Art Thou? Parental Archetypes in YA Literature

Did you catch Donna's awesome post about the BFF in YA literature? Awesome, right? Well get ready for another one of our popular quick studies. Today we're talking about PARENTS!

I know, I know, they don't sound that exciting, but hear me out.

Parents are super important in YA literature. For one thing, they are how your characters were born. Ok, so maybe you technically gave birth to them in your head, but they were also raised by their literary parents (or we shall see) and who their parents are and how they raised them and whether or not they're alive or dead, absent or present, normal or wacky can have a very important impact on your MC. I'm going to divide this post up into two sections. The Absent Parent and the Present Parent-simple enough, right? Here we go!

Absent Parents!!!

You know the drill. You're a teenager falling in love with a  hot vampire--rescuing your werewolf boyfriend from the snow--saving the world from being sucked into hell by a statue--defeating the world's darkest wizard--discovering your new psychic powers through art--getting drunk in a parking lot and rescued by your crush--uncovering the truth about fallen angels--sneaking into an abandoned warehouse to not have sex with your sort of boyfriend---whewww. It's kind of hard to do all of that when Mom and Dad are around. (I will think of a prize for the person who can name every single one of those references accurately--it's a mix of literature and tv)

So luckily for us we have the ever-present archetype of the absent parent. Because curfews and saving the world do not mix!

Dead Parents

Lily and James Potter, Harry Potter

They're dead...
Pros: Very popular in Fantasy, allows the MC the most freedom to explore and go on adventures, adds emotional depth to an MC, if parents murdered you now have a motivation for the character and an innate desire for love and acceptance, you can avoid a lot of angsty emo "I hate my parents" moments, great way to keep secrets from your MC.

Cons: Very popular in Fantasy, usually the MC is then paired up with guardians or relatives who can turn into nightmare Present parents--see below, you are required to explore the depth that comes with having dead parents, it can shape your character in ways you may not have seen and now need to consider.

The Abandoned Parent
sometimes known as the widower, widow, divorcee, single mom

Charlie Swan, Twilight

Loss of signifcant other has left them down and out and absent...
Pros: Much like the dead parents, they are also very popular in Fantasy, particularly in Paranormals. They usually let you do whatever you want without asking too many questions, they often stay off the page and enter very few scenes, often they are away on business (think Nora's mom in Hush, Hush).

Cons: You had better consider the backstory and how that not only affects the parent, but your MC as well, too often they become flat unbelievable characters, though absent they need to be written with a sophisticated amount of empathy, they have a habit of becoming strangely present at very inconvenient times (think Bella trying to leave town to escape James--ouch!) If you're in a Fairy Tale, beware of step mothers. May also lead to meek, shy MC's with unresolved self esteem issues.

The Abandoning Parent

Chris, Gilmore Girls

Flighty, scatty, unreliable, and totally immature
Pros: They can become plots in and of themselves (think Ruby in Lock and Key), they can be very fun to write, they give the MC a lot of character, can cause a lot of premature growth in your character (think Bella's Mom in Twilight).

Cons: Careful they don't become cardboard characters or too unrealistic, backstory is important, a resolution between them and your MC is usually crucial to the plot, can lead to emotionally cut off MCs with anger management issues that don't know how to love.

The Distracted Parent

Aunt Jenna, Vampire Diaries

"What honey? Did you say something?"
Pros: Similar to the dead parents in that they don't often get in the way of our hero(ine) and their adventure. They don't appear a lot and they don't ask a lot of questions, usually because they're too caught up in thier own lives to care, or they were thrust into the role of parenting too soon (think Helen in Raising Helen). Also closely related to the Abandoned Parent, the MC can pretty much do whatever they want (think Grace in Shiver, and Camelia in Deadly Little Lies).

Cons: They can be a cop out for a writer who doesn't want to deal with parents, they can easily lead you into lazy writing if not done carefully, be weary of believability issues and like the abandoned parent, they will leave your MC with self esteem issues, though they usually get angry about it at some point. If the Distracted Parent is not your biological 'rent, than you've got to make sure your MC believably deals with the issues that arise from The Dead Parents,  or The Abandoned Parent or The Abandoning Parent, (also think Charlie from Party of Five).

Honorable Mention: The In-Denial Parents

Joyce Summers, Buffy seasons 1&2

"Honey, is that blood on your shirt? Oh silly me. It's just paint!"
They're there, they're present, they sometimes maybe think that something is going on, but they just don't get it and their blindness leads to MCs getting into all sorts of shenanigans.

Now onto the...

The Present Parents

Look out. They can be your best friend, or your worst nightmare, but you better believe that when you come home with that vampire hickey on your shoulder, they are going to notice!

The Best Friend

Lorelai Gilmore, Gilmore Girls

"Hey, can I borrow your shoes? Yeah, the strappy ones."
Pros: They are fun, quirky, understanding, your MC will never be lonely and will have great self esteem, plus what a relief to see a parent and child who actually get along. Teen angst, take the train out of here, you're not welcome.

Cons: Best friends do not lend themselves well to MCs running around on their own. If your MC goes off on an adventure, the Best Friend is going to notice, maybe even try to come along and bring the salsa. You will have a hard time using the Best Friend in a fantasy or paranormal or anything. If the MC breaks away from the BFF there will be drama!

The Evil Parents

The Dursleys, Harry Potter

"Clean the kitchen, pick up my dry cleaning and stop ruining my life!"
Pros: They make great foils, they are a fantastic way to invoke instant sympathy and likeability for the MC, the MC can often run off on their adventures without feeling guilty, in fact, being a rebel is vindicating! Often they aren't even related to your MC (usually guardians or step-parents).

Cons: They often become cliched or cartoonish, there needs to be a realistic motivation for their cruelty. Be careful that they're not too cruel or child services will need to be called (think Ms. Minchin in A Little Princess).

The Perfect Parents

Patty Chase, My So Called Life

"Oh honey, you have a wrinkle in your shirt. Now sit up straight please."
Pros: Close relatives of the In-Denial Parents, they're only happy if everything is neat, clean and perfect and often lead to great characterization and foils for your MC. Bonus! These parents are present, but their desire for everything to be just so causes them to turn a blind eye and sometimes turn into absent parents (think Macy's mom in Just Listen).

Cons: Perfection can make these parents into monsters, and if they aren't turning a blind eye they see everything, creating the need for some very tricky plotting. Also be aware of extensive groundings and punishments that can get in the way of sneaking out and going on adventures. A perfect parent gone bad...think the stage mom in Center Stage.

Normal Parents

The Camdens, 7th Heaven

"Hey Slugger, whenever you're ready I'm here to listen."
Pros: It's sort of refreshing to see a regular old set of parents who get along with their kids, are present, aren't psychotic and genuinely seem happy to be parents and in the scene you're writing. They're loving, they're sweet, they're really not an issue.

Cons: They're not very good at creating conflict, they are often the parents of your BFF (think Weasley's in Harry Potter) and they have a tendency to become the Dead Parents (think Mia's parents in If I Stay). There is no such thing as normal. Even if your family is functional, there are often elements of the other parents hidden inside. Your MC will have a very tough time sneaking out and making their own path. Be careful that they aren't too involved or too quick to solve your plot's problems, or your MC will lack serious agency!

Ok, I hope you enjoyed our quick parent study! Feel free to add more parent types in the comments below and don't forget to guess the references above.


  1. Another great post about the details that run rampant in most YA books! You know what would be interesting to touch upon? The things that MCs don't do that anyone in real life would (like going to the bathroom for instance. I've only read ONE book where the MC mentions that she needs to use the ladies room-and not to change into any costumes or avoid an awkward situation).

  2. Ooh great post! What about the pushy parent--the one who wants their child to be the best at everything/get into the best college etc etc. This springs to mind as it probably describes my mother, hehe.

  3. All I know is that one is Twilight, I believe 2 is Shiver (which i have yet to read. The library in my town doesn't carry it. =/ ) and number 4 is Harry Potter. Unfortunately, i don't know the rest. I see alot of absent parents or stories where the kids are at boarding school. There are a lot of dead parents in fantasy (I know just about all the characters in my story don't have parents...granted there has been a war and their parents are "terrorists", but that's besides the point.)

    Great post. I wonder what can be analyzed next. I think you guys just about covered everything.

  4. Agree with all of these EXCEPT for the classification of the Camdens as normal parents. They deserve their own category: "screwed up, nosy, creepy parents". Cons: spying on their adult children's sex lives. Pros: none.

  5. Frankie, great post, but I have to agree with Sam --- the Camdens CREEP ME OUT! I'd say the Chase family in My So Called Life is more appealing to me. But you're right -- there is no "normal"!

  6. You're a teenager falling in love with a hot vampire (Twilight)--rescuing your werewolf boyfriend from the snow (Shiver)--saving the world from being sucked into hell by a statue (Buffy)--defeating the world's darkest wizard (Harry Potter)--discovering your new psychic powers through art (?)--getting drunk in a parking lot and rescued by your crush (My So-Called Life? I remember a drunk parking lot scene)--uncovering the truth about fallen angels (Hush, Hush)--sneaking into an abandoned warehouse to not have sex with your sort of boyfriend (Gilmore Girls?)

    I love pop culture. DYING to know what the art one is!

    This was a fun post. Loved it!

  7. Thanks Pirate Penguin, that's a neat idea for a future post.

    Rhiannon, yeah I'd say the pushy parent is the perfect parent gone bad.

    Najela, good guesses and don't worry we will have something else to analyze.

    Sam, hahaha you're probably right.

    Donna,thanks. Truth is I never ever watched 7th Heaven...but feel like I did because it came on after another show I watched so I always saw the coming next previews. Maybe we can think of another example.

    Chelsea, you're close! I'll give everyone who is guessing a clue. Every single reference can be found somewhere in this post. Hope that helps!

  8. Ooh! The psychic one could be Camelia from Deadly Little Lies?

  9. You're a teenager falling in love with a hot vampire- Twilight
    rescuing your werewolf boyfriend from the snow- Shiver
    saving the world from being sucked into hell by a statue- Buffy
    defeating the world's darkest wizard-Harry Potter
    discovering your new psychic powers through art-Deadly Little Lies
    getting drunk in a parking lot and rescued by your crush-Lock and Key, though it doesnt fit 100%, it was just a field right?
    uncovering the truth about fallen angels-Hush, Hush
    sneaking into an abandoned warehouse to not have sex with your sort of boyfriend- no clue

  10. Great post, Frankie! We have a set of perfect parents and a set of absent parents. What about humiliating parents? We had a set of those in our trunked novel.

  11. Mandy, you're sooooo close! The last one is a tv show mentioned and it's not Gilmore Girls.

    LiLa, thank you! You're right I totally forgot about humiliating parents, though I think that all parents are humiliating in a YA novel at some point. Yours though, are probably hilarious!

  12. Just swinging by because another bloggers post was touching at the same topic as this one, and I wanted to give her the link. And I want to take a wild guess on the last one, is it My So Called Life?

  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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