*Originally, this was a blog post I wrote in 2010. I think it’s still relevant today.
YA lit has a big problem with parents. For years, we’ve been told that YA readers don’t want to have parents in their books, but I never found that to be true as a reader or writer. Parents are a huge part in teenagers’ lives. They should be given a chance to mill around with the other characters in books. While giving a parent MC status probably wouldn’t be the best choice for a YA audience, they can certainly fill a second-tier character slot.
But it seems like when authors do try to tackle parents in YA, they fall into a few traps.
* parent are totally absent or just sort of “there” (either dead, otherwise undone, or simply off-camera)
*parents are bad (drugs, abuse, neglect, etc)
*parents are so insanely good and perfect it’s sickening and unrealistic (“Who wants milk & cookies?“)
When it comes to orphaning characters, some writers do it either as a way to deepen their MCs backstory or simply to get the MC on his/her own. And, let’s face it, a lot of kids don’t have their parents. I’m not one to argue much with the dead/absent parent(s) in YA because that was my experience as a teenager. I lost my dad at 17, my mom at 23. From the time I was very young, my mom worked three jobs, so I didn’t see her a whole lot and was forced into self-sufficiency. I had several friends who had lost their parents to death, divorce, or work during formative years, and, really, it was comforting in a way when we came across absent parents in the books we read. It let us know that there were kids like us, fending for ourselves–be it physically or emotionally.
I’ve seen publishing folks gripe, “OMG, stop orphaning your YA MCs!” But sometimes I think they forget the YA audience might take comfort in seeing someone like themselves, going through the same situation of loss. The emotions of loss don’t really get much sharper or alienating.
As far as bad parents are concerned, there’s nothing wrong with writing a girl who has an abusive stepfather or a mother who’s dangerous to be near. Parents can be crappy people. My mom had an open door policy at our house–no matter what time of night, if one of my friends was in trouble, they had a warm bed at our place without any questions asked. Sadly, that bed was occupied more than once.
And good parents don’t fare much better. Betty Crocker doesn’t live in most kids’ homes and seeing a character on page who has Betty Crocker in her house tends to get an automatic eyeroll. None of us had perfect parents. Our characters shouldn’t either.
So does where this lead us? Do we avoid parents? No, that’s that the answer. Kids usually have their parents around in some capacity. Parents can serve a story without being a cause of melodrama or a plot device that goes nowhere.
Rather than fall into the trap that parents have to be absent, good, or bad, however big or little their role is in your book, they should be fully developed. You have to remember that kids really are an extension of their parents–appearance, attitudes, quirks, etc. Sometimes kids rebel against the ways in which their parents are set, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Creating a well-rounded background, including parents, for your teenage MC will ultimately bring them to a more developed life.
Parents aren’t one dimensional. They have tempers. They screw up, sometimes a lot. They get sick. They die. They make cookies. They worry. They punish. They let their kids go off with their friends. They pray their kids make the right decisions. They’re unreasonable. They bail. They protect. They care in the best way they can. They explain a bit of where the MCs come from.
Most of all when writing parents, write them the same as you would any other character: with honesty.