When it comes to protagonists, we all know the drill–child loses parents at a tender age, discovers the world is not as friendly as it seems, and eventually becomes her own hero, cobbling together a family-of-circumstance along the way. Don’t get me wrong, I love these types of stories. They’re often my favorite. But, my fellow writers, where does it end? Will no one save the parents?
Parents as Motivators
The most basic role of parent figures in fiction is probably that of the motivator. Often in YA it’s their death that leads to the main character’s emotional struggle. (For example, in classic Disney films parents have what I would guess to be a 3% chance of surviving past the first twenty minutes.) But it doesn’t have to be this way! Living parents can be just as effective at motivating protagonists. Reuniting with estranged family can serve as a strong motivation or end goal. In my novel, Marley is offered the chance to find her parents as extra incentive to comply with the antagonist’s scheme. On the other hand, parents can also serve the “prove you wrong” purpose, leading the underestimated heroes to take up a cause to prove their worth.
Parents as Protagonists
Sometimes young writers such as myself forget that a parent can function as a stand alone character, or even the hero. In this capacity, they are the ultimate protectors. Case in point, the movie Taken. At the same time, parental characters don’t have to be confined by their guardian role. They can go on their own adventures, fight their own personal battles, and be their own comic relief. Two words. Dad jokes.
Parents as Antagonists
Ah, villains. How we love thee. Although a bit cliché, parental antagonists are fantastic, creating joyous inner conflicts that have given us gems like:
Sorry, Darth. Not today. Of course, there are times when children fall in line with the evil whims of their parents as well, such as the case of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series. The turmoil between the will of a parent and a desperate to please hero is absolute gold. Not only does it increase tension, but it ups the stakes of the protagonist’s success. Basically, fictional parents rock, so let’s think twice before casting them out to sea.
Question of the week: Who are you favorite fictional parents?