Feb 23, 2011

It's Time To Off The Parents

by Melinda Carroll

I'm currently writing a middle-grade novel.  One obstacle in writing for children-- and for young adults-- is figuring out a way to get rid of the parents.  Why?  Because when it comes to saving the world, parents just get in the way.

No conscientious adult would knowingly allow a child to date a vampire, or go on a quest against the gods to find a bolt of lightening, or have a direct face-off against the world's vilest wizard.   They just wouldn't.  Somewhere along the way, a parent would say, "Hold up.  That's too dangerous.  I really don't think you should walk down into that dark cave by yourself to chat with that evil monster who just wants to kill you."

So you have to get rid of the parents.

The challenge is how to do this realistically and creatively.  I've only come up with a few ways to make this happen-- and none of them are that creative.  But I'm going to share them with you anyway:

First, you can kill them off.    Car accidents are always useful for this kind of thing.  Even better, you can  have them killed by the villain (that allows you the added bonus of giving the hero motive to go after said villain).   Killed in a plane crash, eaten by a monster, destroyed in some natural disaster--  really the options are endless (personally, mine get blown up in a grain silo explosion).

The biggest obstacle with this choice is that it is so overdone.  Show me a child-hero and I can almost always show you an orphan.

A second option is to remove the parent from the scene of action.   Send them on a vacation, or off to work, or into the hospital.  It works even better if you get rid of the adult right at the moment they're needed most.  For example, an evil wizard is about to attack the school just as the headmaster is forced to give up his position (sound familiar?)  You can also move the child.  Send them on vacation or away to school.

The problem with this choice is that usually when a responsible parent goes away, they leave a another responsible adult in their place.  If they don't, you have to provide a valid reason why.  Which means you're pretty much right back to where you started.

This leads to the third option.  Give the parent (or other adult) a huge character flaw.  They can be crazy, complete idiots, or even evil.   This way, they are either oblivious to the danger of sending their child into that creepy cave all alone, or they're aware of it but have no qualms about sending them anyway.

The biggest problem with this choice is realism.  Seriously, wouldn't a loving parent at least have some idea that their child is dating a vampire?   And if crazy or evil is your method of choice, it's very difficult to portray a totally dysfunctional parent raising a totally well-adjusted child.  There's got to be some kind of fall-out.  Good authors can sometimes use this dysfunction as the very thing that makes the child a hero-- but it's tricky to do.

So what are some other options?  Does anyone out there have a brilliant way to get rid of the parents without killing them, sending them away, or making them crazy and evil?  But be warned, if you share it, I just might use it!


  1. Humm, this is a good question. So why do we need to get rid of the parent? Maybe the parent can get involved in the plot? Maybe they can see their daughter is in danger and do ingenious things to get the child out of dangers way. Maybe there can be a conflict between parent and child over the "dragon slayer".
    Even at my age I'm an orphan and don't much care for it. I always have questions I wish I could ask my mom or dad, but... so, can't we keep them alive, but just in the background somewhere?
    ... Joyce S. of Tumbleweed Lane

  2. Great post Melinda! I've listened to similar discussions, and quite frankly, I have no idea. sigh.

    I like several of the ideas you posted, however. I think one of the tricks may be using a common way of getting rid of the parents, but writing it in an unique way.
    Good luck to you. and happy writing!

  3. My fav is superman's real parents. They had to send him away to save him but they built a reservoir of knowledge and wisdom to help him along. I think it's been a plot if you will for lack of a better word to "get rid of the parents." It started with ET. One reason I never liked the movie, gasp. The mom was clueless really really would a mom be that clueless??!! So I would suggest they made a great sacrifice for their child and then gave him/her their collective wisdom through a journal, a secret tunnel, a vision, a dream, is this helping?

  4. Thank you all for the great comments and ideas. I do kind of do a superman thing- the parents leave behind some information to help their children. After your comments, though, I think I ought to make that a bigger part of the story. Maybe I could slip in something right at the climax- so the children feel that they weren't totally abandoned when their parents died. Hmmm...

  5. Great topic! I had to off my character's parents too--since she gets taken into another world and they can't come with her. When I was planning the book, I considered having her parentless and not knowing what happened to her parents, or having her brought up by meanies to make the break not only easy, but wanted. Then I wondered why I wanted to be easy on her. So I made her very close to her family, so when she was separated from her family it would be heartbreaking. (I'm so mean!) I couldn't be that mean to her loving parents though, so I put in a magical element that makes them forget her once she's gone.

    In a sequel, I'm bringing back someone in her family, which creates havoc with his altered memories, and I can't wait to write it!

    I also like the idea of letting the parents in on the action. That's certainly not done very often, and could be interesting to work with.

  6. Great discussion. What about putting the parents in a vulnerable position (sister/friend/spouse just died, just lost a job, in a coma [wait, you already said that]) so that they are distracted by that situation? And the child doesn't want to add to their burdens? Or make the stakes so the child doesn't want to tell the parents because the child is worried the parent will try to interfere and tell him/her NOT to do what they need to do? Good luck, and thanks for the food for thought.

  7. This is a problem I am having. I wanted my MC to come from a happy home so I killed off the parents and the sibling. I have seen kidnapping and magical jail or suspension of parents. Or kidnapping of kid. I appreciate your discussion of this problem.


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