I’m working on the outline for my next book, figuring out the backstory for my main characters as I create the present-time story, trying to decide what happened to their parents…who are absent.
No big surprise there, right? Parents are almost always absent (in some way) in YA books. (And MG, too, for that matter.)
And this got me thinking, in part because I’ve seen reviewers lament the lack of good, responsible parents in YA literature. And I totally understand this, from a parenting point of view. Yes, I’d like my kids to read stories about characters who go to their parents for advice, who confide in their parents, who have a close bond because I want that with my kids.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for good entertainment, does it? It’s not interesting.
I have fabulous parents and had a great childhood. The story of my coming-of-age would be One Giant Snore Fest because there was nothing to overcome. Yes, I’ve had tragedy very recently in my life which makes my story more interesting from a plot point of view (though I could have totally done without the “interesting” twist, you know, Universe?), but there will be no movie-of-the week made of my childhood, I can guarantee.
You know what does make a good story? Strife, struggle, growth. Characters figuring things out for themselves, finding their own voices, their own power…finding themselves.
You know what doesn’t make a good story? Loving parents guiding their kids’ fairly seamlessly through life.
Think about this for a moment: What if Lily and James Potter had lived? Or what if the Dursley’s had been lovely, warm people caring for Harry as if he were their own son? There’s a very good reason Harry was the main character of the series rather than Ron or Hermione.
Even Disney knows this. Disney films are rife with kids who’ve been abandoned by their parents in some way—ignored (Cinderella), orphaned (Aladdin; sometimes the parent is even killed right in front of the child’s eyes, hello Lion King and Bambi) (also, can you BELIEVE these movies were made for young children?), or on their own for some other reason, often of their own doing (The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo, Mulan, Peter Pan).
It’s no different for adult books—there’s no benevolent mentor guiding characters through their lives to keep them from making mistakes or out of harm’s way. And why should there be? Great stories for every age have this in common–they’re about characters who go beyond what they think they can do, who take chances, who are stronger/smarter/more capable than they believed themselves to be, who make mistakes and learn from them. And this can only happen if characters are doing things on their own, not with the warm and supportive advice/help of parents (or parent-like figures).
So this absence of parents is necessary in the make-believe world. It allows young protagonists to truly be the heroes of their own stories, letting them rise to the occasion as we hoped/knew they would (even if we didn’t know how). Which is what all good stories are made of, right?