Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Better off dead?

by John

I was heartened to read Leila Sales’ piece in last week’s Publishers Weekly about the inordinate number of dead parents in children’s literature, for it’s a subject I used to bring up myself when talking to writers’ groups. My lame attempt at a laugh-line was always that if YA novels were the real world, no-one would become parents, because the chances of survival were minimal at best. Leila does a wonderful job of identifying why writers tend to kill off parents—lazy writing, instant sympathy, parents are dull—while also offering some practical solutions for how to keep the parents alive without making them major characters.

So, just to add my own two cents: if you’re a teen writer struggling with parent characters, instead of killing them off, get ‘em divorced. First, it’s more believable to kids who are typically aware of divorce issues they or their friends may have in their real lives. And second, divorce offers tons of deliciously messy plot possibilities, while death usually leads to the standard scenes of mourning, loss, regret—and a big yawn from readers.
However you handle parents, though, it’s worth putting in the effort to keep them alive not only for the health of your manuscript, but also for your success at the submission stage. For me, announcing in chapter one that dad’s in the ground almost always leads to the rejection pile, regardless of the rest of the story—it’s a pet peeve right up there with spunky, redheaded middle-grade heroines. But that’s another blog post….


  1. In my article, Red Hair is Not as Uncommon as You Think - A countdown of 25 things that show up repeatedly in young adult fiction (http://tinyurl.com/bfov2f) - #12 is A Dead Mother. When people read this article, they often email me to tell me what they are "guilty" of in their own writing and #12 is cited over and over again.

    I think, honestly, many YA writers think adults in their stories are boring. I always strive to have several generations in my books because it seems more like real life. I think older people are left out a lot too. I mean, you might see the ancient grandparent (often dying), but you don't see a lot of sixty year old neighbours or forty year old friends. I'm forty-two and one of my closest friends is twenty-one. You never see that. Hmmm...maybe I better go write! Thanks for bringing this topic up.

  2. I have divorced parents in the ms I'm querying, and a dead father/remarried mother with an abusive stepfather in my current WIP. Even my MG has divorced parents. This is not because I'm taking the 'lazy writer's' easy way out. I came from a broken home, so this is what I know. I don't really know how to write a teen with a happily married parents - because I don't know how that feels.

    And with the divorce rate as high as it is, odds are that the teen picking up my book comes from a broken home or knows someone whose parents are divorced and are able to identify with my character are pretty good.

    Thanks for the post John!

  3. I was heartened to read Leila Sales’ piece in last week’s Publishers Weekly about the inordinate number of dead parents in children’s literature, for it’s a subject I used to bring up myself when talking to writers’ groups.

    This isn't just common in YA -- it's common in the history of literature and especially Romance (not as in bodice rippers, but as in strange events, wild journeys, etc.). The number of youth who are "orphans" only to discover that they're actually kings and/or that their parents are dead under nefarious conditions is astonishing.

    IIRC, Northrop Frye discusses this tendency in The Secular Scriptures and Joseph Campbell does in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. I know Bruno Bettelheim does throughout his work, especially in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. So if Sales is going to discuss or lament the recent inordinate number of dead or absent parents in children's lit, she's doing something wrong, but if she's merely going to note that tendency in general across history, she's doing something right.

    As James Wood said, "it is always a good time to shred formulas." But formulas that last for centuries no longer seem like formulas: they seem like some underlying aspects of Western or human psychology or storytelling.

  4. It really is super common, isn't it? Guess it's easier to have a rogue protagonist if said person has no family ties.

    A lot of Disney movies--the majority of them--only have one parent, too. Where'd the other one go?

  5. Hey! What's wrong with us red-heads! (Just kidding. I know we've been done to death.)

  6. My critique group liked that the mom in my YA is a loving, fully functional (e.g. non-alcoholic parent). They said it was a refreshing change. :)

  7. What about animated movies? The mother is ALWAYS dead and the father often is too. Says something deep and profound about our society, I think.

  8. This is an interesting read to me. I honestly haven't read many books with a dead parent though I've read plenty with single parents or less than functional parents.

    I do however, think there's a reason some tropes continue to endure even when everyone knows that horse is dead. The dead parent may be lazy writing, or it may be that this is an idea that speaks to the archetypal in all of us. Probably to avoid the risk of writing easy you should pick something else if it fits, but dead parents have been coming back to haunt characters, literally and figuratively, for time immemorial.

    I only have one dead parent in all of my many stories. Ironically, it's the story i pitched to you, so I guess we can assume the answer to that one ;) But a well formed parental character isn't necessarily a boring one. Then again, well written grief, loss and regret isn't necessarily a big yawn either.

  9. I'm back again because I find this interesting. I think there's a difference between dead parents in fantasy or fairy tales vs. contemporary YA fiction and it's the latter where it becomes an issue. In fantasy, the hero is almost always destined to go at it alone. It's just sort of how fantasy works. But if you're writing a contemporary novel, then you have to ask yourself, "Why is the parent dead? Because I don't feel like writing them? Because my character could use the baggage? Because?" If you think about when you were a teen, or your kids and their friends now...how many of them really have a dead parent? I was eighteen before I met someone whose father had actually died. All my friends have parents because statistically speaking, a parent of a teen is only around 35 years old, and generally, people don't die in their thirties. Of course they do, and if your story needs it, then by all means, it is perfectly reasonable, but it's kind of like having someone die in childbirth in the US these days. It's pretty rare (it was 13 per 100,000 live births in 2006) If you're going for realistic fiction, you have to consider this angle, I think.

  10. I originally thought maybe my YA character's parents were too present in the story, but my agent told me he loved it. I certainly see why! I do think it's a convenience thing, when it happens in YA. I think that in literature in general, however, characters tend to be orphaned so that they are alone in the world, and can be admired for their independence, tenacity, etc. The Jane Eyre type.

  11. Anyone who has been through a professional cost-a-packet Writing for Children course is told repeatedly that adults must be, mostly, out of the picture because the child protagonist must solve all problems on their own.

    Nuff said?

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