Monday, January 21, 2013

The Case of the Missing Parents...


It's annoying. I'm annoyed. 

I picked up another YA book today, only to find that, naturally, the parents are missing. 

In YA fiction, and in MG fiction, too often the parents are AWOL. And I understand why. It's a plot device. You can’t go off and have dangerous adventures if your dad has set your curfew for 8 pm, or if your mum is vetting all your friends. Because in real life, that’s what parents do. In fiction, it just makes them get in the way.


This is why Harry Potter is an orphan, right? And why a boarding school is a perfect setting. Because there are no parents around to worry about what the kids are up to.

Tracking down an evil criminal mastermind, like the Famous Five? Absolutely not. Go and do your homework instead, and your parents will phone the police and have them look into it. 

Looking for the courage to stand up and be a hero? Okay, but first you have to clean your room and take the rubbish out, and don’t forget to be home in time for dinner.

And this is where a lot of YA fiction falls down for me. Because however much teenagers try to live in a bubble with just their friends for company, that’s not the real world. There is a balance between realism and blatant parental neglect, and too often YA leans toward neglect.

And I think this is where books like Twilight actually got something right: divorced parents — a ditzy self-absorbed mother that Bella needs to get away from, and a father who works extended hours of shift work. So okay, in that situation I can buy that Bella can look after herself, and is generally unsupervised. It’s just the rest of the Twilight I have issues with.

Personally, I think this is why dystopia and spec fic work so well for YA. It means we get to throw the usual rules away. In a post-apocalyptic new world, when you’re scavenging for every bite to eat, the kids have to grow up quickly. That whole idea of the sanctity and innocence of childhood, after all, only dates back to the Victorian era, and it’s a very Middle Class idea. Because meanwhile, kids were working themselves to death in factories or mineshafts.

I understand why parents are so often missing in YA fiction — the narrative demands it. But please, give me a reason apart from negligent parenting.

(Except, of course, if you intend your character’s parents to be negligent instead of just oblivious. And in that case, show me the consequences. Because there are always consequences.) 

What tropes in fiction are starting to annoy you? 

11 comments:

  1. Missing Parent Syndrome does seem to be a staple of YA fiction. In all of my YA/MG stories at least one parent is dead and the other is unavailable. Hmmm, that's the case in my adult novel too. I wonder what the psychological significance of that is?

    And I'm forever tired of the "chosen one" syndrome, even though I still use it. :P

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    1. Missing parents don't bother me so much in adult fiction, only in Ya or MG where they should be there.

      And let's not start drawing psychological diagnoses from what we write...or next time we meet will be in a padded cell!

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  2. It is such a common storyline, from Bambi to Treasure Island, Huck Finn to The Outsiders. Even Luke Skywalker's father was off conquering the universe instead of teaching him how to blow up Death Stars.

    And of course, if Nemo hadn't gotten separated from his father, he never would've met Dora. (But at least his father heroically tried to find him, instead of lopping his hand off, like Vader did. That's got to make it tough to write those Father's Day cards.)

    And I'd rather not think of what's annoying me, or I'll get all annoyed.

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    1. Hey, I happen to think that Darth Vader was very much involved in his kids' lives. Getting his stormtroopers to raze the family farm, blowing up his daughter's adopted planet, trying to shoot Luke down in a dogfight...an absentee father would never have been there for all those character defining moments. Every time something bad happened, their dad was there. Causing it...but it still counts for something.

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  3. This is something that has always annoyed me, I know what you mean. What always bothers me is when a girl goes on about how ugly she is, but then the hottest guy in school falls for her. I hate when authors purposely make their characters ugly just so it's even more perfect when the hot guy falls for them. . . if that rant made any sense.

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    1. That is a great one, Madeline! "Oh, I'm not in any way pretty at all, but this totally hot guy who doesn't even know anything about me wants to be with me." You know what? You are obviously pretty. Pretty and stupid.

      I hate that one as well!

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  4. almost worse than the missing parent is the stereotypical cardboard cut out parent - he's abusive, she works too hard and is never around. Of course those things are true and can impact teens, but give it dimension. Off the top of my head THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green and TRY NOT TO BREATHE by Jennifer Hubbard do a good job of fleshing out parents who seem real, not background.

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    1. Exactly, Alex! Show me a reason why the parents are missing or otherwise neglectful. I still haven't read The Fault In Our Stars...because I know it's going to make me cry.

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    2. FIOS will totally make you cry and it will be worth it. OH GOD i love that book so much!

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  5. That trope annoys me to death, too. I'm proud that in my most recent book, the MC has both her parents and they're important to the plot.

    The other trope that annoys me is the mysterious, dark boy who always falls for the girl MC, without any real logic to it. Ugh.

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    1. I love the idea of parents being important to the plot!

      And you're right about the mysterious, dark boy. Why can't the girl be mysterious and dark for once? Or, more importantly, if the mysterious, dark boy is hiding a mysterious, dark secret (and he always is) shouldn't he go straight home after school instead of dating? Priorities, please!

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