Miscellaneous · Writing Tips

Why Are Parents Dead in Fiction?


ShannonAThompson.com hit 18,000 followers! As a surprise, I shared the meaning behind all the chapter titles in Take Me Tomorrow on my Facebook page. Every chapter title is actually a direct quote from the chapter you’re about to read. This is to represent the clairvoyant drug, tomo, since it allows takers to experience the future. For those who haven’t read the story, tomo does not necessarily give you clear visions. It affects all people and all senses differently. Sometimes, you hear it, taste it, smell it, or feel it. In fact, it’s hardly ever clear as to what is happening. Only those who are experienced with the drug are able to interpret what they are experiencing, and even then, everything is just a guess, and the drug itself is debatable. But the chapter titles aren’t! If you go through the novel you will see the titles later on in the prose. Chapter One – Don’t Come Back – is found in this quote, “My heart lurched at his sudden change in demeanor, but I managed a nod toward the north. The forest opened up to the only park Topeka still had. ‘Don’t come back.’”

When Eat Books For Breakfast reviewed Take Me Tomorrow, she said it “was definitely an intriguing read—different from most of the other books in its genre…I would recommend it to readers of young adult dystopian fiction.” Read the full review by clicking here or check out my latest novel here.

I would also like to take a moment to thank Dan Thompson for including Take Me Tomorrow in his post Two Books Are Better Than One. (And no, believe it or not, we’re not related.)

Thank you for reading my announcements today!

Why Are Parents Dead in Fiction?

The other day, I was sitting in a hookah house while attending an online event. (I don’t always have the Internet at home, so I go there to work.) That’s when a good friend of mine came up to keep me company, and I was telling him about a novel I am working on. The main character is an orphan. That’s when we got to talking.

Why are parents always dead or absent?

This isn’t a new conversation. I’ve had it with many people, mainly in regards to Disney movies, but I think it applies to most fiction, especially young-adult fiction, but I’ll get to why I think that in a minute. First, I would like to admit that my stories are no exception. The Timely Death Trilogy involves two protagonists – Eric’s biological mother committed suicide, and his father doesn’t have the best relationship with his son, while both of Jessica’s biological parents died in a car wreck, but she was adopted, and she does have a good relationship with her adoptive parents. In Take Me Tomorrow, Sophia’s father is practically absent due to his traveling job, and her mother hasn’t been in her life since she was seven, but she does live with a mother-sister figure named Lyn. Why did I do this? I can’t speak for every author when I explain my theories, but I will explain my personal reasons for deceased or absent parents as well as a hypothesis from the literary side. Before I continue, I want to clarify that I am (in general) talking about fiction for children and young adults.

Literary reason:

Coming-of-age is a popular topic among fiction for teens and preteens, mainly because they are going through it themselves. That being said, I think a huge factor of “coming-of-age” is finding yourself through independence. This is one of the main reasons I believe parents aren’t included in fiction, whether that is through death or absence, but another reason includes freedom. I know. I know. I sound horrible for saying freedom in regards to an absent parent, but I don’t mean “freedom” as a good thing. I mean it as a driving force for a character to venture outside of their home, to go on adventures, to strive to survive on their own. If they had a perfect family at home, this need for survival or adventure would be hard to justify. But I would like to point out one thing that others seem to forget to mention. Even if a character is an orphan or under other unfortunate circumstances, the character (usually) has a parental figure, and I think that is just as important as having a “real” parent in the story. To me, a “real” parent doesn’t have to give life to a child or adopt a child or anything in terms of a traditional definition. I believe a parent can be anyone who is the main guide and protector for a child. In that sense, I don’t believe we take parents out of fiction. I think we show readers that parents (guidance) can come from many places, which can be vital during a time in which young people are striving for independence outside the home.

From The Write Catch
From The Write Catch

Personal reason:

I am only including this section to give insight to an author’s reasoning behind it (rather than my above section that simply guesses as to why we find ourselves in those instances.) When it comes to dead or removed parents in fiction, I can relate to it. My mother died when I was 11, and my father was a traveling businessman. I hardly saw him growing up. In fact, I saw nannies more, and we never had the same one for long. Mainly because my brother and I were rather…well…angry might be the best way of saying it. The only time we did have another parent in the house was my stepmother, and she was only married to my dad for a year before they were divorced, and we definitely didn’t get along. Whew. Is that enough personal information? I don’t necessarily have a problem sharing it, even if it makes others uncomfortable, because it was my life. My life is much better now. But it’s hard for me to imagine a teenage-life with parents being actively involved, so I personally write about orphans or absent parents because that was my life growing up, and my characters are going to reflect certain parts of my life, even when I don’t realize it. That being said, I still believe that parents are in my fiction (like Lyn with Sophia in Take Me Tomorrow or Jessica’s adoptive parents in The Timely Death Trilogy, not to mention Eric’s stepmother.)

So where am I going with this?

Sometimes authors aren’t writing about orphans or neglected kids for literary reasons. Sometimes they are writing from their heart, and – in reality – I have met more teenagers who can relate to absent situations than not. Having a “perfect” family is…let’s be real…impossible. No one is perfect. Everyone is human. And families will reflect that both in life and in fiction.

The reason that parents are generally dead and/or absent is simple: it happens. But that doesn’t mean we can’t add more parents to story lines. In my little opinion, including them is just as fine as not including them as long as the author is being true to the story.

Feel free to comment below with your reasons or thoughts on this topic! I know we’ve all at least read a novel or seen a Disney movie that includes this debate, so chat away,


31 thoughts on “Why Are Parents Dead in Fiction?

  1. Such a good post! I think too in a way it’s popular because these young adult books are about growing up. Whether as a teenager or young adult we often have to figure out the world and how to do things ourselves. We begin to try not to rely on our parents (Personally I’m just stubborn aha) so I’ve always kind of associated the lack of parents to that. Teaching us ways to cope, grow, connect and accept the world.

    I always think about this when I write. I’ve done it too. I’ve begun to think how I can keep the parents around (or parent figures) whether for good or bad reasons aha. I’m trying too add to the overall story with them being around. Since as you mentioned they tend to usually not exist for one reason or another 🙂

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Ky! Yes – I believe coming of age has a lot to do with a child or teenager separating themselves from their parents, but it also has a lot to do with self-discovery and discovery of the world. In order to have that in a YA novel, especially a fantasy or science-fiction novel, it’s difficult to have the parents around without the parents taking control of the teenager or the story (while also maintaining a healthy relationship between them). Thanks for adding your thoughts!

  2. I don´t believe we should strive to find a place for the biological parents in a story if there is no real need for them in the storyline. And, let´s be real, absent parents are a force to, just like you say, break out and venture onto adventures you would´t necessarily go on otherwise. It gives the plot more tension, and makes it somehow more real. Plus: even in fantasy and make-belief, the reader wants to feel like they can connect, and identify themselves with the characters. Feeling alone and vulnerable, definitely does that.
    – Thank you for posting!

  3. I think its a natural progression for every human to feel the need to be independent at some point in their lives.Many times characters are usually on the path to finding out who they are and learning more about themselves.So it quite okay if most parents seem to be dead.It gives the characters the chance to explore options they couldn’t have if they had over protective parents watching their every move.
    Thanks for drawing our minds to this.

  4. Having an orphaned child is definitely relatable to readers. Even if you’ve never experienced anything like that, it makes the character vulnerable and gives them, as you said above, motivation to go on dangerous quests and adventures. Readers root for characters that are “damaged,” flawed, and have bigger problems to overcome than we do. It makes it all the more satisfying when they achieve their goals.

    1. I agree! I think it’s really interesting that we have something that is relatable even though most of the time (hopefully) the reader hasn’t gone through that themselves (being an orphan at a young age, I mean). But I think you explained it eloquently. These situations show vulnerability, and it gives the opportunity to invite the strength to overcome a horrible situation. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  5. I’ve had this debate and a few of my characters aren’t orphans. In fact, a minor plot line for a book involves how the main characters father keeps trying to stop him from being an adventurer. That’s a reason why I don’t include a lot of parents. If they’re caring and concerned then the parents would probably try to stop their child from grabbing a sword and going off to fight monsters. Simply letting it happen makes me think they’re terrible people and that just creates a whole new load of issues. From personal experience, I think many parents try to steer a child away from what they perceive as bad decisions and that would sabotage an up-and-coming hero. (Though it’s being an author for me since this world is lacking in dragons to slay.) The comic strip you posted demonstrates it perfectly.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story about having non-orphans as characters and how it affects the story. I often wonder if readers and writers forget the alternative when they debate about topics. (Like my previous post when we were talking about the reader who wished bad things would stop happening to characters. If something bad didn’t happen, you wouldn’t have a story.) Your example definitely explains a hurdle that happens on the other spectrum, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the comic. I found it and about died from giggles.

      1. I think a reader/writer’s personal preferences definitely come into play with things like this. It’s funny that you mention someone not wanting bad things to keep happening to a character. I’ve had people say that and others say they wanted more tragedy to befall the heroes. Apparently, fantasy series are ‘supposed’ to take a dark turn at some point. So you definitely have to see where a person is coming from when they touch on tragedy in a story.

  6. Thanks for the shout out! Take Me Tomorrow really was a wonderful, unique read! Thanks for the opportunity to review it! Hopefully there are some sequels in the works!

    1. Thank you for reading and reviewing Take Me Tomorrow! A sequel – Take Me Yesterday – has already been written, but the publication of it isn’t guaranteed yet. Reviewing it and sharing it like you did helps a lot, so thank you again. :]

    1. Now that could be a totally new post – When Protagonists Die. It would be a great discussion to have, and I would be more than happy to share your thoughts on it if you are interested in writing a guest post about that topic on here. If you’re interested, please email me at shannonathompson@aol.com for more details.

  7. This is a great post, and a topic I struggle with. I often feel that I have orphaned protaganists because I’m lazy — I don’t want to deal with parents and come up with a plausible reason for them to let their kid go off and battle with dragons, villains, or whatever danger it may be. Then again, as you wrote, having no parents aids in the “venturing into new territories” theme that a lot of YA books have. The comic strip was a great example of the parent dilemma.

    I love what you said about other people taking parent places. While the protagonist may not have biological parents, they always have a mentor. We all need someone to guide us and show us the way. That was a great point!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed this post. :] I understand questioning whether or not it is laziness or honesty to the story. I’ve been there before, but I came to the conclusion that I was trying to force a parental relationship rather than being true to the story, so I had to go back and rewrite a large portion (and working on that as well as realizing that so I could fix it isn’t lazy at all). I think many readers (or viewers of movies with orphaned protagonists) do forget about the mentors. Simba had Rafiki, Aladdin had the genie, and Harry Potter had Dumbledore. The list goes on and on, but I suppose that’s another debate. I simply see them as the parental figures. But I think my favorite orphan was Sara Crewe. (Orphan is a debate, of course.) But she had her stories to guide her.

  8. Would you believe, I wrote a chapter of a book on writing for children on this very topic? Several of your commenters remarked that caring parents would not let children have adventures, but I think it goes beyond that. If characters have a good relationship with their parents, they are too likely to ask “what should I do?” And the parents will tell them. In order for a story to be effective, the main character has to be the one making decisions and figuring things out.

    At the same time, it’s kind of a facile thing to just kill the parents. This is a devastating blow, no matter the age of the child. The core of strength that comes from knowing your parents love you is very hard to replace. Kids who lose their parents very young or have survived parental abuse or neglect suffer life-long psychological damage. It isn’t something you just shrug off.

    So I always urge writers not to take the easy way out and kill the parents. Think harder and you can find a more interesting and original way to handle parental complications.

    1. Certainly there are authors that your comment works for. Killing off parents should never be “an easy way out” but I include it in my stories, and it is never an “easy way out.” It should never be treated as an “easy way out” – I agree. That being said, I have included it before because it is something that happened to me as a young child, and I am very passionate about bringing those characters to light with strength and heroism that fights against the life-long psychological effects and understanding the traumas for a healthy life. I think authors should include deceased parents as long as it is true to the story. Forcing it for drama is wrong. Being a motherless daughter during my teen years was very difficult, but I often found comfort in novels where mothers were deceased as well. It made me feel less alone, and – as long as authors treat the subject with respect – I think it is okay to continue writing stories with orphans or other instances like neglect that happen in real life.

  9. This was interesting. I think my reasons for separating characters from their parents are usually in line with what you said about writers in general. In order for a character to have a real adventure, especially a young character, there has to be a reason the parents aren’t there to take care of things in the character’s place. Sometimes I feel like this happens a bit much in fiction, but it’s better than young characters who seem to have good relationships with their parents…. until the story adventure starts but they don’t even tell their parents what’s going on. I like it better when the circumstances connected with losing or being separated from parents play into the story though, because then I know I’m not just reading (or writing) about characters with difficult pasts because it’s trendy.

  10. Reblogged this on Ana is the Bookworm and commented:
    I really enjoyed this post so I decided to share with you guys. If you think about it, many young characters in fiction are orphans – including mine.
    I think that in real life orphans are usually so really sad and alone that it’s only fair that it’s them who get the adventures inside our books.

  11. I love that picture of the mom and broccoli. 🙂

    And as someone whose life was absent of parental authority, I can relate to characters without parents because it is extremely hard for me to comprehend what it must be like to be a teenager with a parent. I was always very independent and encouraged by my grandparents, who raised me, to make my own decisions. Even now, when my husband’s mom gives him any kind of parental suggestion, my brain pretty much melts and screams, “DOES NOT COMPUTE!” Because a lot of teenagers today grow up in single parent households or even have to take care of parents who can’t quite provide in whatever capacity for their family, I think that the independence of Disney and many YA characters is easier to relate to. Also, for a young adult who is coming into their own personhood and independence, it encourages when they read from the POV of a character who is independent. It helps them try on their own independence and find themselves. (I actually wrote my senior capstone for college on this, so I am fairly passionate and opinionated on such issues. Ha It’s hard not to be when it is such an exciting topic!)

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