(A table of contents is available. This series will remain open for additional posts and the table of contents up-to-date as new posts are added.)
Part Four: Parents on the Page
So you’ve accepted the challenge, huh? You want to actually include your character’s parents this time around. Excellent. Since the tendency over the years has been to exclude them, you may be finding yourself a bit stumped on how to write them. Good news - I’ve got some tips for you.
When we imagine our own parents, we mostly think about our interactions with them–the PARENTING part of being a parent. While it’s pretty common for parents to deal with loss of identity as part of becoming parents, don’t forget that these are still people. They have fears and loves, wants and needs above simply making sure they can support the family. What are their hobbies? If given a week to themselves, how would they spend it? When faced with their greatest fear that is not wrapped up in their children’s well-being, how do they face it? What kind of teenager were they, and what’s the most illegal thing they’ve done? (It doesn’t have to be a big dark secret like they killed a man. Maybe they just put soap into a central fountain or removed the C off a sign for crude oil.) What kinds of trips did they used to take prior to their children? What’s a phrase that the child would shake their head upon hearing and just mutter, “Of course you would. That… that’s such a [parent] thing to say”? What are three or four words that sum up who this person is that don’t include “parent”?
Relationship with their children
Once you have an awareness of who these people are as people, add in their children and think about parenting skills they might employ. How they speak to their children will cue a lot off of the respective ages, so take into consideration whether this is an adult speaking with an adult, or an adult speaking with a child. That relationship between parents and their adult children really does change, despite the couple of years of transition when the parent still thinks they’re talking with a child. That location within the relationship is important to figuring out how to write parents and children in scenes together. It doesn’t always have to be either knocking-heads-antagonistic or sickly-sweet-friendship. It can be as simple as two characters talking who simply have a long history with each other.
Parents are often concerned about well-being in regards to their children. They want to make sure that the child doesn’t need assistance whether monetarily or emotionally. That long history can create either a very clear-headed ability to assess what’s going on with the child or a blinding effect where they don’t see as well as they think they do. Generally, the blindness is also well-meaning, but can end up creating tensions between parent and child. Dialogue between parents and children will often reflect this. Long history provides inside jokes and memories, resulting in references to each other or avoidance of certain topics because they both know.
When writers decide not to include the parents in a story, usually their only focus is on eliminating extraneous characters to streamline the story down to only those who are most integral to the plot. In theory, we’re taught that this is the best way to handle stories: keep it simple and make sure the characters you choose to include are worth including, right? If a character’s not pulling their weight, see if there’s a way to combine their purpose with another flimsy character to create a more substantive character, right? This, alongside ideas like “This character would never be able to go on this adventure if their parents were around!” leads writers to take advantage of the close relationship inherent in parent-child relationships by forcing the parents to leave and putting that angst to use as character backstory. It makes characters more sympathetic, right? Consider, instead, that parents can become hugely helpful to your story by providing an easy reason for something to be discussed or providing excellent tension.
Long story short: Parents don’t have to be a burden to your tale, but rather can have a function if you bother to develop them into full and rounded characters.
Consider what kind of agenda these people might have–what are they up to? And don’t just think about it in regards to their children, but also in regards to the wider world. Think about how they would react to the things going on in the city due to the wider world machinations. It’s so tempting to think they’d be oblivious, but what if they’re also taking action? What if they’re preparing for something? Think about what kinds of facets that might add to your story.
Remember to take into consideration the parents’ hopes and dreams in regards to their children and family, too, of course. How far are they willing to go to protect them? What does protection mean to them? Where would they like to see their children in the future, and how involved do they feel the need to be in order to get them there? How much space is there in their agenda to allow for road bumps and input from the child?
What kind of foil or new perspective could having the parents in the story provide? What opinions or worldviews/understanding do they have that could be a benefit to your character? Part of the common plot for adventure/quest stories is the hero’s reluctance to join the adventure at all. How much more fun could you have if you put the trope on its head and involved the parents. Yeah, your character wants to go, but it’s family game night; or your character would never be able to sneak out of the house without attracting the parents’ attention, so think about how a character might achieve that and the fun situations your characters can get into before you even get started with defeating the Dark Lord.
Not all parents have to manifest as obstacles, or even as obstacles all the time. Consider taking another perspective with them that allows them to be part of the picture, even if they’re not on the team fighting the Big Bad.
Next up: Starting in on the siblings!