Must Fictional Parents Always Be Absent?

I recently started a series looking at “uncharted territory” in fantasy fiction, and in the comments I.W. Ferguson very rightly pointed out that something you don’t often see in the genre is parents and their children doing things together:

“I rarely see children and their parents doing things together in fantasy. So often the parents are dead, missing, out of town, unhelpful or antagonistic, or even not mentioned at all. There are many, many books I haven’t read, but if you’ve also found this rare, I would enjoy a post about it. Also, I’d love to learn about examples showing how it can be done well.”

I’ve noticed how common it is to encounter orphan characters in fantasy, but this comment got me thinking about absent or evil parents in general, and I wondered if it would be possible to find examples of more positive, visible parent-child relationships in popular fantasy tales.

Keeping Parents Off-Stage

Orphans and absent parents are common in other genres too, with some particularly famous orphans appearing in 19th and early 20th Century literature (The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre). This article on the British Library website lists some good examples and explains why and how orphan characters were used in these classic works.

Fantasy stories do, however, feature a high number of characters with parents who are absent or have passed away, particularly children’s and young adult fantasy stories. I can think of several reasons why we see so much of this in the genre:

  • Absent parents force the protagonist to solve problems by themselves.
  • A difficult parent-child relationship can be a source of narrative conflict.
  • A tough and lonely upbringing can make a character’s struggle to succeed in the face of adversity more inspiring.
  • Murdered parents provide the protagonist with a motivation for vengeance.
  • Being forcibly taken from their parents provides the protagonist a motivation to find their parents again.
  • Absent parents can ensure a magical or royal lineage remains secret.
  • An absent, unknown parent can later be revealed in a plot twist (“Luke, I am your father!”).
  • Fairy tales often feature absent parents and evil step-mothers (and many fantasy stories are inspired by fairy tales).
  • In war-torn fantasy worlds, the death of or separation from a parent is more likely.

Taking these into consideration, I can see why so many fictional parents are absent, unhelpful or antagonistic. Their absence can provide emotion and drama in a narrative, as well as characters who are struggling to fill that absence and reclaim a sense of family or personal identity.

But are there examples of fictional fathers, mothers, daughters and sons spending a bit more quality time together?

Exceptions

Books

Believe it or not I couldn’t think of a single fantasy book that truly bucked the trend on this one. I did find some that had more positive and present parents than others, though I still wouldn’t say the parents did all that much together with their children:

In Harry Potter, Arthur and Molly Weasley are positive, prominent and somewhat present parental figures to Ron and his friends… even if their presence often emphasises the fact that Harry has lost his own parents.

In Stardust, Tristan has grown up with a caring father, and although he has never seen his mother, she does play a role in the story, particularly later on. Again, most of the narrative doesn’t involve Tristan being together with his parents, but parts of it do.

In Red Queen, the protagonist has several siblings and two parents who love her (I found other elements of this book clichéd, but in this respect it was refreshing), though after the first part of the story they are largely absent.

In Coraline, the creepy ‘fake’ parents are far from positive, but Coraline’s determination to recover her real parents is at least a central focus.

In The Lord of the Rings, Elrond and Arwen have a fairly prominent father-daughter relationship. Although Elrond initially tries to separate her from Aragorn, his actions are not borne of malice but of genuine worry for his daughter and her future.

Yes, I’m going to do it. I’m going to mention Twilight. *Takes a deep breath* I’m not going to suggest Bella’s relationship with her lonely father and her largely-absent, travel-obsessed mother is perfect, nor that either of them really pays much attention to what’s going on in their daughter’s life… but at least her dad is around and cares. He even occasionally tries to help her, despite being clueless as to what is really going on. That’s more than I can say for most parents in YA books I’ve read.

Image: Bella and Charlie Swan

I’ve actually noticed a few paranormal and fantasy romances have parents that play a larger role when it comes to the romance aspect of the plot, either approving or disapproving of the potential marriage and relationship (this is somewhat the case with the Lord of the Rings, Red Queen and Twilight examples I mentioned above, as well as another book, Lord of the Fading Lands). So it seems they provide a source of tension or affirmation in these circumstances.

Films & Television Shows

I had a bit more luck when expanding the field to films – and particularly if you include superhero fiction (which I think often counts as a sub-genre of fantasy):

The father-daughter relationship in the film Kick-Ass is a personal favourite. Yes, his decision to train his daughter to become a deadly superhero is highly questionable, but ultimately the two of them love each other and work together to fight bad guys, and have a humorous relationship. I’ll never forget this introduction we get to them (and a warning: this scene, and actually this whole film, is not appropriate for kids!):

In How to Train Your Dragon, father and son have plenty of disagreements, but ultimately play a large role in each other’s lives and have a positive relationship, particularly when the father comes to understand and value his son at the end and see things the way he does.

I’m also going to give Game of Thrones a mention here (I haven’t read all the books so that’s why I’m referring to the TV show), because although most of the characters eventually end up orphaned or childless, and it has some truly messed up parent-child relationships,  it does show us a lot of examples of parents and children doing things  together and being on the ‘same side’ rather than working against one another (e.g. Ned and Caitlin Stark and their children, Olenna and Margaery Tyrell, Ellaria Sand and her daughters, even Cersei and Jaime and their children).

The Incredibles is also a prime example of parents and children having adventures together (thanks to Jackie B for mentioning this in a comment on a previous post), and it was an incredibly successful one too. I think this worked because it played on the humour of the family dynamic in the context of a superhero story.

Can It Work?

Since examples are so thin on the ground, it begs the question: can you have a prominent, positive, present parent in a fantasy and still have it be successful and engaging?

I think if you get creative, you can. Absent or evil parents might create all kinds of tensions and narrative motivations, but present parents can bring their own tensions and dynamics depending on what the writer does with the relationship.

A child can be seeking affirmation from a parent, parents and children can work together to fight an enemy, a parent can disagree with a child about what’s best for their future, and the parent-child dynamic can also provide humour, joy and even fear and suspense if one of the two is threatened.

It’s certainly easier to leave the parents out of things, because the parent-child relationship is such a complex and dependent one, but I think it might be interesting to see more present parents in fantasy stories, and see what interesting tensions or emotional moments can be created in these relationships without the parents being unhinged, neglectful or working against their children.

___________

Perhaps there are some good examples out there of prominent parent-child relationships in fantasy stories that I simply haven’t come across yet, or have forgotten about. So if you can think of any I haven’t mentioned, let me know in the comments!

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33 thoughts on “Must Fictional Parents Always Be Absent?

  1. Awesome article Nicola, going through the development of this very topic on the feature script of The Landing. Very helpful to read this – thank you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s interesting that there doesn’t seem to be a book where the parent takes on the role of the magical mentor, another common trope in fantasy that you’ve discussed. That might be an interested twist on both genre conventions. I can’t really think of many examples of stories I’ve written where parents were present or involved. I can think of one example of a positive relationship I’ve written, but it all happens off stage–a father’s encouragement and possible pulling of strings leads a young woman to become a city watch officer. In this case, the father’s influence was an important reason for the character to choose a path that is stereo-typically male. But the father never appears in the actual story. I think the idea that absent parents forces the characters to struggle on their own is likely the most important reason.

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    • Yes I also thought surely there would be some parents who mentored their children in the ways of magic! But it seems it’s usually left to aunts, uncles, grandparents and strangers.

      I like that scenario of the father actively supporting the daughter in her career (often fictional fathers disapprove of their daughters’ goals or try to marry them off). But yes, I think that need to force the character to go it alone really is the main reason parents are absent.

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  3. I face this as a children’s writer and have to say that parent characters, with the best intentions, will always step in and take over whatever scene their kids are in.

    Your list of possible uses for absent parents is great. I can only add that boarding-school novels (or novels set at college, for older youths) are another variation of the absent parent syndrome.

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    • I really loved the way you phrased that – that parents will always step in “with the best intentions”. It rings true both in fiction and in real life! (at least in some situations). I suppose the parental need to protect and guide means they often take over both the decision-making and the risk-taking in any situation.

      And yes true, boarding-school novels would be by their very nature stories with absent parents, and there are plenty of fantasies that are also school stories.

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  4. Quite a thought-provoking post, thank you so much for sharing!
    While I often considered the lack of parental figures (or their antagonistic relationship with the children) a useful narrative device to create conflict and therefore strengthen the narrative, I never took into account the opposite, and the equally powerful inherent motivators. Food for thought, indeed… 🙂

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    • Thanks! I had also always though of absent parents as a useful narrative device (once when writing a YA story I remember wondering not if I’d get the parents out of the picture but how I’d get them out). It wasn’t till putting together this post that I realised there are ways present parents can create tension or motivation too. I’ll certainly think a little harder about it next time I’m about to push a parent off stage 🙂

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  5. Great post and fantastic topic! To be honest, I’m rather fond of the orphan trope- and I’d certainly much rather have either an evil parent figure or a totally absent one, than the weird compromise a lot of stories have (something I call the non-absentee absent parents- I mean they’re there, they’re supposed to be half-decent, but are totally oblivious to the fact their child is hanging out with vampires- sorry for the tangent- pet peeve 😉 ). I also met an author once when I was younger who said the first thing he did when he wrote a book was remove the parents, cos otherwise the children can’t get upto anything- which is true- if the parents are actually competent parents and present, they’ll usually just get in the way of the plot. So I totally agree with your list of reasons for absent parents (also, who would want to be without that “Luke I am your father” moment?!) But I also love how you included examples of functional parents/families. And I especially like it in fantasy when there’s some kind of surrogate parent figure for the mc to go to- so that they do have some guidance and an example of how to actually have a decent family (I mean, that kind of helps if they’re supposed to turn out half-decent 😉 ) I do love your examples here- especially the weasleys. hahhaa if only the decent parents had survived GOT!! And I absolutely adore the Incredibles!!
    I definitely agree with you that it can work. Like I said, I won’t come down on stories for not having parent figures/having antagonistic ones, cos I do enjoy those stories (and strenuously object to people who want to sanitise stories and remove these aspects, because sadly this kind of thing is a fact of life and addressing them can be therapeutic to children in these kinds of situations). BUT I am always open to something different and would be happy to see alternative types of parents in fantasy.
    Anyway, amazing post! Sorry for rambling away there 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! And thanks for the comment, I love to hear opinions on this!! I also actually like the orphan trope, and I’m even more of a fan of antagonistic parents, as there are so many stories that do them well. I certainly wouldn’t want for people to feel they aren’t allowed to write about those kinds of relationships or about absent parents!! (I’d be a hypocrite if I did because when writing this I realised my current WIP pretty much has two orphaned main characters!). But yes I do think it’s interesting to look at counter-examples, and at least consider breaking the mould, not for any moral reason necessarily (though if it presents an inspiring parent-child relationship then that’s a bonus) but to see if it can lead somewhere different and interesting in the narrative. I don’t think it will ever be a common thing – there are just too many reasons to remove the parents from a narrative, esp. the one that author mentioned to you – but as you said it’s nice to be open to alternative kinds of parents in fiction. Many fantasy characters do have positive surrogate parents figures or even relatives who take over the role, and I also love those relationships, so I suppose it’s not such a stretch to imagine a parent filling that role.

      That’s interesting about your pet peeve of ‘non-absentee absent parents’ that are just clueless!! It made me realise that there have been times when that’s annoyed me to (especially when the parents seem very implausibly clueless, or not to just care about stuff they really ought to care about) but I guess it depends how it’s handled… if the mc is secretive and deceptive enough to make their parents’ cluelessness plausible then I am more accepting of it.

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      • You’re welcome!! I am the exact same- it’s one of the reasons Harry Potter is so awesome- I mean we have his dead parents *and* the evil Dursleys- two in one!- though I agree the antagonistic element often adds the most to a story. In fact, it’s funny you should mention your WIP, cos I have a mixture of absentee, ghastly and dead in mine 😉 So I’d be a massive hypocrite if I said I wasn’t a fan of this trope too 😉

        For sure!! And I do like the idea of inspirational parent figures (I mean, where would we be without the Atticus Finch’s of fiction!?) Yeah I definitely agree!! And I love those roles too.

        heheh yes!! Yeah exactly- what I really don’t like is when they’re supposed to be “cool” but in actuality they are just oblivious to the goings on of the plot (in a way like Bella’s mum, but more like Jenna in the Vampire Diaries). Like you said, it’s fine if it serves a plot point, but it should make sense (it should never be implausible!). And I also don’t have a problem with neglectful parents in books- because again that serves a purpose, as it’s another form of them being abusive. But, for instance, I read a book lately (a contemporary) where the parents were supposed to be overbearing but at the same time, they invited a rapey character to come live with them and were oblivious to their daughter’s obvious distress… I was just tearing my hair out by the end. It was the weird contradiction that I couldn’t stand (apart from the ways it made me uncomfortable) because it *made no sense*!!

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        • Haha, I love that you’ve managed to get the absentee, ghastly and dead tropes all in one! Now I think about it I’ve also got one absentee parent who’s pretty much never mentioned, but not a ghastly one… so far, anyway 😉 And oh yes, you’ve got to have Atticus Finches out there! He’d have gone on my list if that book had been vaguely construable as a fantasy 😀

          And yeah Jenna is a perfect example of supposedly ‘cool’ but actually oblivious parent! I wonder why they even bothered with her character to be honest. I supposed they couldn’t just have teens living at home without a guardian… but given none of the actors really look like teens, and she played such a small role, it just felt weird and pointless to me (I’ve only watched the TV show though, I haven’t read the books).

          That’s so true – when parents are clearly presented as neglectful it’s understandable, but when they are presented as good and observant, and then aren’t, it not only feels implausible but also sometimes uncomfortable. That book you mentioned would infuriate me, esp. given they actually put their daughter in harm’s way and ignore her distress. I feel like I read something similar once (with a mother failing to notice her daughter’s obvious fear) and it really annoyed me! Can’t remember what it was though.

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        • hehehe you can fit a lot in with 3 mcs 😉 But yes, I was going for “well they’ve all got to have totally incompetent/dead parents so that they can be totally dysfunctional” 😉 Believe it or not, it was a conscious decision 😉 hehe oh yes (if only history *were* fantasy)

          Yes!! I didn’t know what the point of her was either. She was there to be… well totally oblivious and absent- she barely even interacted with them. And then they killed her anyway the second she got a bit aware. (and yeah I only watched it too)

          Yes- it really irritates me. Yeah it *drove me mad*- it was one of the most ridiculously written parents I’ve ever seen in fiction. Totally infuriating!!

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        • Yes dysfunctional characters do tend to be interesting, so I can certainly understand the decision (also I imagine they are prime antihero/bad-turns-good material… and I think we both have a soft spot for those kinds of characters 🙂 )

          I forgot they killed Jenna! Now you mention it though I remember thinking I’d seen so little of her relationship with Elena that when Elena was mourning her I found it hard to feel as emotional as I should have about it. Not a good sign.

          Oh dear – I hope I never accidentally read this book with the infuriating parents! (though if it’s not a fantasy, chances aren’t very high 😉 )

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        • Hehehe yes, I really do have a soft spot for those types of characters 😉

          Yeah I definitely agree with you there. I certainly didn’t care about the character going- it just made me wonder why she’d been there in the first place

          Hehehe yes!! The rest of it really wasn’t terrible, but that bit… Ughh.

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  6. YAY! Look at all these amazing examples! I haven’t read Red Queen or Stardust yet (the latter is certainly high on my TBR; ❤ Gaiman!), but you're soooo right about the rest. The interesting thing is that other than Twilight there aren’t positive parent relationships for our protagonists. Well, Coraline’s relationship is confusing, honestly, but even in Twilight both Edward AND Jacob have positive parental relationships in their lives. Edward the most. Which is really interesting, when you think about it. I honestly can’t think of another fantasy series where the protagonists all have parents present. As sad as we are about Twilight as a whole, that’s a GREAT redeeming factor here. The whole Cullen clan is really A+ when it comes to realistic familial relationships.

    You gave me a lot to think about. Thanks, Nicola!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes Stardust is probably one of my favourite Gaiman books, second only to perhaps The Graveyard Book! And you know, I didn’t even think of Edward’s or Jacob’s parents but that’s true – the Cullens were even more present and influential than Bella’s parents now you mention it! That is really interesting. It would have been easy for them to be evil murdering antagonist vampires, or not there at all, but I guess the book focused a lot on family tensions and relationships so they played a larger role. Thanks for pointing that out (and for mentioning The Incredibles before)! I’m glad you liked the post 🙂

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  7. I didn’t actually notice this myself until recently. It was just so commonplace one didn’t think too much of it. But now that I do notice it, it feels like it’s everywhere. I agree it’s not a necessity to create conflict if one is imaginative enough, but it does work very well for most stories.
    Besides, it’s a sure way to make us empathize with the orphan characters, almost instantly. Everyone loves a poor, unfortunate soul.
    Speaking of which, not to forget Walt Disney was a big fan of the trope himself. Almost all his stories had absent/dead parents throughout. Which were, of course, inspired by all those old fairy tales. So it does go way, way back. It’s funny how we still have a soft spot for it nowadays. It’s one of those golden formulas, I guess.
    Great post! 🙂

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    • Yes, and it was Disney that first got me thinking about this. When my kids were young we’d watch the occasional Disney film, and I noticed that almost all of the parents were either bad or absent, and I wondered what my kids were learning from that. And what I learned from that, when I was young. I have absolutely no problem with stories feature parents who are missing, mean, incompetent, or zombies who eat their young. But when 98% of stories lack good parents, it feels like a problem. Good parenting role models are rare enough in real life, without making them scarcer than unicorns in literature, too.

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      • Yes true, Disney does have a lot of absent parents too. That was actually what surprised me most about this topic – not that absent or evil parents were common, but just how common, and historically too (98% sounds about right to me from my own example-hunting experience). I do wonder if it has an effect to have so few positive role models in children’s fiction… I would hope that the positive stand-in authority figures (adoptive parents, aunts, uncles, mentors etc.) would remedy some of that, but they still aren’t often expressly in a parent role.

        I did read this article by a woman who was convinced she was going to be orphaned as a young girl, in part because of literature, and now also writes about orphan characters. I have no memory of being influenced by this kind of thing as a child, but it was interesting to read this. I do also wonder if antagonistic parents fiction can contribute to a parents-are-the-enemy feeling. Again I don’t think I ever felt that myself, but it’s hard to self analyse for that kind of thing.

        Regardless, it would be great to not have to look so hard to find positive fictional parent examples to point to, especially in children’s fiction.

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        • That’s quite an article, thanks for recommending it. I love the line about finally falling into the canyon. It articulates an interesting question we face as writers, as she wonders whether writing orphans is the easy path. It is harder to describe the way a person might feel alone in the world, when among family. But is harder necessarily better? Perhaps by taking the easier path, a writer can reach a wider audience with a clearer message?
          A character’s need to achieve independence from parents is an important one. The process can be dramatic or muddy or anything I suppose. I’m seeing my challenges more clearly now thanks to your wonderful blog.

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        • I’m glad you enjoyed that article too – she really does look at the psychological and metaphorical aspects of writing orphan characters. I was also intrigued by that dread of losing parents and the desire to be free of it, and how she linked that to achieving independence. I also agree that writing orphans isn’t necessarily an easy path – in a story I once wrote I made the parents temporarily absent rather than dead, largely because I didn’t feel equal to the task of expressing the experience/emotions of the latter, given I grew up surrounded by family. Anyway, that’s great you are seeing your challenges more clearly, I’m glad my blog could help!

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    • Thanks! Yes it’s so engrained I think not everyone notices or pays much attention to it. I should have really thought to look at Disney films for this!! Somehow that slipped my mind… but now I think about it I realise I would have come up with very few or even no counter-examples! I suppose Ariel and Princess Jasmine had fathers who wanted the best for them, but they were antagonists or obstacles for most of the story so not quite a good fit. It is impressive how far back this trope goes… I guess it really is a golden formula that has been working for a long time. Makes me all the more determined to keep an eye out for stories that successfully avoid it though, just to see the opposite proved possible too! 🙂

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      • Yeah, it’s definitely hard to find ANY Disney protagonist with both their parents alive and well and good role models. All that comes to mind is Brave and 101 Dalmations. Every other movie either kills off both or one of the parents at some point or doesn’t include them at all….

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        • Oh yes I forgot about Brave and 101 Dalmatians! But yes, other than those, it seems most really do involve at least one parent who has died – come to think of it, often the mother, which leaves a stern or distracted father struggling to raise their daughter/son ‘right’ and driving them away in the process (until the finally see the error of their ways at least). Interesting that is such a strong theme in Disney films!

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  8. What an excellent post! It does seem that absent parents is a recurring theme – or bad parents, or worse still, dead parents. With three children this gives me something to be scared of! I suppose the absent/bad/dead or blissfully unaware parents allow the story to take place to an extent but on the other side of the coin it feels a little lazy sometimes – or predictable.
    Lynn 😀

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    • Thanks! Yes it does seem like a kind of scary recurring theme to see everywhere, especially if you have children. But I think like you said, it really is just a narrative device that allows the story to take place. It can sometimes feel lazy though, particularly if the absence of the parents is handled in a lazy way. Taking another route entirely would certainly be less predictable, but might make it harder to tell a good story, so it’s not a path many dare to travel!

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  9. Oi oi oi, I’ve recently realized that my current WIP has exactly this problem…no parents! Granted, part of that comes from the fact that it’s a revamp of an old work in which all of the characters were…ehm…dead. Still, I’ve been noticing the lack of parent-child relationships and wondering if it’s too much. The parental figures vacillate between positive and negative, but they are almost all absent. This is a cast of orphans.

    I was worried about that at first, but then I realized it was part of the theme–how the orphaned, abandoned, and outcast come together. Also, it’s not completely devoid of family relationships, because there are positive sibling relationships as well as “adoptions.”

    This is definitely something to consider down the line, though….

    Liked by 1 person

    • If it works for the theme, and the story is about abandoned characters coming together, I don’t think you need to worry! I certainly don’t have a problem with orphaned characters when the story is well told. I think it’s only if the parents are done away with lazily, purposelessly or in a clichéd way that I notice and take issue.

      But yes, I think it’s good for writers to consider it at least, and I know I will in future. If anything, it’s a good way to mentally explore an alternative route/character/dynamic in the story. You might choose not to take that route, but it might also spark something interesting. We are so programmed to exclude parents that we might not be considering interesting alternatives.

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