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?
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.
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!