When storytellers imagine their hero’s adventure, families are a constant sticking point. If the protagonist is a child or teen, it’s tempting to kill the parents off so there’s no one to put a curfew on underage questing. If the protagonist is an adult, they can’t be tied down with the responsibility of raising a child or caring for younger siblings – when would they have time to slay monsters? Writers also have trouble portraying conflict within families, as it’s difficult to strike a balance between compelling drama and unaddressed abuse.
Fortunately, some storytellers have gotten past these conundrums to write compelling family narratives, and that’s what we’re looking at today. That’s right, it’s time for a praise post! Hopefully one of these examples can give you some inspiration while you wait for our next eleven-point breakdown of why your favorite childhood story is actually the worst.
Mild Spoiler Notice: Amphibia, Black Water Sister, and First Kill
Back in the day when Marvel made shows for venues other than Disney+,* we got Runaways, the story of six teenagers who discover their parents are supervillains. As you might imagine, this news means that they have to run away, though fortunately they find an abandoned mansion within an easy bus ride of their wealthy LA neighborhood. So that worked out great!
Runaways employs the antagonistic-parents trope, something we at Mythcreants very much encourage because it creates such good drama. Other than one abusive dad, the parents unquestionably still love their children, making every confrontation emotionally charged. It’s one thing to stop a supervillain from taking over the city; it’s quite another when that supervillain is your mom. It also gives both parents and kids an automatic character arc: Will they reconcile their differences or not? I never saw season three, so I don’t know the answer, but it was a fun question to explore.
Antagonistic parents also solve a lot of technical challenges that come with writing younger protagonists. There’s no need to ask why the hero’s parents are okay with late-night adventuring, because the parents are why those adventures happen in the first place. Likewise, the parents can’t step in and solve the problem, because they are the problem. We also have an explanation for why the villains don’t easily crush the less powerful heroes: the parents don’t want to hurt their kids!
The main place where Runaways stumbles, at least in the first and second seasons, is that while the kids have superpowers and advanced tech, the parents don’t. They have to make do with more mundane technology and some political influence. This works okay at the beginning, when the kids are still learning how to use their abilities, but it leaves the parents underpowered pretty quickly. It’s especially strange since, in the comics, at least some of the parents do have powers.
Even so, the parents make for compelling villains, elevating what would otherwise have been a pretty bland story.
I realized a few weeks back that it’s been quite a while since I brought up Discworld in one of my articles, so obviously something had to be done. Fortunately, Discworld has an excellently written family in the form of Sybil and Sam Vimes, plus their son later. He is creatively named Young Sam.
The first aspect of this family that sticks out is how Sybil is a weird and eccentric lady, but this isn’t in the service of making Sam less boring. If you’ve ever scanned the Manic Pixie Dream Girl page on TV Tropes, you know how this can go wrong. It usually includes a woman whose unusual interests exist more for her man than for herself.
In contrast, Sybil’s passion for swamp dragons is entirely her own. We can revel in the novelty of her dragon rescue center without feeling like it’s there for Sam’s benefit. He’s already an interesting character when the two of them meet; he doesn’t need Sybil to give him a personality. Sybil is also built like an opera singer and wears wigs because her hair is often singed by the swamp dragons she cares for. This gives her a distinctive appearance, as even novels tend to describe their female love interests as if they were just sent over from Hollywood central casting.
Sam and Sybil’s romance is a bit on the sedate side, which offers nice variety if you’re used to the more hot-blooded type. They feel like friends slowly growing closer rather than strangers overcome with passion. There’s nothing wrong with that second option, of course, but it’s good to have more than one romance model to learn from.
Once they’re together and their son comes along, we get to see Sam balance his professional responsibilities with his familial ones. One of the big conflicts in Thud! is that no matter what else is happening, Sam always ensures that he’s home in the evening to read to his son. It’s refreshing to see a paternal character take his responsibilities so seriously, and I hope it becomes the norm one day. Until then, Sam Vimes can take his place beside other great examples of fatherhood like Benjamin Sisko and Gomez Addams.
A big question for storytellers is what to do with the hero’s family when said hero is off having an adventure, and Amphibia’s answer is to make the family part of the adventure as well. This starts when Anne Boonchuy arrives in a fantasy frog world and meets the Plantar family. Naturally, it’s not long before they adopt her.
From there, the whole family has wacky fun times and poignant character arcs in the monster-filled swamps of Wartwood. Hop Pop struggles with his role as the family provider, Sprig learns to act more considerately as an older sibling, and Polly works to establish her own identity as a younger sibling. As the protagonist, Anne has a wide variety of arcs to choose from, but they primarily focus on her growing wiser and more responsible. Sometimes, the family will adventure in twos or threes, while other episodes feature them all together.
The writers also craft numerous arcs about the four of them growing closer. Several of these are about Anne fully joining the family despite being a human from another world. But we also have episodes about resolving difficulties between the frog members of the family. Either way, the writers ensure that Amphibia is a show about family, so the family is never a distraction.
Season three mixes things up by introducing Anne’s human parents. While Anne mostly has a peer-type relationship with the Plantars, even grandfatherly Hop Pop, her human parents are something else. Taking care of Anne is their responsibility, so they have a few things to say about these dangerous adventures. Fortunately, Anne has leveled up by the third season, so it’s believable that she can vanquish foes her mom and dad can’t. This way, the show can have some parent-child drama without disrupting the story.
Despite their initial misgivings, Mrs. and Mr. Boonchuy are both supportive and loving toward their daughter, whether Anne is trying to find herself emotionally or trying to find the magical key to stopping the big bad. Amphibia also uses the Boonchuy family to give us some truly fantastic Thai cultural representation, including a humorous but still pointed discussion of how food fits into culture and appropriation. Really, there’s little to dislike, except that the restaurant scenes will probably make you hungry.
4. Black Water Sister
Amphibia and Discworld both present us with loving and wholesome families, which is a great thing, but it isn’t the only way to write familial relationships, nor does it represent everyone’s relationship with their families in real life. For a more complicated example, we turn to Zen Cho’s latest novel, Black Water Sister.
Jess’s relationship with her parents can best be described as loving but difficult. They care about Jess, but her mother is on the controlling side, and her father isn’t the best communicator. Adding even more stress to the relationship, the family has recently moved back to Malaysia to escape medical debt in the United States.* Improving the relationship with her parents is one of Jess’s big emotional arcs in the story, as she reaches an accord with her mother and finally has regular talks with her dad.
As a final touch of conflict, Jess’s parents are somewhat conservative, and she isn’t yet comfortable enough to tell them she’s gay. That’s a tricky situation to write, as it’s easy for stories to accidentally (or purposefully) excuse a family member’s bigotry if they’re positive in other ways. Cho doesn’t do that. Instead, the takeaway is that homophobia can be a lot more subtle than the raging hatred we’re used to from certain politicians and that even otherwise good people can have it. It’s extremely believable, if a little heartbreaking for Jess.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Black Water Sister’s family dynamic is that the parents aren’t really involved in the supernatural ghost plot, but they don’t ever feel like a distraction from it either. Cho uses the family scenes as moments of lower tension for both Jess and the reader to catch their breath, so it doesn’t feel like we’re spending too much time there. Granted, there’s still the tension of Jess’s family drama, but that’s lower than being haunted by a dangerous goddess.
Unlike Jess’s parents, her grandmother is involved in the ghost plot, mainly by being a cantankerous ghost. She’s both controlling and bad at communicating, so dealing with her is like turning Jess’s normal family problems up to eleven, but also magic is involved. It’s great fun!
The only significant problem with Black Water Sister’s family writing is that the story ends before Jess comes out to her parents. She’s clearly headed in that direction, but not getting to see it feels like a wasted opportunity. I’ll simply have to hope her parents do the right thing and accept their daughter for who she is.
5. First Kill
This urban fantasy show is a Romeo and Juliet–type story,* so it needs two families who are likable; otherwise, we have little reason to care when the lovebirds go against their families’ wishes. On the other hand, there also needs to be at least a seed of drama; otherwise, the protagonists could reasonably talk things out with their families, then get on with conflict-free dating.
To that end, we have the families of Juliette the vampire and Calliope the hunter. For Cal’s family, hunting monsters is a time-honored tradition stretching back centuries. They’re also a blended family, with one of Cal’s brothers being from her father’s previous marriage, which you don’t see all that often. By far the most compelling aspect of their family is how the mother and father work together as leaders, each leaning on the other during moments of extreme stress or questionable judgment. The starting drama is that the family doesn’t think Cal is ready to hunt on her own yet, since she made a nearly fatal mistake last time.
In contrast, Juliette’s family is made up of aristocratic vampires. Her mother is heir to a powerful legacy, but her inheritance is complicated because she married Juliette’s father, who is a different type of vampire.* Juliette’s sister is glamorous and clever, but also pretty evil. Their starting drama is that they all want Juliette to drain her first human dry, which will grant her greater use of her powers and make her bloodlust easier to control. Juliette doesn’t want to do this because she’s young enough to still follow quaint human beliefs like murder being bad.
Right away, the two families create conflict by not letting Cal and Juliette date even though they really want to date. We can’t have a vampire and a hunter dating; next we’d have cats and dogs living together! The fact that they are both girls doesn’t matter to anyone involved, which is nice.
But the family relationships go a lot deeper than that, which is what makes them so compelling. Juliette’s family is quickly swept up in vampire politics, with each of them trying to protect Juliette from the wrath of other vampires despite disagreeing with her decision not to drain a human. That’s what makes Juliette’s family tick, dramatically speaking: they often want different things, but they still care about each other.
Cal’s family also has to deal with some drama from their own side, as the hunter guild gets increasingly suspicious of Cal’s dating habits. Things take a turn when Cal’s mom decides to work with a vampire to keep the rest of the family safe, and then the tension really heats up when one of Cal’s brothers is turned into a vampire himself. The anguish the hunter family feels in those circumstances is pretty compelling.
The main issue with First Kill’s family dynamic is that the show never quite squares the moral imbalance. Romeo and Juliet stories almost always focus on two factions that are roughly equivalent in terms of right and wrong, and First Kill acts like it’s doing the same thing, but it isn’t. Every vampire on the show has killed at least one human, and most have killed a lot more. The hunters use lethal force to stop the vampires from killing people, which isn’t on the same level.
However, if you can get past that issue, this show has some excellent family conflict, with a bit of supernatural spice to keep things interesting.
Family relations can play a lot of different roles in fiction, from archenemy to staunch ally and everything in between. Or they might not be present in your story at all, as there’s no rule saying your protagonist’s parents and siblings have to make an appearance. But if you do want to include families in your story, you have some good examples to start from.
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