Storytelling

Five Ways to Handle Parents Without Killing Them

Melissa and Scott from Teen Wolf

Melissa is the kind of supportive parent we'd all want if we were a YA protagonist.

Parents are a real bugbear for any author writing an underage protagonist, and it’s not difficult to see why. Not only are parents generally more capable than their children, but they also have a vested interest in not allowing said children to undertake dangerous tasks, like saving the world. Any story where the stakes involve physical danger will face this quandary: caring parents in that situation would either try to solve the hero’s problem for them or keep them home and safe.

The two most common ways to circumvent this are to either kill the parents off or position them as hindrances that the hero must get around. Killing the parents off can work, but it’s also extremely common, to the point of being overused. Sometimes we want to see underage protagonists with healthy home lives too! Using the parents as a hindrance can also work, but it gets annoying fast if repeated. It’s dramatic the first time a parent puts their foot down and says no adventuring today. The second time, it’s just frustrating. We want the hero to save the day, and parents who stand in the way of that quickly become unlikable.

Fortunately, those aren’t our only options. There are as many ways to handle parents as there are stories with parents in them, but today I take you through five broad approaches that have found success in a number of popular stories. Let’s get to it!

1. The Parents Are Far Away

Korra standing with her parents. In Legend of Korra, Avatar Korra journeys to Republic City for training, leaving her parents at the South Pole.

You know a great way to keep parents from interfering in an adventure? Put them somewhere other than where the adventure is taking place. That’ll keep them out of trouble, unless they have the ability to collocate across time and space, and if they can do that, then you’re just creating problems for yourself.

This is the approach taken by most stories where the protagonist either runs away or is kidnapped. Either way, the child is removed from their parents’ protection so they can go and do the adventure, whatever it happens to be. Of course, any caring parents in this situation will do everything they can to get their offspring back, and how big a problem that is depends on what resources the parents have at their disposal.

If the parents are relatively normal people in a story where their child is taken away to the fairy realm, there probably isn’t much they can do, so they likely won’t be a factor until a tearful reunion at the end. On the other hand, if the parents are arch mages of the 13th circle, it’s only a matter of time before they come knocking at the winter queen’s door. Such a story can still work, but it’s under more constraints.

If you’d prefer the parents not be worried about the protagonist, you can craft a scenario where the separation is voluntary. Perhaps your hero is going away for training or on a class trip to visit Mars. The problem with this option is that in most cases, there will still be an authority figure present. There are no parents to worry about at magic boarding school, but there are still teachers, and that’s a whole new set of problems.

2. The Parents Are Underpowered

Steven playing guitar with his dad. In Steven Universe, Steven has magical powers, but his father is a normal human.

If you’d prefer your hero’s parents still be physically present, then a good option is to make them incapable of dealing with whatever problems the hero faces. No matter how much the parents love their children, it won’t spontaneously generate the superstrength needed to fight vampires.

To make this approach work, it’s best if the hero has a special power that goes beyond human skill. They use that power to solve whatever problems the setting throws at them. Magic is always a good bet, though under the right circumstances you might be able to use technology if you can explain why it only works for the protagonist. Whether tech or magic, this power needs to be enough to make up for the greater capability most adults have over kids. If a kid’s power is to talk with animals, their parents are still probably better equipped to fight werewolves.

Underpowered parents also tend to work better with older kids, as it still requires that the parents approve of whatever danger the hero is putting themself in. It’s just easier for parents to accept that their 16-year-old has to save the Earth from interdimensional robber barons than it would be if the kid was 10. Even if the 10-year-old had the powers to get the job done, it would be hard to believe their parents would allow such a thing. And yet, underpowered parents who try to keep their kid at home will quickly become annoying roadblocks in the story’s way.

Assuming you get the hero’s powers and age dialed in properly, then underpowered parents have a major advantage: they can be present in the story. Usually, they’ll play some kind of support role, offering emotional guidance or even serving as a mentor. This gives you the chance to show your hero’s loving home life without sabotaging the story.

3. The Parents Are Unaware

Cover art from Spinning Silver. In Spinning Silver, fairy magic keeps Miriam’s parents blissfully unaware of what their daughter is doing.

The trouble with parents is that even if you underpower them or put them far away, they might still try to interfere with your plot. But you’ve got an ace up your sleeve: the parents don’t know anything is happening at all! That’ll teach ’em to mess with your child-endangering story.

Unaware parents can work for heroes of any age, but they fit especially well with younger protagonists. Audiences are simply primed to accept that there are certain types of supernatural entities that only children can see. Now your preteens can have magical adventures without their guardians ever realizing something is up!

The trick to unaware parents is creating a scenario where it makes sense for them to remain unaware. You can’t just say that they don’t notice the demons constantly breaking into their house, not if you want to maintain any credibility with the audience. Employing a parent-proof glamour will help, but it’s not a cure-all. Parents will notice that their kitchen is constantly wrecked, even if they can’t see what’s wrecking it. That’s why it really helps for the supernatural to be subtle, leeching hope from dreams rather than cutting hearts out.

The other obstacle to believably unaware parents is the protagonists themselves. Kids, especially young kids, tend to seek out their parents when frightened. Even if the magic in your setting is invisible to adults, this can still cause problems. Caring parents will try to help their upset children, even if it’s not clear what’s wrong.

One way to prevent this is for the hero not to realize they’re in danger until it’s too late for the parents to intervene. Perhaps the world inside the walls seems beautiful and fun until they’ve lost sight of the exit. Alternatively, the hero might understand that saying anything would put their parents in danger too. This requires a child with some self-restraint and a credible threat to the parents. If you have those things, this is a great solution.

4. The Parents Are Teammates

Allison and Chris Argent from Teen Wolf In Teen Wolf, the hunters Alison and Chris Argent form a father-daughter team.

Until now, we’ve looked at different ways to get the parents out of the way, but there’s no need to be rude like that. Instead, why not welcome the parents onto your hero’s team and make them part of the story?

This option doesn’t see a lot of use because it requires some very specific circumstances to work correctly. First, the competence levels must be perfectly balanced so that the parents are still useful on the hero’s team but don’t outshine them. One way to make that easier is to give them different skill sets. If the hero is a cyberspace warrior, their parents might be the techies who keep the virtual reality rig running smoothly.

Having the parents as teammates also requires a cause the parents can believe in. They have to think that the adventure before them is important enough to risk their kid’s safety. The importance of that cause should scale with the amount of danger. If the hero is only facing virtual opponents with no risk of death, then trying to make rent will work just fine. If the hero battles for their lives every night, then a good chunk of the world had better be at stake.

If you can make it believable, teaming up the hero with their parents offers an intercharacter dynamic that few stories take advantage of. You can create a strong contrast as the parents watch their kid take on the baddies, proud yet afraid at the same time. Or you can go the other way with it and use this team-up in the face of evil as a way to work through conflicts between parent and child.

5. The Parents Are Antagonists

The kids in Runaways looking down of a balcony. In Runaways, our heroes realize their parents have formed an evil cult.

Most of the problems with including parents in a story stem from the fact that parents typically want what’s best for their children. This leads to them doing annoying things like trying to help the hero out of tight spots. The nerve! But there’s a way around this problem: What if the parents were evil?

Antagonistic parents turn all the normal problems with parental characters into strengths. It’s great that parents are typically more competent than their children because you want the bad guy to be more powerful anyway. It’s fantastic that parents have a vested interest in what their children do because now you can use that interest to motivate villainous actions!

Admittedly, it’s possible to go too far and create a villainous parent that your baby hero can’t possibly defeat, but that’s a risk with any sort of villain. The main thing to look out for with antagonistic parents is not going too dark. In most cases, the conflict between parent and child should come from the parent’s desire to conquer the world or awaken an ancient god rather than rejecting some aspect of their child’s identity or otherwise abusing their kid.

With those pitfalls avoided, antagonistic parents generate mountains of delicious drama for your story. Naturally, the protagonist will likely be conflicted about fighting their own parents, and you can also show that reluctance on the parents’ side. This is especially useful if you’re setting up a redemption arc. Antagonistic parents also generate extra satisfaction when defeated because of their powerful connection to the hero. This isn’t just some random bad guy – this is a villain who matters.


There’s a reason so many fictional parents end up dead. It’s just not convenient to have characters around whose job is specifically to keep your hero out of trouble. But once you think about it some more, you’ll realize that’s not the only option. Parents don’t have to be a detriment to your story, and they can even be a strength.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

 

Comments

  1. Kenneth Mackay

    How about…
    Parents who have their own agenda, but the situation isn’t what they think it is?
    I’m imagining some sort of court intrigue, involving several factions. The parents know their own actions are being watched, but no-one’s paying attention to their kids, so the kids are being sent out to steal a look at the secret documents, or eavesdrop on the private conference, but what they find is that there’s a whole different plot going on – something that they can’t tell their parents (or get them to believe), so they have to team up with the kids from an antagonistic faction to get enough evidence to force their parent’s factions to act…!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It’s hard to say for certain without reading your story, but that sounds like a variant of “The Parents Are Unaware.” It’s just that in this case, they aren’t aware of a specific mission the kids are undertaking, rather than unaware that the kids are spies at all.

      I suspect the main stumbling block for this idea would be making it credible that the kids don’t tell their parents about the new information. This is doable, but it’s something to pay extra attention to.

      And of course, depending on how dangerous the situation is, it might be difficult to justify the parents involving their kids in the first place, but that’s also manageable.

    • SunlessNick

      I like that one!

  2. Cay Reet

    I like how the “Please don’t tell my parents…” series handles the problem. Penny, the main character, is the daughter of two retired superheroes (although none of them is really, really powerful) and gets turned into a supervillain of sorts by circumstances (being pushed into that role by her classmate at first, then really dipping into the ‘evil’ side when Spider, a major villain and a literal spider, comes in). While Penny’s parents are not allowed to know (so she has to be careful, but the stories also sent them away at appropriate times), the mother of her best friend and teammate knows and helps when necessary. The parents of her proto-boyfriend and second teammate are not in the superhero circles and he’s not spending much time at home, because he’s from an abusive family.

    Through the one parent who knows about them, they get help when necessary, Penny’s parents (especially her mother whose superpower is to calculate probabilities and who should, therefore, realize that ‘Bad Penny’ is nobody else than her own daughter) are not allowed to know, because they would try to limit her, and the parents of the third team member don’t care about what he does, anyway.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yep that sounds like a very manageable version of “The Parents Are Unaware,” just with a different justification.

  3. Sam Victors

    Can Child Abandoning Parents also count?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Sure, that would be a variant of the parents being antagonistic, just not involved in the story much.

      • Sam Victors

        Great.

        I’ve been thinking of having this happen to my first Protagonist. She’s the opposite of Harry Potter and every other Chosen One kid hero; similar to Sarah from Labyrinth, she’s a pouting, stroppy brat obsessed with fantasy and myths and fantastical stories, lives with her loving (if not somewhat temperamental and flawed) relatives and she treats them like a wicked stepfamily, and her birth parents abandoned her because of some bigoted reasons (not only were they glamorous, debauched actors but they were also involved in the Eugenics movement, and the Heroine is strongly implied to be on the Autism spectrum, as well as being also bisexual).

        The Heroine still idealizes her parents, and suppresses the memory and the fact that she is an unwanted child. But simultaneously, she resents them for abandoning her.

        Not to mention in her community and school, everyone knows she’s a ‘different’ child because she is the only redhead in her adopted family, but the Aunt still insists that she is her daughter, and so other suspicions hang about of the family in the town.

        Th story, to be clear, takes place in the late 1920s in a little Wisconsin town.

  4. Pascal

    Parents leave their kids behind to engage in a greater good, saving the world, big war,…

  5. Michael Campbell

    6) Parents become Hostages.

    There’s a lot of variation available for these options. You can combine 3 and 6 with an off hand remark from the villain; “It would be a pity if you’re parents knew, because then I’ld have to kill them too.
    …And you’ld only have yourself to blame.”
    Now, of cause, making someone else responsible for your violence is S.O.P. for a bully…but it is the villain saying this.

    In many ways, 1 2, & 3 are combined automatically, when the hero is an adult.
    “So anything interesting happen to the rookie cop on night duty?”
    “Dad…they don’t give badges to the manager at the paper mill…so just assume everything’s private & confidential.”

  6. Nite

    “The main thing to look out for with antagonistic parents is not going too dark. In most cases, the conflict between parent and child should come from the parent’s desire to conquer the world or awaken an ancient god rather than rejecting some aspect of their child’s identity or otherwise abusing their kid.”

    It depends on what story is being told and to which public. Yet, these dark matters shouldn’t be left out of youngsters’ material at all! They need to know these things. It’s the writer who needs to envelop these subjects in a lighter tone or a more gradual structure.

  7. Kathy Ferguson

    I’m watching the Amazon prime series “Undone” and it is an interesting example of parents as teammates, with the twist that the child (who is an adult in their 20s) is being recruited by the parent to save him. This combination makes for interesting dramatic tension because the parent puts considerable pressure on the child to do what is needed to save the parent, so the two are antagonistic in some ways yet are teammates, too. (I’ve only reached episode 4, so the relation may change.)

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy (updated 9/3/18). We send comment data to outside parties for spam filtering and other services. See our privacy policy for details.