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
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
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
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
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
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.
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