Save the Parents! Adults in Young Adult Literature

Writing young adult novels is hard enough, no matter what the genre is. But there’s an extra obstacle, especially in fantasy and science fiction: no responsible parent would let the teenage “Chosen One” put themselves in the type of danger YA sci-fi/fantasy demands, no more than a real-life parent would let their sixteen-year-old enlist in the military. 

Think about it: how far would Harry have realistically gone if any of the adults responsible for him had stepped up to the plate and not let him run head-first into constant danger? If his parents had survived, or Sirius Black had been allowed to take him in? We wouldn’t have a series. (Of course, we wouldn’t have a problematic TERF author, either, but that’s an article for another time.)

Most writers circumvent this issue in one of two ways. Sometimes, the parents are there, but they’re abusive/negligent/bad parents. In that case, we want our hero to leave the clutches of their harmful home life, because slaying dragons and blowing up death stars is better than being smacked by the people who are supposed to protect you. 

If the author doesn’t want to give the teenager such a harsh upbringing, then there’s something of the Holy Grail of sci-fi/fantasy writers: orphan protagonists. Parents can’t interfere with the plot if they’re dead. 

But there’s a problem: if writers use the same pattern too much, it creates a cliche, which is bad because they bore your readers. Not to mention the majority of teenagers reading your books are neither orphans nor victims of an abusive home life, which makes it harder for them to connect with your main character. 

So how do you let a teen protagonist have responsible parents without interfering with your plot? There are three ways. 

1: Parents Get Kidnapped or Taken

In Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Percy’s mother Sally desperately tries to get Percy to Camp Half-Blood in the story’s catalyst, where he’ll be safe from all the Greek monsters trying to kill him. She succeeds, but vanishes in a beam of light, and Percy thinks she’s dead.

But as it turns out, she’s not dead! She’s just been kidnapped and is being held hostage by Hades, god of the Underworld. 

A few other books kidnap the parents of their protagonist, usually to trigger their crazy adventure with the end goal of saving them. This effectively gets the parents out of the way while also providing a goal and higher stakes for the hero.

2: Run Away!

In Moana, her parents–especially her father–do not want her to leave the island for an adventure even if it’s to save their village. So she just leaves. 

This tells the audience two things: the threat to Moana’s island is big enough to overcome her desire to obey her family’s wishes, and that Moana is not going to let rules get in the way of achieving her goal. Mulan did basically the same thing. 

There are plenty of reasons for a protagonist to just outright leave their parents for adventure. Maybe they had an intense argument and the teen is angry. Maybe the teen doesn’t want to get their parents wrapped up in the danger. Maybe the parents are sick or busy with some other problem. There are plenty of possibilities here.

3: Give the Parent(s) a Narrative Arc

This one is the trickiest to pull off, but it can be done, and the pay-off is amazing. 

In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup isn’t the only one who has to accept the truth about dragons and himself. His father Stoick also has to realize that his son’s differences are what make him stronger, regardless of whether or not they’re traditionally Viking. In the climax of the movie, Stoick gives Hiccup his blessing to be a dragonrider. 

This works for two reasons: one, Hiccup and the other kids are the only dragonriders, and thus the only ones capable of defeating the Dragon Queen. If any of the adults tried, they’d be toast. And two, it’s Viking culture, which regularly endangers children’s lives throughout the movie.

But the core principle is sound: Stoick has his own narrative arc of seeing Hiccup for who he really is and learning to listen to his son. Killing him off before he finished that arc would damage the story. (I know he dies in the sequel, but that happens after his relationship with Hiccup is patched up, so shhhh.)

That’s how you let a parent survive a young adult story without hindering the young adult in question. 

Who are your favorite parents/parent-figures in YA stories? Tell us in the comments!

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