Writing Advice #48: Parents

Hello, one and all, and welcome back to Writing Advice, a once-weekly, now ad hoc series of BLogs on, well, you figure it out. 🙂

I was recently asked this question over on Tumblr:

For writing teen protagonists, do you have any advice for creating the character’s parents? It seems to have become usual to make the parents absent or neglectful somehow. It may not be a realistic portrayal but it gives the teen protagonist a better chance at getting the freedom to get stuff done. What do you think?

Yeah, this is definitely A Thing, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m as guilty of it as any other YA author. We sweep the parents off-stage in order to let the kids shine. Or we make the parents horrible people so that the kids have something to push against. Or — most nauseatingly of all, in my opinion — we make the parents adorably quirky so that the kids…uh…have something to push against. (Sorry, teens in the audience, but it’s true — y’all push against things.)

I’ve always sought a balance when portraying parents in my YA, and I’ll cop to failing more often than not. In my first book, I was accused of writing “cardboard characters” when it came to the parents. And, y’know, I can kinda see that, but honestly — the book was written from the present-tense POV of a 15-year-old boy. To a 15-year-old boy, parents are cardboard characters! If you read between the lines, you could see pretty deep people in Mom and the step-fascist, but Fanboy wasn’t able to see it.

Still. Let’s face it — the easiest thing in the world to do with parents in YA is one of the three things I enumerated above: Get rid of them, make them awful, or make them weird. Is there a place in YA for, well, just normal parents?

Maybe, maybe not. Because whether we like it or not, an audience is going to read our books. I try not to think about that, but it’s a fact. And that audience is — primarily — made up of teenagers.

And teenagers are not exactly renowned for thinking highly of their parents.

In fact, it might seem really, really weird to have normal, well-adjusted, present parents in YA. The reader isn’t going to relate to that, for the most part. Teen years are years of rebellion. We’re figuring out who we are. We’re ready (or so we think) for the real world and the independence it promises us. And yet, we’re still reliant on our parents, who control what we do, where we go, who we see… And each new tantalizing bit of freedom (driver’s license, extended curfew, etc.) serves less to ameliorate that desire than to enhance it.

Is it any wonder the motto of Teendom is “I hate you, Mom and Dad!”?

And if you want to have the parents eventually win over the teen (as occasionally happens in both life and fiction), you run the risk of turning your story into an afterschool special or a bad ’80s sitcom, where the parents are right and the kid learns A Valuable Lesson at the end.

My first inclination is to say that you just write the characters as they come to you, regardless of which age they are. The problem, though, is that then you may end up writing more about the parents than you thought, and many readers, editors, and reviewers of YA are violently allergic to YA fiction that has the temerity to dip into an adult POV, even briefly.1

So, you have to decide if you care that some people will say your book isn’t “really YA.” If you don’t care, write it as you please, with as much parental involvement and perspective as your Muse demands.

If you do care (and hey — no judgment here!), then I suggest you think long and hard about what needs the parents do or do not serve in your book. If your story is really, truly all about the kids, then find a nice, easy way to move the parents off-stage. It’s not that difficult, really. Parents are enormously busy people, after all. Most of them have jobs (that they hate), which gets them out of your hair for most of the day. Married parents can have a date night when you need your protagonist alone for an evening. Divorced parents can be trying to date, going to therapy, off crying with their friends somewhere.

And hey — let’s not forget that parents often have parents! That’s right, the protagonist’s grandparents! Need your kid alone for a weekend without parental involvement? Hey, Gramma’s out of surgery and Mom has to go take care of her for a few days. You’re fifteen now… You can watch yourself for a weekend, right…?

But maybe the parents should complicate your narrative. Maybe you’re trying to figure out how to keep your kids from figuring out the mystery too soon. In that case, chores, required visits to those grandparents, and similar parentally-conceived roadblocks can slow things down a little, give the clock time to tick down to disaster.

The trick, in my estimation, is not to let the parents solve the problem for the kids, but at the same time, don’t make them ineffectual douchebags. Are some parents, in fact, ineffectual douchebags? Sure. But reading about that over and over not only beggars belief…it’s also boring.

At the risk of tooting my own horn, I think my third book — Hero-Type — actually threads this needle fairly well.  You’ve got a father who’s present, but not terribly helpful due to entirely understandable issues of his own. And a mother who’s absent (again, for understandable reasons), but who still manages to impact the narrative and the life and decisions of the teen protagonist. Check it out of the library if you’re interested in taking a look.

I’m not sure I’ve answered your question to your satisfaction, but I know I’ve written a lot of words! 🙂 Sound off in the comments, folks!

  1. I got hammered in some reviews of the Killers series for daring to touch base with the thoughts of my adult serial killers.


  1. Dear Mr.Barry Lyga,
    I am a fan of your books. My favorite books so far are “I hunt killers” and “Game”. I am paitiently waiting for the third. I have a few guestions to ask and would really love to hear your response. 1. Have you ever thought about turning “I hunt killers” into a graphic novel? 2. What advice do you have for writers who get writers block and how can we keep motivated to finish a book? 3. What inspired you to be a writer? 4. What are some of your favorite books and authors?

  2. Hi, Unique!

    1) No, not really. I’m not sure how well it would work in that format. I might let someone else do it, but I don’t think I would be the guy to perform that translation.

    2) Check out my Writing Advice series: http://barrylyga.com/writingadvice. All kinds of stuff in there…

    3) See #2!

    4) Pete Hautmann, Libba Bray, Stephen King, John Milton, Alan Moore, Paul Levitz… The list goes on and on!

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