Revenge of the Offspring: The Perils of Being a Hero’s Parent

So, our muse is sufficiently bribed with caffeine and chocolates and we have decided to create a fabulous new hero who is going to Save the World. Our hero is a dashing young sprout of great courage and idealism. He or she (let’s just say “he” in this case, to keep things simple, although our heroic world-saver is just as apt to be a convention-bashing female, of course) is about to head out on the journey of a lifetime.

However, our hero needs a Past.  So, let’s see what our muse has to offer.

Perhaps our hero is the farming sort.  His mother is dead (we don’t know how… yet!) and his father is a retired soldier turned farmer who has trained his son in the Ways of the Sword for no specific reason.  So, when the farm is attacked by uniformed soldiers and burnt to the ground with the unfortunate father still inside, our hero has all the motivation he needs to Seek Revenge.

But we’re a bit tired of provincial heroes and prefer a more exciting environment for the hero to begin his life.  And so we turn to the streets of a great Corrupted City.  Now, our hero is a street kid (like Aladdin, because we all love Aladdin).  He is an orphan, raised by a ruthless thief with morals as patchy as his clothing.  But somehow, our hero finds himself embroiled in politics in which he must use his thief’s cunning to outwit them all and save… well… whoever the good guy is.

No?  Okay, maybe that one’s been overdone.  How about a prince or a lord?  We love those!  They get to wear nice clothes, unlike the farmers and thieves, and they are embroiled in politics at birth, which saves us a step.  Our young aristocrat is the son of the most terrifying lady ever to rule the Council.  His father is a weak man kept under his wife’s pointy-nailed thumb.  He may or may not eventually die of an Unfortunate Accident.  Thus, our hero must decide whether to follow in his mother’s path of darkness or start a political coup and defeat her, once and for all.  Of course, because his mother loves him in her own way, betraying her comes with all sorts of delicious angst and brooding.

As our muse is busy sorting through these various plots and deciding which to pursue (perhaps our hero is a lord turned thief who takes up farming as a hobby?), you might consider the common element in each of these stories.  No, it’s not our hero’s wavy hair, determined eyes, cutting wit, or unerring ability to overcome all obstacles and Save the World. Of course, those are all there too. We have our standards.

Okay, I admit: I liked the movie ending better than the book ending. It was much happier.

Have you figured it out yet?  Okay, so the title of this article is a bit of a giveaway.  Go back and read through the descriptions of these three potential plots and pay attention to the fates of the parents of our hero in each one.  In the first, one is already dead, and one dies in order to inspire the hero to action.  In the next, the hero is an orphan.  In the third, the hero has an evil mother and a weak father who will probably die.  As will the mother, since she’s, you know, evil.

If you think back on stories you’ve read or written, how many of the heroes of the stories are orphans, missing a parent, or have one (or even two) evil parents?  How many characters can you list that have functional relationships with two living parents?

And as you go through and cling desperately to the occasional exceptions to these general rules of dead/evil parents, ask yourself this: why do parents get such a short end of the stick?

Many people consider parents (of the non-evil sort) to be too much of a weight on the hero.  If the hero is thinking about the safety of a parent how is the he supposed to fulfill his great destiny of Saving the World?  Yes, we blame the parents for the world’s destruction.

Crown Duel effectively uses both dead parents, one for angst and one as a plot-mover.

Parents only seem useful for a few things in most fantasy novels: angst, drama, and plot-moving.  A dead or evil parent or two is always cause for brooding and motivation to greatness.

These are all reasonable uses of parents in a plot, but it’s not realistic to kill off all the parents.  Think of the future. Since many of our heroes will, in their turn, become parents and we don’t generally consider them fodder for future plot-cannons (unless we’re really, really mean), it seems like there ought to be a few more examples of functional families here and there.

Having a functional relationship with one’s parents is something that just isn’t seen all that often in literature any more.  Divorce and single-parenting are so common today that authors have begun to write more single-parent homes in their stories in order to reflect that reality.  While this can help kids relate better to their own situations, it can also make single-parent or parentless worlds feel like the norm instead of a less than ideal situation.

Have you noticed how few Disney princesses have one or both parents? Perfect opportunity to insert an evil step-mother, of course...

We don’t want to ignore reality in our stories, but since so many authors have already taken up the single/no/evil-parent theme, I think we’ve got that covered.  If we want to promote strong families in which couples stick together, parents aren’t evil, and having a family at all is actually acceptable, we have to show an example or two.

So let’s think about this.  Now that our story has not one, but two parents wandering about, what do we do with them?  Well, they can certainly remain on the farm or the estate, if we so choose.  Why not?  Maybe they just don’t want to be involved, or maybe our hero is going incognito into the field and they don’t even know what he’s doing.  Maybe our hero has a poor relationship with one or both and mending that relationship can be part of our plot.

We – I mean, our villain, of course –  can dangle them over a pit to inspire our hero to great feats of daring.  That, however, might be a little cliché, and it would make the princess jealous.

Or, we might have one, or both, of our hero’s parents participate in the action.  Maybe the mother is the leader of the resistance against the Evil Overlord, and the hero is her apprentice.  Perhaps the father is a soldier for the Side of Right.

If our first instinct is to kill off one or both parents, we might want to question that before we ruthlessly send them to their deaths. Sometimes, it’s sensible and sometimes it’s necessary.  The plot might need some angst and those poor parents were just there doing nothing.  But if you can create a family for your character and make them a part of the plot, that might be fun too.

These Disney parents were lucky. They SURVIVED!

So, what uses have you found for parents in your stories?  Do you tend to kill them off?  What do you do with the live ones?  And do your actions in any way reflect deep-seated emotional issues that you’d like to discuss?