Disney Parents: Dead Mothers and Absent Fathers
Quick, think of an animated Disney movie that features a hero or heroine with two parents who are alive and present in the main character’s life for the entire movie. Hard to do, yes? One recent movie touches the edge of that elusive dream: in Tangled, Rapunzel’s birth parents never give up searching for her the entire movie, and though they never speak onscreen, it’s clear that they adore and pine for their child. But they have none of the joy of raising her since she was kidnapped as a baby. In an odd twist, much of the credit for Rapunzel being the strong, capable, and positive young woman she becomes is due to Mother Gothel, her kidnapper.
The fantasy genre does seem to be thick with dead mothers and absent fathers (or absent mothers and dead fathers—take your pick), and there are many reasons for this. First, any kind of medieval, pre-industrial world is bound to be pretty tough to survive. It’s just an ugly truth that people died in childbirth, war, plague, and the like back before things like germ theory took hold. It’s not hard to imagine a world populated with abandoned children and orphans.
Second, the main characters in fantasy novels are often heirs to something really important, so it just makes sense to eliminate the folks standing in their way—the fathers or mothers (or other parental figures) who already occupy thrones and such. Sometimes those people are eliminated off the page, before the story begins; other times, we get to see the heir ascend his rightful seat, either by noble or foul means and methods.
Third, there’s the practical aspect for the author—it’s just a lot easier to limit the amount of characters you have in your story. That may sound a bit flippant, but it’s not something to discount. The more characters you have, the more complicated your plots become. It just makes sense to eliminate some of the people who might otherwise have a chance to walk into the picture and mess up your plans.
I don’t really have an issue with killing off parents (on the page!), but I do think that sometimes, authors miss a golden opportunity to continue to use those dead parents. I’m not talking about ghosts, either. I’m talking about the fact that our parents and parent figures, absent, dead, or very present and active in our childhood years, influence who we become as adults to a very large degree.
So what techniques can you use to show how these dead or absent parents shaped the characters in your stories?
It’s an oldie but a goodie, if it’s handled well. (“The flashback technique probably deserves its own post,” she said, filing it away for future use.) In key moments of character revelation and development, you can use flashbacks to show how characters were influenced by their parents. Perhaps your morally ambiguous warrior is about to destroy an innocent village, but he flashes back to a moment when his father showed mercy to a subordinate, and it reminds him of the value of human life. Or perhaps you go the other way—your morally ambiguous character might remember the same scene, sneer, and tell his comrades about how weak his father always was right before he slaughters said villagers.
Just Like The Old Man
When you have a character whose parents were known by others in your backstory, you can sometimes have those characters talk about the parents behind your character’s back. For example, your warrior woman pulls off an especially sneaky military strike, and later, her generals sit around the fire talking about how it was a move worthy of her father—something the old man would’ve done.
Memories and Lessons
Give your characters a chance to occasionally drop a few clues about what life was like back when they had parents. In Ravenmarked, my main character Connor speaks often of how his father insisted that a man always keeps his word. His insistence on keeping promises is a big force in his adult life—he’s fanatical about keeping promises. So when it comes time to test his resolve, there’s a lot more at stake than just a broken promise. He knows if he breaks his word, he’s disappointing the memory of his dead father. That’s a significant moment of character development for him—and for the reader.
This is where your story relies on your knowledge of character and backstory. Look at the way your characters act. Do they crave attention, affection, love? Are they defensive and abrasive? Do they have a hard time forming meaningful, lasting relationships? Do they long to prove themselves? Ask yourself what those characters didn’t receive from their parents. You need not ever even express those needs in the story, but if we meet a distrustful man and learn he was deserted by his parents at the age of eight and made his way as a street kid, we’ll fill in the blanks about where he got his distrust.
Many of the best characters in fiction have regrets. Ebenezer Scrooge regretted the way things ended with his first love. His fear of staying poor forever was greater than his love for her, and so he hardened his heart and became a miser. We don’t know about his regret until we see what happened and the choice he made through his travel with the Ghost of Christmas Past, but then a lot of things click and make sense. What regrets are your main characters harboring? How do those things influence their actions? Maybe your warrior regrets leaving home out of anger when he was a young man. Discovering that his parents are dead will heighten those feelings of regret and influence his actions in the present story.
That’s really just a start, and just a few techniques that can get the ball rolling. It requires more than a little analysis of your characters, and it means that you have to know some significant details in the backstory.
But what if the parents aren’t dead? Next week, just in time for Christmas get-togethers, I’ll look at adult child/parent relationships in fantasy. And I’ll probably mention everyone’s favorite dysfunctional family—the Lannisters.