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Parents and Children in Fantasy

Tis the Season for Novel Fodder: Parents and Children in Fantasy

For many of us in the western world, December marks the annual party season that brings us in contact with all of our nearest and dearest. For some, this is welcome—a chance to catch up with friends and family. For others, it’s an opportunity to rediscover why we left home in the first place.

For writers, it’s something else as well: novel fodder.

Heading to a gathering where you’ll hang out with your parents, in-laws, or other adult children and parents? Here’s your prime opportunity to beef up the conflict in your novel by using what you observe in both the healthy and not-so-healthy parent/child relationships you observe.

In my opinion, this is the daring path—the one that gives your adult children a chance to interact with the people who made them what they are. Anyone can write in dead parents. It takes guts to make adult children deal with living parents.

A Minor Literary Note

As lovers of fantasy, I think we’ve all at some point expressed frustration over the lack of respect for our genre. May I suggest that one way to improve the genre is to give our stories a more literary feel? I’m not saying we need to eliminate swashbuckling adventure or good, old-fashioned quests—I love those things. But I do think the up-and-coming fantasy authors here at the Faction are in a prime position to up the ante and take the genre to new heights.

One way to give our stories a more literary feel is to focus more on character growth, development, and change. There are many paths to character-driven literature, but one important tool along the way is to examine where your characters came from. And if you put parents and adult children in close proximity and give them a chance for conflict, you can find some great opportunities for character development and growth.

The Parent/Child Dynamic

There are few relationships in our own real world lives that have the potential to cause us as much angst, gnashing of teeth, frustration, and all-around conflict as the parent/adult child relationship. I think a tremendous amount of adult child/parent friction stems from unmet childhood needs. From the worst abuser to the best supporter, no parent gets it totally right when raising a child.

Start with your character’s unmet needs and ask yourself what your adult children need from their parents and never got. Was it a loving, safe environment? Food, clothing, shelter? Or maybe just a simple acknowledgement of affection? Use those unmet needs to jumpstart how your adult children will interact with their parents.

From there, think about what external conflicts your characters might have with their adult parents. Maybe Mom is the queen and Princess wants her throne. Or reverse some roles—make Dad an underling in the army and Son a general, so that Son is put in the awkward position of ordering Dad around.
How might that play out in their interactions?

Once you get to the interactions between parent and child, think back to all the weird, wonderful, and warped ways you’ve seen parents and adult children interact.
Here are just a few thoughts to get you started:

Tense Dialogue. How many times have you held back with a parent or adult child? Think about the whys of those conversations. What was unsaid? What emotions hung in the air? George R. R. Martin is a master of tense parent/child dialogue. Jaime Lannister never could say what he really wanted to say to his father, Tywin, instead opting for the easier route of “yes, sir.” Tyrion covered his own emotions with his typical snark and sass, but rarely (if ever) did he tell Tywin anything he really wanted to say. Both types of interactions showed us a lot about all three men: Tywin’s very presence could put fear into both the warrior son and the smart, scheming, snarky son. Remember that often the best dialogue is the dialogue that never shows up in quotations.

Body Language. In moments of tense conversation, we often use defense mechanisms to mask our emotions. Do your characters cross their arms, look away from each other, fidget? Do they touch each other in familiar ways to reinforce heartfelt thoughts? A light squeeze on the shoulder or a slap on the back can be a great tell that adds layers to the interactions.

Tone and Attitude. Show us your characters interacting with their parents in different ways than with other characters. A man who is gentle and tender with his own children might be aloof and distant with his parents. A woman who is strong and capable in her own parenting might be reduced to a timid mouse with her parents. Those things don’t have to be inconsistent—again, look at Jaime Lannister. Everyone thinks he’s capable, strong, and arrogant, but in front of his father, he’s weak.

Distractions. Think back to some of your best conversations with your own parents. Were you doing something else at the time—something that distracted you both enough that you could get to the heart of your conversation better? My mom and I have had some wonderful conversations while cooking or sewing, and a lot of men I know have had great times with their fathers while hunting or fishing. Use the body language of activity to show emotion. Does your character knead the bread more ferociously because she’s angry? Does your character skewer a worm on accident because his hand slipped when his father said something unexpected?

I’m not a psychologist, but I do think this subject deserves a lot more attention. Next week, I want to focus on just father issues in fantasy, and the week after that, mother issues.
In the meantime, enjoy those holiday gatherings—and take lots of notes!



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  2. Avatar ScarletBea says:

    I’m not sure I agree with this :/ one of the best things about reading fantasy is that the stories aren’t all about families and parents and children, like fiction is nowadays. I hate that, because the plot becomes even more alien to me than the magic and wizzards and fights from my lovely fantasy books!

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