Don’t Kill Parents!

Why do writers love to kill parents? I keep reading books where the heroes have no parents—they died in a car crash or plane crash (a shipwreck or war in historical books). Or they’ve been orphans since birth. The “I have no parents—I’m all alone in the world” scenario is not only unconvincing, it seems to me like an easy cop-out for writers.

It’s definitely convenient to write a story where the character’s entire world consists of present situations and people. No need to deal with parents (good, bad, or otherwise) and all the dynamics involved. Now and then they may grapple with some memories or emotions from the past, but they can easily shove them away and move on. But this approach has become clichéd.

I see this trend in all different genres. It’s supposed to create “angst” when a character’s parents have died, but it has the opposite effect on me. I find it trite, unrealistic, and off-putting. Seriously, it’s rare in real life to meet people whose parents have both died (in accidents) while they were young who are all alone in the world. Almost everyone has at least one parent or foster parent or relative they are currently connected to. Unless someone is in a witness protection program (also rare), people don’t “start over” with no close ties to anyone. Remember: fiction needs to be relatable to readers. Yes, even fantasy stories. The books I’ve read where the characters have both parents—even if they are terrible parents—are so much richer and more believable than “I have no parents, they died years ago.”

Yes, there is an appropriate time to kill off parents. It works in stories where the parents’ death is critical to the plot. I read a novel where it was revealed at the end that the murderer who was after the protagonist (and others) had intentionally killed her parents in a car crash years before. Everyone thought it had been a tragic accident on an icy road with nothing to indicate otherwise. So it was startling to discover that it was actually part of the villain’s strategy to set the stage for a much larger plot. If killing off parents is integral to the plot, of course it should be written that way.

Otherwise, realism makes a story feel much more authentic. Here are some scenarios from novels that I read where the parents weren’t dead, just uninvolved with the characters’ lives. (Like real life for many people.) The parents of the protagonist had divorced and were living separate lives far away—but eventually they were all forced to interact at a funeral (which was very interesting). In another book, the mother was an addict and would call her successful son (the antagonist) at random times to beg for money. In another book, the parents were overseas in a remote country doing charity work and were unavailable. It’s more believable and engaging for the main characters to have living parents who are currently not part of their lives.

For savvy writers, I recommend an even more compelling way of writing. Keep both (or at least one) of the parents alive and have the main character directly interact with them, either positively or negatively. When we observe exchanges between someone and their parent/s, it reveals so many levels of who that person really is. Readers instinctively “get” why a person is fearful or courageous, guarded or trusting, wounded or loving, insecure or confident—we recognize the impact their parent/s had on them. To include these interactions (even briefly) is extremely effective. It eliminates the need to describe a character’s strengths and weaknesses using flashbacks and triggers while they hide internal wounds and make other characters wonder about their strange behavior. It’s brilliant and powerful to create revealing scenes between a character and their parent/s.

Savvy Writer Tip:

Please don’t kill off a character’s parents to avoid dealing with family dynamics. Family dynamics are powerful! Exchanges between a person and their parent/s exposes volumes of information: beliefs, wounds, strengths, habits, motivations, and a plethora of traits that reveal the core of who they are. Utilize those valuable interactions (whether good or bad, frequent or occasional) to create convincing characters. Unless your entire plot depends on it, don’t kill the parents! 🙂