Pub Rants

Revenge For A Bad Childhood?

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STATUS: Elated. I finally closed that deal I mentioned last week. Book nine added to the year’s tally. And, I had a GREAT conversation with an editor who called to tell me that Jennifer O’Connell’s debut young adult, PLAN B, is selling like hotcakes (love when I can say that) and Target just bought in and will soon be stocking that great title in a store near you. Now that’s my kind of day.

What song is playing on the ipod right now? NEXT TO YOU by The Police

Since I’m so gung-ho about YA at the moment, I thought I would talk about an interesting trend I’ve been noticing lately—especially for fantasy young adult.

Angie and I are pretty convinced that writers are killing off parents left and right in their novels as a revenge for a bad childhood.

Lots of death and dismemberment for those poor parental characters who brought your main hero or heroine into the world.

We are rather relieved when we read a partial where both parents are still in existence. It’s a breath of fresh air in comparison.

I realize that the popularity of Harry Potter has opened up a lot of fun avenues regarding main characters as orphans or otherwise alone in the world. There is actually nothing inherently wrong with it (or even all that annoying—unlike portal suction into other worlds). It can be a powerful plot device after all. I won’t stop asking for partials that have killed off the folks or anything like that.

I just want to gently remind writers that’s it’s not necessary. Your characters can have two perfectly nice, well adjusted, and living parents and still have interesting adventures or stories to tell.

We just had to put in a good word for the ‘rents.

22 Responses

  1. Ewoh Nairb said:

    Congrats on the sale, for both you and the author. It’s nice to see your work pay-off like that.

    I’ve been doing a load of research on agent needs and requirements as well as publisher and editor needs and requirements. Many times it comes across as wish fulfillment. I read it as (from the writer’s perspective) simply just being a decent and sane person to the people you are trying to work with.

    I mean, how hard is it to figure out what an agent is looking for? or how to submit it to them? How difficult can it possibly be to follow directions? It is not rocket science. It does not take a degree. A little time on the internet, or at a library or bookstore with an industry book, or heaven forbid an actual phone call to verify the submission guidelines is all it takes.

    It kind of reminds me of people who “pad” their resume with inaccurate or false information. Do they not think it will be noticed?

    I know for a fact that I will have these bases covered when I submit my manuscript. I’m giving blood, sweat and tears to my story, so why would I take a chance on it not even getting looked at? Maybe in a year my bookwill be the one Kristin is talking about a completed sale of. I can only hope (well, and work at).

  2. Mars said:

    I agree. Parents are alive in my novels because my parents are such an integral part of my world.. of any child’s world. I always found that feature unrelatable when encountered. I know that there is automatic conflict (and often identity crisis) when one or both parents are dead but it is (I hope) an unusual situation in the ‘real world’. I find it hard to believe that kids with parents can’t have fantastic adventures. Book should reflect that!

  3. Dana Y. T. Lin said:

    Congrats on the sale!

    I have several different sets of parents in my YA fantasy (though they are not characters in the story, but are mentioned)- 2 sets that are alive, well, and boringly normal; one set dead; and another set dead but still hanging around somewhere.

  4. Tansy said:

    I don’t know that this is a new trend… “get rid of the parents” has always been a main feature of children’s writing, though not necessarily killing them off.

    Enid Blyton’s children were often separate from their parents, with an absent-minded or irresponsible adult put in charge of them instead.

    And Diana Wynne Jones had (and still has) a tendency for making her parents completely neglectful and (in some cases) evil, if not dead.

    It’s hard to foil smugglers and save the world if someone’s keeping an eye on your curfew…

  5. Jodi said:

    I had a great childhood! Although I suppose strangers wouldn’t think so, with the parent bodycount running around my stories.

    I guess I look at it more as taking away the safety net. I’m still very close to my mom, and I know if anything happened she would be there for me. But if she was taken away, I’d be walking the tightrope without, you know? Sort of like my poor, mistreated characters.


  6. Jen said:

    I also “get rid of the parents” in my stories and roleplays, but don’t necessarily kill them off.

    I put physical distance between a kid and their parents; have the kid sent away by the parents because the parents couldn’t handle the kid; have the kid taken away from the parents for whatever reason (not necessarily for bad parenting); place the kid in the care of another adult; etc.

    I rarely use parental death to focus on the kids in my stories. I can see the convenience of it, but offing the parents before the prologue or whatever doesn’t always work. 😀

  7. Anita Daher said:

    Another writer once told me that when a parent is dead or otherwise missing, there is a void created in the child’s life, one often filled with desire for adventure, or a need to ask questions.

  8. Nobody said:

    I think as others have said, parents have been missing ever since people started telling stories about kids. In a lot of cases it’s just a matter of practicality. There’s no way engaged parents would let a kid run off and do a lot of the things they do in books. They either have to be dead, or drunk.

  9. Jackie said:

    First — congrats on the sale! 🙂

    Second — fascinating info about killing off parents. But that’s been a theme for a long, long time. Uranos slew Chronos, after all. And things didn’t end up so hot for Chronos once Zeus was on the scene. Maybe it’s not revenge for a bad childhood; maybe some TA fantasy authors are tapping into an Archtype.

    Just as long as they don’t start marrying their mothers…

  10. doc-t said:

    I was just thinking of disney heros and heroines.

    I can think of only one that had both parents, if any.

    Princess Aurora, aka sleeping beauty. I don’t think the idea of the hero orphan is a new one…

  11. Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said:

    Some authors see orphaning their characters as a way of intensifying the story.

    My main character is a Pixie child. She rescues her dad at the end of the story. I’ve given her a very loving, though odd, human-pixie set of parents. The dialogue is patterned after that I know best: My interactions with my parents, and my convesations with my children. I’ve tried to make it realistic but set in an unusual world.

    The father, Robert, runs out of matches. He and a camp cook are trying to start a fire without them. (Dad and the cook are lumbermen and the setting is 1920) In typical man fashion (ok guys, it’s supposed to be funny, and besides we all know how you are) they try rubbing two sticks together. It doesn’t work. So one of Sha’el’s younger sisters starts this “whatcha doin’, daddy” conversation.

    What takes the dialogue out of the ordinary is an ability she has about which they haven’t a clue. The mother was cured with dragon’s milk when she was pregnant with the twins. It just so happens that this has … well, side effects. So, she sticks her little head in the wood stove, writhes as if she is coughing up a fir-ball, and wump! We have fire.

    My story is about this family. Family, and a loving family at that, is the centre of this story.

  12. RyanBruner said:

    No dead parents in my stories. Missing, perhaps, and unsure whether they are still alive or not…but not dead.

    Although, I think dead parents has always been a common theme in YA in general. Consider Anne of Green Gables. (Yes, I happen to a male who adores Anne-girl.)

    Anyhow, congrats on another sale, Kristin!

  13. Bruno said:

    Nice work on the sale Ms. Nelson. My take on parents is don’t kill them off unless you have to. I guess for many writers if you kill off the parents it’s an easier ride. You don’t have to worry about fleshing out the relationship of the YA protagonist with his/her parents and you get a free angst card to play around with. ie. Your hero/heroine is so miserable because (fill in the parent’s demise here).

    For me, I prefer to use the parental relationship. Makes for some great tension, espeically when you start throwing other family members into the mix. It won’t always be a positive experience though. I try to make the relationships believable. Note, believable. Not cliche. I guess for me that’s the easy route. I’m a single dad so things like sleepless nights, health scares, finding daycare, toilet training etc don’t require that much research.

    What I’d like to see in YA fantasy are examples of non-nuclear families beyond the single mom and child (it’s been done to death from the child’s point of view, and before you get too riled up my current book I’m working on has the single mom as the protagonist so, in a way, I’m guilty of it too.) Or is non-nuclear just too much of a stretch?



  14. srchamberlain said:

    You know, I’m a lot older than 13 now and YA novels lost their appeal for me so long ago that I can barely remember if I read any at all, or whether the genre even existed then, but I followed the link to the Plan B site and I’m impressed. That opening grabs me, and the writing elegant.

    Don’t tell anyone, but I think I’m going to read a YA book.

  15. doc-t said:


    I’ve been a lot older than 13 for a long time. the YA stuff is still fun for me.

    Like many people I’ve read the all of the Harry Potter books, and I’ve read Moby Dick and Moll Flanders and Lady Chaterley’s lover.

    If I was told I had to read any one of those over again, it would be the Harry Potter books. Lets face it. They’re just fun.

  16. Paul West said:

    Well, in my first YA novel I killed off my main character’s parents in the first chapter. Now, maybe, I can see why you rejected it.

    My next novel is quite different. The main character is from a living, and well-adjusted home. Maybe you’ll want to represent it when it’s finished. I’ll query you again at that time.


  17. Elektra said:

    What bugs me when parents are killed off is that half the time the kids never even think of them again. They’re like the ‘other’ parents of the Brady Bunch. Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket seem to do a really good job of having children who actually remember ol’ mom and pop.

  18. The Beautiful Schoolmarm said:

    YA books have come a long way (baby). I belong to a book club of teachers that reads YA books and evaluates how we could tie them into our curriculums. There have been some extremely impressive books (and a few not-so-impressive one). My current favorites: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld and Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes.

  19. Heather Brewer said:

    Dead parents (or absent in some other way parents) are pretty crucial in my YA-reading tastes, so that transfers over to my writing. My theory? How much fun can a kid have with their doting parents around, how much trouble can they stumble into when they’re being watched? And, without their parents, their safety net in life their to kiss the boo-boos and tell them it’s okay, kids have to find a way to stand in the world on their own. It makes for stronger characters.

  20. Demented M said:

    I’m in total agreement and have been careful in my current YA to plot it so it’s not the usual ophan tale.

    Orphans are fine, but there have been a few too many of them of late.


  21. Anonymous said:

    I suppose it depends on the story. For children to truly be protagonists (go off on adventures and what have you), you often have to get the parents out of the picture, otherwise they’d be there to put a stop to their children doing anything dangerous.

  22. blaironaleash said:

    ‘And Diana Wynne Jones had (and still has) a tendency for making her parents completely neglectful and (in some cases) evil, if not dead.’

    Not surprising if you’ve read anything about her childhood. By the way, rockin’ semi-orphans in literature: No. 1 has to be Jamie in The Homeward Bounders. Oh, yeh, and Helen too. And Joris…

    The ‘Time of the Ghost’ kids are pretty intense as well.