Thursday, April 21, 2011

Disappearing Parent Syndrome

by: Lucy

Disappearing Parent Syndrome, or DPS, is a term I coined while reading Maureen Johnson's 13 Little Blue Envelopes. It is meant to describe a reoccurring theme in YA fiction where the parents vanish from the story. There are many YA novels where this is handled well -- either as a plot point so necessary it makes or breaks the story as in the case of Harry Potter or so plausibly and skillfully done that the loss of the parental presence does not detract from the story in the slightest. However, there are a great many novels where this is an unnecessary or unrealistic plot device used to justify a teenager living like a young twenty-something minus the annoying stuff like paying bills.

It seems like many authors were once of the opinion that orphans made great beginnings for novels, especially in the fantasy genre. Maybe the pile of dead parents began to look kind of high to some authors because other solutions were thought up. In The Mortal Instruments Trilogy the main character's mother is in a coma for all but the start and finish of the novels. In the Twilight Series the main character's mother remarries and she goes to live with her father, who is a man of few words unless it's about fishing or basketball. In both of these instances when the involved parent exited the story the adventure and supernatural romance began.

Sometimes help, such as nannies or housekeepers, fulfill the parent role, but in a day job sort of way so the teenagers are allowed to run rampant and have their adventures off the clock. The main character in Hush, Hush has a deceased father, a mother who works long weekends away from home, and a housekeeper. The housekeeper is meant to ease the mother's fear about leaving her daughter alone, although she is subsequently dismissed off scene before the second book in the trilogy. The Caster Chronicles give the readers a deceased mother, an depressed absentee father, and a feisty housekeeper/nanny who, to be fair, does actually have an emotional investment in the main character. The staff members for substitute parents offers the illusion of a caretaker with relatively few of the pesky nuances involved in sneaking out of the house. The housekeeper is gone for the night by the time the teenager in question even wants to sneak out.

There are boarding schools that remove parents from the bulk of the book (Anna and The French Kiss, Looking For Alaska, Rampant) and more traditional orphan stories (Harry Potter, Strange Angels, Evermore, Sisters Red), but in the end its always going to be a lot easier to name fiction where the teenager is on his or her own than it will be to name a book that deals with family. Fantasy adventure might not feel so daring if there's an adult to turn to for help and a coming of age story might not seem so ground breaking if the character has a safety net. Most teenagers, however, have that safety net. Instead of accepting parents as a part of the genre they're working in, many authors seem to think of parents as an obstacle to get around. Sometimes when I'm reading a YA book I can't help but imagine the time spent devising a way to make a parent exit stage in the first act and reappear fleetingly in the last one.

I once read that Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games in both first person and third for the first fifty pages to see which way the story was better told. I don't know if this is true or not, but I'd love to see more YA authors challenge themselves to stop figuring out how to dispose of the parents immediately and try, for the first draft anyway, to see how the parents would fit in to the story. Most of us manage to come of age even with a parent checking to see that we did our homework or telling us that we aren't going to date a vampire while we're living under their roof. (Okay, not a vampire, but the guy my parents tried to nix when I was seventeen had a Superman tattoo and no plans for college.)

When my younger brother was four or five he began to connect the time my mother left for work with the start of Power Rangers, a show he lived for. He ended up shoving my mother out the front door because he thought this would make his television show start faster. Needless to say, until my mother figured this out she was a bit hurt. I'm not saying teenagers will get the impression that their lives only really begin when their parents are gone, but I definitely believe that what is convenient for the authors isn't necessarily close to the lives of their target audience. If I went through the YA section of my bookshelves and stacked the various DPS novels against the ones that involved parents I'd be forced to come to two conclusions:

1. I buy way too many hardcovers.

2. The bar graph is stacked against living, present, and responsible adults.

There are novels where parents play a role and actually contribute to the plot rather than take away from it. One of the things I loved about Kody Keplinger's The DUFF was the complicated relationship between the parents and the teenager even though the plot the story is titled for had little to do with either parent. Brenna Yovanoff's The Replacement is a supernatural story where the parents are in on the secret and actively help cover it up without being an overwhelming presence or stopping any of the main character's adventures. In the Curse Worker Holly Black runs this backwards by having the main character's mother absent from the start and returning at the end of the first novel to play a role in the second. The way the main character's mother messes with his life is one of the best plot points I've recently read in a series. Sarah Rees Brennan's The Demon's Lexicon Trilogy centers around semi-orphaned siblings, but the elder brother takes up a parenting role better than most YA fantasy parents. These books, published in the last few years, prove it is possible to have an adventure or to come of age without killing, maiming, or otherwise discarding every family member in the first chapter. It's a trend I hope will pick up in the genre.

29 comments:

  1. Kinda reminds you of Disney movies where one parent is almost always killed off (usually the mother).

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  2. I always wondered where the adults were in the older Barney episodes.

    I'm planning to read YA series Gone. Everyone over the age of 15 literally disappears off the face of the earth. Talk about missing parents! I wonder if the author was inspired by that particular trope and decided to take it to the max?

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  3. This trope is subverted with a vengeance in Diana Reeves' Bleeding Violet. Seriously: it's amazing how this book breaks almost every YA stereotype out there. Hanna, the protagonist of Bleeding Violet, is a half-orphan who spends the whole book trying to win her mother's affection (she'd been brought up by her father and only managed to track her mother after he died). It's the most powerful force that drives her, and she's ready to give up everything to reach that goal - including her new sort-of-paranormal boyfriend. It was unbelievably refreshing to see a YA author describe things from that perspective.

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  4. Oh dude. I was a teenager when I saw Tarzan and I was still traumatized by the dead bodies and bloody paw prints.

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  5. I started reading Gone when I started really thinking about Disappearing Parent Syndrome, but I couldn't get into it. I found all the abandoned babies distracting from the teen story-arch.

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  6. I love when the parents are a plot element in the story rather than either a giant obstacle or something to dispose of. I'm adding Bleeding Violet to my to be read pile! Thanks for the recommendation.

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  7. How about Bambi? His mother gets shot and his father walked out on them. Talk about being scarrred for life. Poor Bambi...

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  8. Or Tiana. Her dad dies without any explanation. Or The Little Mermaid.
    What's the deal on her mom? Maybe it's Ursula.......

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  9. We see a picture of her dad in an army uniform. I think it's pretty well implied that he died in WW1.

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  10. Man, every time I see a post like this I have to go through all my books and worry that I've been guilty of this. Think I'm in the clear on all except "responsible," but even that's only one book that was intentionally a bit over-the-top. It's certainly true that having two responsible parents floating around isn't always going to help the plot much, though they might keep it from happening in the first place now and then.

    I've spoken to authors who actually use "always have the parents be dead" as advice for aspiring writers.

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  11. If you go with dead then you have no one to disapprove of the love interest in the second book. The world might implode.

    I do understand the appeal of it. Sort of the Luke Skywalker, kill the family so the road is the only option, but there are a lot of authors proving that piling up the bodies isn't the only way to go and sometimes the extra effort makes the book stand out.

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  12. At least there was a logical reason why Luke's family had to die.

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  13. I'm on the fence about DPS, to be honest. In the examples you cited, yes, it's pretty obvious that many authors are using any means they can to get rid of the parents from their stories -- but I can understand since parents can be obstacles in storytelling. However, sometimes obstacles like family are necessary for the plot to be realistic and meaningful. Authors shouldn't shy away from it since obstacles to their characters mean challenges to them as writers -- and if that means growth for characters and writer, then everybody wins -- even the reader.

    The only problem I don't have with DPS are the times when one or both parents are usually or always absent within the protagonist's life. The truth of the matter is that, sadly, there *are* bad parents out there who don't care what their kids are doing and/or simply live their own lives without butting into those of their children's. I feel that the aspect of bad/questionable parenting should be present in YA since many young adults have had to deal with flawed parents who definitely could not have given Mr. and Mrs. Brady a run for their money. Let's face it: not everyone who has a kid should be a parent. (With all that in mind, I was able to swallow the parents from the likes of Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver more easily than others have.)

    However, YA authors have recently taken advantage of the fact that a lot of teenagers come from broken families, and I just can't condone that. Put bad or questionable parents into a story for a reason to further your main character's growth, not just to make the plot more easily accessible to you as a writer! Sure, you may want to put your MC with that big bad vamp/were/monster/whatever-you-want, but think about your character as a whole, not just his or her love life! How would having no-show/unreliable/absent parents make him/her different from a character who had a stable home with both parents? When you think of the character's family background as a whole, it can change many things for the story as a whole.

    (Sorry, that went into a bit of a writing rant. Take note, fellow writers! Family counts into character growth even if the parents are dead/absent/whatever! Don't use parent absence as a 'get out of obstacle-riddled plot free' card!)

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  14. I saw a card in the window of Scribbler in Chelsea today. I can't remember the exact phrasing but basically the gist of it went "Hey Teens, sick and tired of your annoying parents? Act now! Go out and get your own apartment. Get a Job. Pay your bills. Quick! While you're still smarter than everyone else!"

    Reminds me of this post. The necessity of parents in real life contradicting the teen/author's desire for independance.

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  15. Well, it also ties it into the whole "Jospeh Campbell" thing. The thing about that, though, is you can't really TRY to do it. You don't create myth, you discover it. When you stumble into those archetypes you can end up with Star Wars: A New Hope or Harry Potter. When you TRY to do it, you wind up with The Phantom Menace.

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  16. I actually did a mini-post on the hero's journey. And yeah, complete
    agreement with The Phantom Menace. That was horrible. Lucas should have been
    punished for forcing that upon devote Star Wars fans. And I feel sorry for
    anyone who had to act in it. Sometimes plot structured writing works -- like
    Save the Cat or any other beat sheet outline -- but if you don't actually
    use any originality to give it a spark, you fail epically.

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  17. I believe Ariel's mother was killed in that little mentioned direct to dvd prequel. And yeah, Tiana's father died in WWI like Adam said. But I do agree, Disney movies do kill off parents. I guess because when you add too many people, you have too many relationships to keep track of.

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  18. Having parents can work quite well. If I had to draw an example I´d point at "The legend of Drizzt Do´Urden" by R.A. Salvatore. In his books the parents of the main character work really well for the story.

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  19. I would definitely enjoy seeing some more family relationships explored in YA. But I think that the reason there are so few parents is because most YA are coming of age stories. They're about testing the boundaries of the self. With a parent there there are these artificial boundaries in place instead of boundaries of the self, so it's not as easy or as fun to explore. But, I don't know, maybe not.

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  20. Disney gets more graphic with each passing year. Did you see "Up?" What do little kids know about infertility?!

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  21. I can't wait to see how you like it. It is a strange book. Definitely not your average YA book.

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  22. Just bear in mind that I'm an idiot and I got the author's name wrong: her name is Dia, not Diana :)

    Bleeding Violet is a weird book: pretty open about sexuality (no slut-shaming here!), ruthless in its attitude and sometimes spectacularly bloody. I think it's worth checking out just for the sheer amount of cliche-debunking it does.

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  23. when I saw Up, I thought those scenes were the boy imagines their life together because of the way it began and I thought it was all fantasy until that point, and my reaction was along the lines of "wait. why is he fantasizing about not being able to have children?" then ohhh...

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  24. I think to say that "many" people have bad parents, or come from broken families, is a little extreme. A lot of the times, its not handled well this, DPS. Parents are gone and other than a line or two with the protagonist lamenting it, it doesn't have anything to do with how the character relates. Case and point: the terribly written Twilight. Bella's mother gets married and ships her off the the middle of nowhere to be with her father, and instead of being affected by thinking perhaps that love is impermanent (due to the divorce and being shoved off by her mother) she is quick to trust Edward, to trust in the permanence of their love. It's all incredibly droll.

    As a writer, I understand the impulse to get rid of parents, as LAZINESS. Its not about having too many relationships to handle, that's an excuse. Not all parents are constantly crawling up their children's bums. A parent can let their child do as they wish, and not be a bad parent. If more YA authors were less lazy, their books would be better written. Were Twilight and Harry Potter entertaining? Yes. Did they do a disservice to the art of writing? Definitely. I have never seen so much hand-holding, cliched, or "telling" not showing.

    That's just my personal opinion. I'll probably get my head chewed off for it.

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  25. No head chewing off here. I'm in total agreement, except for with Harry
    Potter. I think Harry's parent's actually needed to be dead for the plot to
    work. But the Dursleys were way over the top, and as much as I love the
    series, there was way too much telling and not enough showing. Plus, the
    last two books didn't work for me.

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  26. Oh no, I totally agree that Harry's parents had to be dead. That was more a sweeping condemnation of YA writers thinking that because their audiences are younger they're less sophisticated and as a result they can allow themselves to throw words on a page all willy-nilly so they create characters that are flat, and incredibly unbelievable, and they don't worry as much about making their sentences crisp and beautiful. The only way I got through those books was to turn off the writer side of my brain. Like I said they were entertaining, they were just a little sloppy.

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  27. But isn't it also the case that most books are not necessarily a 'representation of real life', but escapism? I don't know whether anyone still remembers how it was to be a teenager. In my case, the whole parent thing at times became really claustraphobic - always there, meddling with one's life. It was a nice change to dive into a world were parents were partly non-existent.

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