Originally published 4/22/2017. Lead Image credit: Pixabay via Pexels.
Your young protagonist needs the freedom to go on a dangerous quest. But what will their parents think?
It’s in almost every book from my childhood: young heroes sets off on dangerous mission…and no adults stop them! Any reasonable person would realize that most parents would not be ok with their kids fighting dragons. Even worse: your protagonist needs to have a full arc, but here the parents are ruining that by simply telling the protagonist what to do. How boring!
So what is a writer to do? Here are 8 strategies, from the most effective to the most cliche, to taking parents out of the picture.
1. Kill off the parents/guardians
This one is used often enough to be called a cliche, though it can still have merit if done correctly. Take Batman for example. He’s an orphan with no immediate family besides his loyal butler, and I’m sure his parents would not approve of his caped crusading. But Bob Kane, Batman’s creator, made his parents’ death tie into the story and Batman’s integral character.
Star Wars also did a brilliant job of this: Luke’s parents, aunt, and uncle couldn’t be around if he was to stop being a farmer and begin his Jedi training. So George Lucus killed off three of them and made Luke think that the fourth was dead. In fact, Luke initially thought that his father had been killed by Darth Vadar, giving him even more motivation to go on a dangerous quest to avenge him.
2. Give your protagonist uncaring parents/guardians
This is best seen in Harry Potter and the Hunger Games. Harry’s aunt and uncle couldn’t care less if he was killed by Voldemort, so they have no reason to, say, write letters to Harry giving him life advice while he’s in school. Or, you know, making him come home after the first few brushes with death. In the Hunger Games, however, Katniss’ mother is simply so wrought with grief that she can’t do much to help her daughter even after she comes back from the Games.
3. Have the parents/guardians fighting in the war
Having a father away fighting in the war is executed perfectly in Avatar: the Last Airbender. Sokka and Katara’s father, like all the men of the tribe, had to leave to fight the Fire Nation, leaving our band of main characters in charge of themselves and free to go off on adventures. I particularly enjoy reading/watching stories that use this method because it allows for lots of heartfelt reunions or wise-old-master moments: when Sokka finally reunites with his father, it allows the father to give him son wise advice about his adventures. Additionally, since the father has already seen that his kids can take handle themselves in combat, he’s much less likely to stop them from going off on more adventures.
4. Separate your protagonist from her parents/guardians
Difficult to use without completely redirecting your plot, but this also allows you to keep a good relationship between your protagonist and her parents. Take Percy Jackson for example: Percy’s main motivation throughout the first book is getting his mother’s soul back from Hades. Not only does he remain on good terms with his mother, but she stays alive, stays out of the way, and even helps drive the plot! Percy’s creator, Rick Riordan, does a fabulous job of keeping other plotlines relevant while Percy is worried about his mother. In other instances, such as Spy Kids, the entire story comes to revolve around rescuing the parents, leaving little room for other plotlines.
5. Make the parents/guardians responsible for starting your protagonist’s quest
Having the parents/guardians start the protagonist’s journey differs from separating parent from child because here the parents actively tell the protagonist to leave, and want her to leave, without creating extra conflict. For instance, Sokka and Katara in Avatar: the Last Airbender did have a guardian besides their father: their grandmother. The grandmother, however, being older, wiser, and evidently more aware of the plot, tells them that she believes they are destined to leave home. This was also done fairly recently in Disney-Pixar’s Moana: Moana would have never left the island if her grandmother hadn’t urged her to do so, despite her father’s disapproval.
6. The parents/guardians never existed/aren’t expected to be around
I haven’t seen this one in a while, so it has a lot of untapped potential. Perhaps your character is a god, or a robot, or a clone, or an alien from a race where the parents are entirely uninvolved in childcare. Heck, this can even apply to dogs and cats, like Lady in Lady and the Tramp or Rusty in the Warriors Series. Puppies and kittens are expected to be separated from their parents very early on, so there’s no reason to worry about their disapproval.
And, yet again, Avatar: the Last Airbender is the perfect role model for this through the protagonist, Aang. Aang was raised by several monks in a temple, leaving him lots of room to travel even back when his guardian was still alive–if you’ve seen the show, you also know that Aang was still considered too young to leave, so the monks had to be killed off. But the show ties the death of the airbenders in with the plot so well that you would never even see it as a plot device.
7. Your protagonist is actually expected to do this by society
This is an entire fantasy world, so maybe this is noramal!
Sighs. Once again, the creators of Avatar: the Last Airbender take the cake with their spin-off series, Avatar: the Legend of Korra. In this, society, parents, and guardians alike fully expect the protagonist to fight crime and go off on adventures. There’s no need to calm anyone’s nerves because this is considered to be completely normal, if only for this one particular person.
8. Mix and Match
Your protagonist has two parents, right? Well, they don’t both need to fall victim to the same trope. Many of the characters on this list used two different tropes for their parents, normally pairing “killed off” with one of the others. In some rare cases, more than two can be used if there are step parents, grandparents, or aunts and uncles involved in the unfortunate rearing of your adventurous protagonist.