Q&A: A Death in the Story

I’m going to break this question into two pieces. I don’t normally like doing that here, but the example really drifts into a separate topic, and I don’t want to simply cull that out.

Do you think, instead of killing parents off for books, they could allow their kids to go on adventure or take the kids with them on adventures?

Yeah. You’re asking about a specific sub-genre and then asking, “but what about stepping out of the sub-genre?” Those stories already exist, in a number of forms.

Not every story about kids adventuring on their own comes from dead parents. As much as you can joke about Pokemon being a, “child neglect simulator,” there is a narrative there about children simply going out and playing. The series was inspired by, Satoshi Tajiri’s childhood hobby of collecting insects, and his experiences in rural Japan. (With a healthy dose of imaginative fancy.)

I’m going to break this into three groups. The parents are dead, the parents are alive but disinterested, and the parents are alive and active participants.

These are all different kinds of stories, and I’m being a little reductive with these classifications because we’re tracking a specific element across all the kinds of stories that use that.

Live long enough, and you will bury your parents. It’s inevitable. At some point, growing up, everyone realizes this. There’s no escape, we will all die someday. Realizing that is one of those critical moments in your growth from child to adult. How you deal with that knowledge is deeply personal to you as an individual. However, it also means losing a parent does force you to grow as a person.

So, there’s two separate versions of this: the parent dies a catalyst for character growth. I’ll be honest, there’s an entire genre of this, in many different forms of media, where a child or teen escapes the trauma of dealing with a parent’s death either into fantasy, or by running away. In cases like this, the parent needs to die for the child to experience and learn from that. These will usually be coming of age stories.

In some cases, you can even see variations of this genre with adults dealing with the death of their adult parent. There’s also a related genre with parents dealing with the loss of their child or spouse. Again the focus is confronting death and grief (or retreating into fantasy to avoid that) so if there’s no death, the story’s beats aren’t going to work.

So, in these cases, the crux of the story is leaning to deal with the loss of a parent, so yes, they do need to be dead for these to work. (As a quick aside, I can’t really cite any of these off the top of my head. I find this genre deeply depressing and tend to avoid it.) There is a related sub-genre of children dealing with a parent’s illness (terminal or otherwise), and all of the above permutations also exist, though ultimately, that is a different kind of story, and trying to transition from dealing with death to only dealing with the fear of death seriously alters the context, and the kind of story you’re telling.

The other side of this is, you can have stories kill off the parent in a cheap attempt to raise the stakes. I’m looking at Batman here.

To be clear, I don’t have anything against the idea of an orphan protagonist, when their parent’s death is just backstory to where they are, however I do dislike the practice of executing characters to cheaply manufacture drama.

The orphan child hunting down the individual who killed their parent is cliche, but, as character motivation for a revenge story goes, it works.

Does the parent need to be dead? Well, in this case, not really. They need to be “gone,” but that’s not necessarily the same as dead. An, “orphan,” child hunting down the people who took their family doesn’t require their family to be dead, simply off-stage.

Similarly, an “orphan,” who’s family is gone and is accidentally on an adventure doesn’t require the family to be dead. It’s been a while since I read C. S. Lewis, but as I recall the kids in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, aren’t coping with dead parents, even if they were sent to the countryside to avoid a very real risk of death.

I’m trying to keep things general here, but pretty much any portal fantasy that removes the child will start to get into this territory without needing to kill anyone.

I suppose, Harry Potter is a similar, though distinct variant here. Ignoring that Harry is an orphan, he is surrounded by the teachers who are, more or less, tasked with functioning as parents. While this is an awkward example, it’s worth remembering that sometimes there are other characters who take up a guardian role for a child, even if their actual family isn’t there. So, if I was being really serious about having a consistent continuity to examples, this should probably be further down the list.

One of the more disturbing transitions here is the idea that the child’s parents are there, but they don’t care. That may be a little harsh, because there is still some gradation between the protagonists of something like the Pokemon games, where the characters are set loose and assumed to be, “staying safe,” and examples like the film version of Buffy (1992), where her parents really don’t notice, or care, the condition Buffy comes home in. Though, as with Harry Potter above, Merrick (Donald Sutherland) does end up acting as a (slightly unhinged) parent to her.

There is a theme here I’m trying to ignore, but we should probably address. At some point, in the process of becoming an adult, you need to grow past the limitations your parents imposed, or can impose. Freud called this “killing,” them, and many writers seem to take that advice literally. Mentors (whether they’re your character’s actual parents or not) don’t need to die in service of the story. It’s an easy way to catalyze that transition, but, it is not necessary, and can be cheap through overuse.

I’m thinking of how a lot of fantasy stories have dead parents and I’m looking for a way to circumvent that for my own story without having the parents seem neglectful.

There’s a lot of stages in growing up, and stories can explore any of those experiences. This means: Yes, there’s room for stories about children adventuring either with their parents present and assisting, or absent for any number of reasons.

In normal circumstances, parents fill in as ad-hoc teachers for their children and their interests. This could overlap with their actual area of expertise, or it could be they’re trying to keep up with their kid’s interests. (Granted, the latter is less common in fiction.)

If you look back a second, there is an edge case where your character’s “parents” could be their actual teachers. It also fits with boarding school scenarios (like the Harry Potter example above.) It’s a slightly different dynamic, but you’re not chained to their adult oversight being blood relations.

So, you can have an adventure where the kids are going along with their parents, who are doing what they can to keep them safe. (So, they’re not going to intentionally put the children in harm’s way, or ask them to do something too dangerous.) They can still perform safe tasks, based on their age and aptitude, and start learning about that field.

Also, with older teens you can afford to give them significantly more autonomy. They’re not adults yet, but they are capable of operating on their own. Something their parents may rely on if necessary.

There’s a continuity here: as the child ages, they’re going to be able to take on more responsibility, be better able to actively participate in events, and they’ll gradually develop more autonomy. The exact age of your characters will determine where they end up, and on a longer timeline of events, that progress will form the core of their arc.

I know Steve Irwin brought his daughter with him (I distinctly remember him and a few others holding an alligator and him asking her to hold down the tip of the tail to help.) Thoughts?

I’m a little hesitant to use real world examples, especially since Steve Irwin did die doing what he loved. However, that anecdote about Bindi Irwin does illustrate what I was talking about a second ago. The alligator isn’t going to eat her with its tail, and he wasn’t asking her to just go grab an unrestrained, predatory reptile.

With that in mind, there’s plenty of stories about kids going off and working with their parents. The Amelia Peabody Mysteries by the late Elizabeth Peters comes to mind, where over the course of the novels, Amelia’s son eventually takes over as the primary narrator. (The books also transition from first person limited to an epistolary format when the in-fiction “author” changes.)

The important thing to remember is what their death means in a larger context to the characters. Killing a character (or “characters,” if it’s a package deal) should always have significant importance on the characters or plot.

This isn’t a, “sanctity of human life,” argument. As the author your job is tell the story, no matter how unpleasant it may be for the characters. The issue is simpler: You don’t want to waste your audience’s time and attention.

As a writer, you’re asking your audience to read your story. You’re asking them to pay attention to each detail. The unspoken promise is that this will somehow improve the experience. It can move the plot forward, it can offer important context, or it can build the texture of the world and its inhabitants.

It can be tempting to simply throw the kitchen sink at your story; you may have a grand idea of a massive world filled with people and their history, but you’re better served culling that down to the important details. There’s a piece of writing advice from Elements of Style, “omit unnecessary words.” Usually, we think about this at a sentence level, but apply it to your writing as a whole. Ask yourself, “does the story need this character?” If the answer is, “no,” you can’t simply kill them off, you need to remove them completely.

A truth about death is, it’s not the end. I don’t mean in some metaphysical sense; death does not end the influence of a person; their absence lingers and the consequences of their actions persist.

If you’re going to kill someone, you need to remember they’re still a part of the story, even after they’re gone.

-Starke

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