Tag Archives: writing parents

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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Q&A: The Assassin’s Children

Would it be reasonable for an assassin to be able to raise a family? I’m currently writing an assassin in a world of superheroes who tends to specialize in taking down superhumans. Do you think he’d be able to balance a home life and his “night life” or is that nota possibility ?

I don’t see why not.

Okay, that’s not true, but I don’t see anything that makes this intrinsically impossible. Being an assassin doesn’t preclude the possibility of being a good parent. It’s just extremely unlikely.

Strip everything else down, and being a good parent means being there for your kids, and putting their well-being first. It’s not impossible for an assassin to do that, but that is one of those inflexible jobs, where sometimes, they really can’t be there, because of work. Not being there stacks the deck against being a good parent. It’s still possible, but the odds are vanishingly small.

There’s a lot of degrees here, and intent can outweigh the results sometimes. A parent who’s there but resentful, and passive aggressive isn’t better than one who would be there if they could, but really doesn’t have the option. For a good parent, even under the best of circumstances, there’s a balancing act between what you can do, and what you want to be able to do. Unfortunately, if you’ve got a high pressure job, that requires you keep a strict schedule, especially with lots of travel, that weighs heavily against your character’s kids.

There’s no, simple, yes or no, here. Plenty of parents in the real world fall short of the mark with less on their plate than your character, and some manage to excel in spite of far more trying circumstances. So, this comes down to a couple questions.

Do you think your character is a good parent? This can go either way, and this isn’t a simple pass/fail. If your character is a good parent, then there’s no shame in admitting that they’re not going to get the balance right every time.

Your character can tick the technical boxes of keeping their child breathing and still be walking human wreckage. They’re not a good parent, but again, intent can carry a lot of weight here. We are talking about a deeply personal relationship between (at least) two characters, and those rarely break down into simple black and white.

Remember, your character doesn’t evaluate how well they do as a parent, their children do. If he’s simply not there, because he’s hollowing out some arms dealer’s skull in La Paz, that’s not going to justify missing birthdays or other milestones. Also, it’s extremely unlikely your character would tell his kids that he was out there killing people. That’s the kind of information you really can’t trust to children, at least not when they’re young, so he didn’t miss a birthday because of that; as far as they know he was selling database software in Cochabamba.

Also worth noting, this applies to cops, soldiers, and spies. There’s some social structures to help with the former two, but, you’re still talking about parents who have a job that requires their primary attention. It may make for dramatic characters, but it creates shitty parents, and messy divorces.

Over time, it’s worth remembering that mistakes and poor choices do have consequences.

Do you know what a good parent looks like? This one is a much harder question than it looks like. A lot of people think they had a pretty clear understanding of what a good parent looks like. This isn’t always, 100% accurate. Also, when the answer is no, it’s not always consistent what will tip you off. Personally, it was this article on Cracked, six years ago.

So, do you know what a good parent looks like?

I have seen writers, who never stopped to ask that question, put forward some pretty messed up images of their parents. This isn’t intended as a critique of yours, but, at some point you do need to step back and really think about this going forward.

For example: having a parent who will immediately employ violence against unknown children their house is not normal. Yes, I’ve seen a writer hold that up as normal parental behavior. No, I don’t want to know what gave them that impression.

As with any high stress job, being an assassin is going to make being a parent harder. It makes it more difficult to be there physically, it makes being emotionally available more difficult, it means you’re always going to be under some threat, meaning you can’t ever really relax. Kids pick up on that. Not consciously, but in more of a, “that’s normal,” kind of way. Over time, this can lead to some serious psychological issues. It’s not completely inescapable, but no matter how hard your assassin tries, he’s never going to be able to give his kids a “normal” upbringing. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a good father, but he’ll have to work a lot harder to get there, and it may be impossible for him to do his job and take care of his kids.

Remember his kids are people, not pets. They cannot simply exist to indicate, “no, really, my character’s a good person.” That kind of behavior actually makes your assassin less redeemable. There are people, real people, who do use their kids as pets. They parade them around, and (figuratively) use them to say, “look how normal, and successful I am.” Those people are human garbage. Trust me, I know. Remember, the kids know. They may not realize how messed up the situation is until later in life, but they’re there. They know.

And, the other part is superheroes; that changes a lot of things.

The entire idea of hunting down some world class assassin and kicking down the door of his apartment, before handing him over to the local police is mostly a dream in the real world. In a world where you have superheroes, the risk of identifying and tracking him down becomes a much more serious risk.

Once someone knows who he is, his kids are in permanent danger. If your character is out there hunting down superheroes or supervillains, it’s very likely that someone will seek bloody retribution for his kills, or use the kids as leverage. That’s another horrific option.

At this point, you’re going to want to answer some world building questions, and decide what you want to look at afterwards.

Who your character works for is very important. An assassin for hire, that works with the League of Evil as a contractor is going to have a very different life from someone who works for a Federal Agency hunting down rogue superheroes. Either one can be as stable or unhinged as your story calls for (though, the latter would need to hide their derangement).

So far as it goes, there are plenty of examples of superheroes and villains with their children. Hell, two of the three Batgirls are the daughters of super villains. Cassandra Cain is the daughter of a professional assassin who seriously abused her, and is a mute killing machine, while Stephanie Brown is the daughter of a D-Grade super villain, who’s spurred to heroism in spite of (or to spite) her father’s legacy (and idiocy).

There’s a lot of room for the children of villains growing up to be their own people either in spite of, or in the model of their parents.

This may sound harsh, but if you don’t plan for your character’s children to grow up into their own characters, I’d strongly recommend using them. If you don’t have a plan, you’re running a serious risk of using them as pets, which, as I said, is something you do not want to do. (Even if your character does exactly that.) These need to be characters in their own right.

When it comes to injecting some serious weight into the modern superhero genre, my first stop would be Powers. It’s about cops, not assassins, but it does a fantastic job of taking superheroes out of context, and putting it against the mundane texture of a criminal investigation.

If you’re willing to spend 100 hours working through the narrative, The Witcher 3, does an excellent job of putting you in the shoes of a man searching for his adopted daughter. On the whole, I usually recommend Sapkowski’s novels over the games, but this is the rare case where I can say a game is doing exactly what you’re asking for (even if it is a fantasy setting), but I’m not really going into full detail here.

Another slightly odd suggestion is Millennium. Set in the late 90s, this series was a rare example of Magical Realism as a genre. The main character is a retired member of the FBI’s Behavior Science Unit, trying to protect his family from the apocalypse. As with The Witcher 3, this is probably more apropos than it sounds initially.

If you want to look at a shitty parent having their child leveraged against them, the first season of 24 is pretty good. If you’re left wondering, Jack Bauer is not a good parent. The first season has some rough patches, but it does kinda illustrate the problem with this setup.

I’d still recommend taking a look at Collateral. Tom Cruise’s Vincent isn’t hunting down superheroes, but it’s not hard to see where his methodology could have real application. Also, if you have seen it before, listen to the what he says about his father. It’s not much of a stretch to say this may be the future your character’s kids would find themselves in. Especially if he tried to bring them into “the family business,” or even if he just tried to teach them how to protect themselves.

-Starke

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