Name a Disney film. Name both of the hero’s parents.
Not easy, right? Usually at least one of the parents is dead. Although Disney has other reasons for doing this, the main one is to develop sympathy in the audience for the hero. Sometimes it works. But it also comes at a price.
People, especially young adults, are surrounded by family. Whether they want to be or not, they are stuck with their family and have to interact with them every day. Though some might not admit it, familial relationships are the strongest relationships anyone can possess.
Why aren’t we highlighting these relationships when we write stories? Most of your readers will have close friends from church or school. Many of your readers might have “significant others.” (I hate that term; isn’t everyone significant?)
But all of your readers have (or have had) parents.
I am single (my family tells me that isn’t likely to change). I cannot relate to the emotional trauma caused by a break up. It’s lost on me. However, the relationship between child and parent holds meaning for all of us. Even if your readers were foster children or had a single parent, the relationship between parent and child is something that everyone longs for and, in some capacity, understands. We know how awful it feels when our parents are disappointed in us or angry with us. We know how wonderful it feels when they love us and cheer us on. With very few exceptions, your readers can relate to the ups and downs of a parent-child relationship. So why aren’t we milking that emotional connection for all it’s worth?
Clichés Don’t Help
Maybe you do intend to give your hero a family. But before you get carried away, you have to be careful. A lot of relationships in modern fiction are old, flat, and increasingly cliché. What are they? And what are some alternatives?
The Father Cliché
The father of a YA hero (if he isn’t dead) is often portrayed as overly strict, distant, and incompetent. This is heightened by the fact that the teenage hero is disrespectful, rebellious, and “independent” (whatever that means).
I recently rewatched Disney’s Tomorrowland (a movie that broke so many clichés I almost died) and I was surprised when the main character (a teenage girl) said this in defense of her dad: “No, my dad is the best.” In a genre inundated with rebellious teens disobeying their lame, overbearing fathers, it was refreshing to hear a heroine speak highly of her father—even if the whole story happened after she lied to him and ran away (sorry, spoilers). Stories, especially Christian ones, need more positive relationships between hero and parent(s).
How about a rebellious teen who is wrong, or a prodigal son who runs away but eventually returns and asks forgiveness of his dad? That’s a fresh story we haven’t read in a while. Maybe you could write about a father who lets his kids hang out with the wrong crowd because he’s unsure how to comfort them. Or a story of a father who genuinely loves and cares about his almost-adult teen without being tyrannical. (Like a normal dad. Crazy, I know.)
The Mother Cliché
Mothers in YA fiction are typically weak, serving as a foil for the main character’s emotional toughness. They stay home and worry and fret while their children go save the world. Worse yet, if they are not weak, then they are evil step-mothers who confine their children to towers and forbid them from associating with the outside world.
The problem is that mothers aren’t like that. Most mothers are caring and loving, but also firm and courageous. Rearing children is no easy task, as mothers everywhere will attest, and your character’s mother must have done an excellent job. She raised a hero, after all. Points to her.
The idea of a mother acting as a foil for the main character is a good one, just overused. What about writing a strong, doting mother who is coping with her child growing up? Or, for once, a mother who has an unbreakable bond with her child and is depicted as someone the main character adores, respects, and confides in?
That kind of relationship is desirable, if not relatable, to all of your readers and it will pull at their heartstrings.
Siblings are probably the most poorly represented relations in all of fiction. In fact, I will have to split this section into two types of clichés to cover them.
First, the number cliché.
When was the last time you read a story where the main character had more than one sibling? It’s been a while, hasn’t it? (Unless you just finished Prince Caspian or The Swiss Family Robinson.)
Sure, most families these days have only two kids, but that’s not the point. Two kids per couple isn’t a sustainable birth rate for a culture. The average number of kids is more than two. Thus, your hero should have two siblings, or three, or five.
If the average family has more than two kids, why don’t writers include more siblings in their heroes’ lives?
This brings us to cliché number two: the baby sis cliché.
Writers don’t treat siblings as people. That’s the true issue. Allies can be well developed. And villains can be fan-girl-hoarding anti-heroes. But the hero’s brother? He’s nobody. At best, he’s the hero’s brother (and probably the villain’s fat-faced henchman).
Seemingly everyone in a novel gets a chance to be themselves, except for the hero’s siblings. They are either the adorable baby sis that the hero must protect, the overly-strict older brother, or the slightly younger brother who collapses under pressure and ends up fighting for the wrong side.
Perhaps writers don’t give heroes many siblings because they don’t have enough stereotypes to stuff them into.
Why can’t older brothers and sisters be your hero’s allies? You don’t want to create a bunch of protagonists who always get along, or allies who compulsively follow the hero around. When have siblings ever gotten along? You should be able to find plenty of conflict amongst brothers and sisters.
Don’t make siblings complacent tools of the plot—give them their own jobs, problems, dreams, character arcs, personality issues, and backstory. Make them integral to the story and the hero’s emotional journey.
The Crazy Uncle Cliché
The crazy uncle is the carefree relative who goofs off and aids your hero in his early story mischief. He’s the laughingstock of the whole family, and he enjoys it. Think Uncle Billy from It’s a Wonderful Life. Single. Clueless. Lovable.
I confess that the crazy uncle is my favorite familial cliché ever, but unfortunately all clichés must die (or almost all of them anyway). What if the crazy uncle isn’t as clueless as everyone thinks? What if he knows something he isn’t supposed to? What if he used to be tangled up in the mob or the revolution? What if he is as clueless as he seems, but he hates it? What if he just wishes someone would take him seriously? That’s something we can relate to.
Go with that.
Or what if he ended up being the bad guy? No. Scrap that.
I never said it.
(Okay, maybe I did. But…poor crazy uncle.)
A Note on Darth Vader and the Queen of England
Family ties raise the emotional stakes. Always. If the villain is the crazy uncle, there will be more emotions and hard decisions for your hero to face to complete his quest. Stories like Star Wars and the nonfictional tale of what happened in Europe in the early nineteen hundreds are juiced-up versions of Gilmore Girls. Dysfunctional families hashing out differences on a global (or intergalactic) scale.
When clichés are avoided and real, genuine relationships are strained, a story based off of family can be much more powerful. Using familial conflict helps keep the stakes personal in an epic adventure of seemingly distant enemies. Whether you’re going all “Star Wars” or building up your supporting cast, creating heartfelt relationships between your hero and his family will add emotional zip to your novel.