Parents in absentia: YA memes

Recently I read a post on the Strange Chemistry (imprint) site on tropes and memes in Young Adult fiction.

The writer, Amanda, cited some of the most common memes as:

  • absent parents
  • supernatural bodies (vamps, shape-shifters, angels)
  • girl protagonist
  • love triangles

Parents in absentia
I want to look at this one because I think it’s a canny move to leave parents out of the picture when it comes to YA. Why?

The universals
There are some universals about being a teen, but home life isn’t one of them.

In story terms, unless the story is about that particular family environment, it’s better to stick to ‘less is better’. Or put it in the C-storyline, not the A-storyline. (Keepin’ Character Palpable.)

Keep it simple, stupid
A writer’s job is to ‘show’, not ‘tell’. In order to ‘show’ a complicated family environment (and let’s be real here: every family’s dynamics are complicated), you’d be wasting far too much energy and reader time trying to set the stage and juggle dynamics between family members when the real friction and story are elsewhere in the protagonist’s life.

It’s the teen’s story
Teenagerhood is about finding your way in the world. It’s about separating from the home and parents to become an adult. In story terms, it’s best to keep the focus on the teen and their broader life, because (in my experience) teens are champing at the bit to break out; they are wired to look to the future. A story about home life is not going to be of as much interest as a story about possibilities.

IRL Example: Much of the parent/child friction at home comes from the repetitive ‘pick up your socks’ and ‘put the phone away’. No story there.

Fictional Examples: Last week I finished reading ‘The Gathering’ by Kelley Armstrong, in which our heroine Maya (yes, girl protagonists are a meme) has a loving and smooth relationship with her parents. In this case, I was willing to overlook the smooth-sailing of Maya’s homelife (where’s the story if there’s no conflict?) because she is adopted. Her parents, then, become a kind of side-kick as she deals with the A and B stories on the private and school fronts [spoiler alert]: is she really a shape-shifter? did the town orchestrate gene manipulation? And of course the love-triangle meme: does she love Boy A or Boy B?

In the case of Harry Potter, it’s important we know his parents are dead because it’s a motivating factor in his story, but we don’t have to see it play out every day. He gets to see his uncle and aunt every so often, but it functions more as comic relief than motivational. Harry’s larger battle is in the realm of the magical.

Charlotte Aimes’s story is about solving a crime. There is an amount of the family ‘backstory’ that drives this urge to bring wrong-doers to justice, but it’s latent. It’s not the A Story. But more on that another time.


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