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Characters Writing Techniques

5 Reasons to Keep The Parents Alive and Not Orphan Your Characters

It’s a good general rule of thumb: Don’t kill your parents.

Especially in real life.

(Love you, mom!)

However, in the world of fiction, both in novels and in movies, the writers seem to kill off the parents with reckless abandon. Let’s see how many orphaned characters I can name off the top of my head:

  • Harry Potter
  • Frodo Baggins
  • Aladdin
  • Peter Pan
  • Spider-Man (Peter Parker)
  • Almost any superhero
  • Han Solo
  • Luke Skywalker
  • Any “chosen one”

For fictional parents everywhere, this is quite a disturbing list, and it’s only the beginning. Apparently to be the chosen one, you must first have your parents die, and be raised by an aunt or uncle, or grow up in an orphanage.

However, since today is Mother’s Day and I myself am a huge believer in fictional parents, here are 5 good reasons to keep the parents alive.

1. The Hero Needs Shelter

Many orphaned characters are raised by their aunt and/or uncle, but some aren’t. And especially when these characters are very young, it concerns me.

First, a child wouldn’t survive very long on the streets of any world before getting abducted or killed. That’s just the harsh reality.

Sometimes the character can be sheltered by a street gang. This can work, if the gang has a reason to accept the child.

But if the parents stayed alive, they could continue to shelter and support the character, until he or she can reasonably survive on their own.

If your MC needs the street smarts, here’s a few alternatives to try:

  • They ran away from home and after the first two days, were too scared or proud to go back home, so they stay on the streets for a couple months before being found
  • Their parents travel a lot on business trips and leave the kid to their own devices
  • The home is abusive and the MC looks for skills to protect themselves
  • The character(s) with street smarts are friends of the parents, or friends of the child, and teach them some tips

2. The Hero Needs Support

It’s up to you how your character’s family functions. They might come from an abusive situation, or a family that is otherwise dysfunctional.

The second reason to keep the parents alive is because of how they can offer support. Good parents will support their children.

However, this does not mean they will shield the MC from every villain and hold their hand every step of the way. The MC should be independent, but the parents motivate and encourage him. Maybe he crashes at their place when things are going bad.

Emotional support from one or both parents is an important part to consider before killing off the parents. Too many writers kill off the parents in order to motivate the hero. However, support can be much more motivating if you do it right.

If the parents are abusive, this can be motivation in itself. The MC does great things in order to prove their parents wrong.

Play with dynamics and think of the parents as either allies or antagonists in the story. How can they have a drastic impact on the plot?

3. The Hero Needs a Different Backstory

Let’s face it— the orphan trope is overdone.

The kid without parents is the chosen one who will kill the dark lord in the end. (Or be a pivotal part in killing the dark lord.)

Doesn’t matter if the story’s set in New York or the farthest regions of the galaxy. We’ve seen it so many times, in so many variations, we already know what’s going to happen.

(Even better if this was foretold in a mysterious prophecy and the MC spends the first half of the book humbly trying to deny that they’re special.)

We need to be surprised. And unfortunately, the orphan bit doesn’t surprise us much anymore.

Don’t let this be your reader’s face.

So come up with a new backstory.

Parents don’t even have to come into the tragic backstory. Try having the hero lose a grandparent, or a best friend. Or their family as a whole suffers some enormous loss that isn’t death.

Also, consider having the MC grow up in a single parent household, if you really can’t have both parents present.

Maybe the dark lord didn’t kill the MC’s parents, but horribly tortured them. Then the hero would have to live knowing how much their parents suffered. Personally, I think that would make anyone want to kill the villain.

And if the hero absolutely must be an orphan by the end, don’t have the parents die at the same time. One parent dies in the beginning, one parent dies later on. That way, we have time to process the grief.

I Can’t Believe I Wrote This Post on Mother’s Day

But happy Mothers Day, moms. You’re amazing people for nurturing and taking care of little needy humans, and we love you.

Now in honor of the amazing mothers in this world, let’s give our characters their parents back, yeah? 😂


2 replies on “5 Reasons to Keep The Parents Alive and Not Orphan Your Characters”

Lovely post. I have a writer friend who hates the way so many authors use a car crash or heart attack to kill off parents. You have given some great ideas for more imaginative stories. You are right – too many clichés.

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