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Where Are The Parents?

As far as tropes go, among the most talked of is that of the character having at least one parent, if not both, who is deceased.

Whether the character is an orphan struggling to survive, thrust into the care of relatives who may not be kind towards them or someone the character had never met prior, out for revenge, driven by a determination to finish what their late parent started, make amends for that parent's actions, or coming to terms with an inheritance or newfound title, having a character whose parent has died is common across genres. If they're built up well, their death can be as much of a punch in the gut as Mufasa's fall into the stampede. Their absence can also stir up some mystery as the character tries to figure out who this person really was.

It's very common in Disney movies for the protagonist's mother to be deceased. At the time of writing this post, Aurora, Merida, Rapunzel, and Tiana are the only Princesses to have their mothers alive—though Tiana's father dies while fighting in WWI. Additionally, Mulan is sometimes counted as a Princess and has both surviving parents.

The death of a parent is something many of my own characters have dealt with in some capacity. It may have occurred during the character's childhood, or it might have been a more recent event they are still presently grieving. The loss may also be something that happens at some point during the story. Writers will incorporate the death of a character's parent for a number of reasons, from the benefit of the plot's direction to evoking emotions in the reader.

Even if the parent is alive, they may still be absent throughout the story.

In this post, we're breaking down the reasons a character's parent might be out of the picture.

Motivation And Conflict

This is a good time to note that the parental figure in your character's life may not actually be their biological parent. It could also be an older sibling, an aunt or an uncle, a grandparent, a stepparent, an adoptive or foster parent, or even a mentor who is not related to them by blood.

The loss of this figure may be what drives the character and propels the plot forth. Feelings of unfinished business, hunger for revenge, or wanting to make the deceased proud can all act as strong motivations for your character while causing conflicts for them. In their hope of avenging the parent's death or upholding their legacy, your character might make some concerning or troubling decisions. Setting out to finish what that parent started could send them down a road of discovery or leave them with more questions than they started with. There may also be feelings of regret they have to make peace with along the way.

Losing a parent inspires a sense of adversity that character must overcome. This might be simple, like an event at school students' mothers come in for an afternoon to bake cookies together and the protagonist is struggling with his own mom not being there. Your female protagonist might be hitting puberty and find herself uncomfortable having "the talk" with her father or asking him to buy the feminine essentials when she gets her first period. Or they may need to excuse themselves from a wedding reception during the Father-Daughter dance because it's a reminder of something they will experience in the same way when they get married.

There might also be larger conflicts at play, like a character questioning their religious beliefs in the wake of a parent's death or other familial relationships becoming strained or falling through in the subsequent years.

Death can be scary or hard to talk about, and grief can be an ordeal all on its own. Coming to terms with it and navigating the aftermath can make for realistic, endearing conflict.

Sympathetic Connection

Perhaps one of the most popular reasons for a character to be without a living parent is because it can create sympathy. So many of the books I remember reading as a kid featured characters with absent if not deceased parents. Although I had not experienced that sort of loss then, I found myself feeling for them.

One of the reasons for the debate around writing stories in which the protagonist's parents are deceased is because it's used frequently and can be a bit cliche.

However, I argue there is a reason for parental mortality being so common in fiction.

In short, the loss of a parent is something most people are going to experience at some point. The factors may vary, like the cause or the age of the parent, but it's something many of us have or will face.

Just as it can create sympathy between your reader and your character, incorporating the death of a parent can create a feeling of connection between the reader and the story.

Death is a part of life. We might not be out scavenging and fighting for our lives in an experimental utopia gone horribly wrong, embarking on quests, hunting dragons, dancing with a mysterious rogue at a ball without a care for what the gossipmongers might say of it, or catching a serial killer like the protagonists we read about, but it's highly probable that we will experience the loss of a parent in our lifetime.

Reading about characters experiencing that particular kind of grief can help us connect to the story.


Sometimes, the absence of a character's parent can be attributed to the circumstances of the story's setting.

In a post-apocalyptic work, the parent may have been bitten by a zombie and died as a result of the infection. A vampire might have outlived their family members by a few decades simply because everyone else died of old age. Maybe the character's parents were slain in a battle against a rival clan many moons ago.

In my historical romances, some of my characters have lost a parent due to illness. This might be due to the lack of a modern-day cure or prevention, something that hasn't been eliminated yet, medicine being beyond the family's financial means, and number of other reasons. Additionally, a character may have lost their mother in childbirth; the Regency Era saw an approximate 20% maternal mortality rate, and Jane Austen herself lost four sisters-in-law through childbirth.

The loss of a character's parent can help establish what everyday life is like in the world of your story and what threats exist.

Thematic Reasons

The death of a character's parent can also be a thematic decision on the writer's part. This is especially true when you're writing a Coming-Of-Age story in which the protagonist has to grow up suddenly and quickly. A teen who loses his father and suddenly becomes Man of the House in charge of his younger siblings while his mother struggles to make ends meet can be the foundation for a compelling narrative.

This scenario may also provide an opportunity to explore the idea of coming to terms with the brevity or unfairness of life, picking up the pieces and rebuilding as a family, identity, exploration of grief, communication, and so many others.

Mortality and morbidity in fiction have a habit of opening up a conversation and broaching topics that we may find difficult to discuss in our everyday lives but easier to weave into our narratives.

Cast Size

When it comes time for writers to make big cuts and tidy up their WIP, it's not uncommon for characters with a limited or insignificant role to find themselves on the chopping block. Doing away with a character who doesn't have a major plot to play can trim down the word count and highlight scenes that don't serve the plot.

Parental figures might be among the characters dropped from the story. If the character is older and living on their own, they might phone home every now and again, but that parent might not physically appear, so cutting those conversations altogether can help whittle things down.

The Cathartic Nature Of Writing

My father unexpectedly passed away in December 2014.

I won't go into the details here, but it's something that has impacted my writing.

Even though the WIP I was already working on at the time featured characters who lost their parents, including one whose father died sometime during the story, I've since found myself incorporating parental deaths in my fiction more frequently.

While this is usually because of the reasons above and others not on this list, it's hard to ignore the sense of release it gives me when writing about a character who has gone through similar, even if it were under different circumstances and at a different point in their lives.

It's cathartic. I'm able to create a safe space for myself to work through what I'm feeling and process things. Seeing it on paper can change my perspective on things or make it easier to come to terms with it. So much of my healing over the years has been through my WIPs.

And I'm sure this is true for a lot of writers out there.

Alternative Absences

While there are plenty of valid reasons to kill off your character's parent(s), that's not always the best approach for removing them from your story. If you still need a parent out of the picture but don't want them to be deceased, here are a few options for your consideration:

  • The parents are divorced or separated and one lives in a different town

  • The parent is in the military and is currently deployed abroad

  • The parent is out of town for a business trip like a convention or company retreat

  • The parent works at night and is home during the day while your protagonist is at school

  • The character was conceived with help from an anonymous donor

  • The character is away at school and doesn't see their parents often

  • The parent is tending to a family emergency in another state

  • The parent is off chaperoning a different sibling's field trip

  • The character has an estranged relationship with their parent that has no significant bearing on the plot whatsoever

You may not always have to provide specifics for a character's parent being MIA, but there are going to be times in which the reader will want to know where they are. It could be as simple as the character saying their parent passed away when they were in middle school, or an event that occurs within the course of the story.

If you are planning to kill off your character's parent, check out my post on how to send a character to their death.



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