While I am not a professional by any means, I have been writing for many years and, more recently, beta-reading as well. In all of my experience, I've noticed that a lot of to-be authors follow the easy trends and miss out on some great story telling opportunities. Hopefully this guide will help you improve your story and learn that the easy way out isn't always the best! If you would like more writing guides and tutorials, check out the description below. For this "Quick Tips" entry, I'm going to focus on an important part of back story: parents.
*Please note! I understand that, unfortunately, not everyone reading this has parents. If your parents have passed away or are otherwise absent, please forgive anything written here that might be considered upsetting. These scenarios are for fictional parents only and when I say "dead", I do not mean it to sound nearly as insensitive as it does.
So let's get started. How are your character's parents doing today? They're probably dead, am I right? Or on a permanent vacation to a different country? Absent without reason? Well if so, this guide is for you.
Most often when somebody creates a character, there are a few questions they have to answer before they can call their character complete. What do they look like? Where are they from? How do they act? And of course, where are their parents? Many, many, many people like to play that last one easy and write the parents off as dead or gone. Well, I've read one too many stories where the fourteen year old main character is living alone in their own apartment because their 'rents up and left for Jamaica. Hence, this "lesson".
Other Alternatives to Parental Removal
A lot of our writing is affected by our own lives and, because of this, we often limit ourselves to what we know. If your parents are together and happy, you might make it so for your character. If your parents are always nagging and bothering, you might lift the burden from your character by removing the parents. But please, consider some of these other (common and not so common) parental scenarios.
Two working parents.
One working parent, one stay-at-home.
Two stay-at-home parents. (Laid off? Work from home?)
Two divorced parents. (Equal visitation rights.)
Two divorced parents. (Live with one, visit other.)
One divorced parent. (Other completely absent.)
Three or four parents due to divorce and remarriage.
One parent due to death.
One parent due to conception out of wedlock.
Obviously there are many more scenarios, but each one listen here has endless possibilities. Two working parents? Does the fact that they both work allow them to spend a good amount of time off as well? Does their work keep them so wrapped up that they don't have time for their children? Or if they're divorced, how does that change your character's life? Does going between homes constantly wear on their mind? Do they prefer one or the other? Does either have a new spouse? Does your character like that spouse? What about more kids? If one parent died, has the other gotten over the death or does it drag them down daily? Was your character born to a teenage mom? If so, how does that change their relationship, if at all?
Why Parents are Important
Parents have the ability to shape our lives more than anyone else out there. We look up to them when we're little and they teach us tons and tons of stuff. Your character is a person too, and there is so much they can learn from their parents. Use this to your advantage!
Think about this: John is a straight A student. Why? Well lets take a look at his parents.
Scenario 1: Johns parents are both extremely intelligent and graduated college with the highest of marks. They constantly harp on him about being a great student because they couldn't bear the thought of raising a drop-out. He's struggling in math but he's scared to tell his parents because they would be livid. They want him to join the honor society club in school and take educational extracurriculars, but what he really wants to do is play in the band. He can't because of his time restraints, though, and he knows that if he brings it up to his parents they'll get mad and tell him that music is a waste of time. End result? John is very smart but very stressed. He doesn't feel satisfied with his life and he feels like he's trapped.
Scenario 2: John's parents are divorced. His dad took off with another woman and hasn't called in ten years, and his mom is working two jobs and is under a ton of pressure. John studies hard and gets great marks to bring home to his mother in the hopes that it will make her smile. Because making her proud is so important to him, John doesn't mind the extra work that it takes to keep up his grades. Eventually he decides that he wants to join the school band, but he is afraid his grades will suffer. His mother, who always sees him working hard to make her happy, encourages him to do what he wants. John joins the band and loves it, and though he doesn't have as much time to study, he is able to keep his grades up because of his determination. End result? John is very smart and only a bit stressed. He feels satisfied with life and is able to keep himself and his mother happy.
Scenario 3: John's parents are divorced and remarried. Both have new children. John works hard to make excellent grades in the hopes that his parents will notice him. The work is stressful and at first his parents seem impressed, but as time goes on they don't seem to notice his efforts. When he tells them he wants to join the band they let him, but neither of them show up to his first big performance. Eventually the disappointment gets to him and he finds himself giving up. His grades drop substantially. When his parents find out, they are extremely upset with him. He decides that the only way to get their attention at all is to do something that makes them mad, so as retaliation he starts seeking out trouble and getting in fights. End result? John is smart but doesn't use it to his advantage. He gets in trouble a lot and becomes an angry person, unhappy with life and looking to take it out on others.
Ta-da! Three different scenarios. You can start out with the same character, but the way they are raised will no doubt change the person they become in the long run. Maybe the changes won't be as drastic as in the scenarios, but the changes will be there.
Of course your parents aren't the only people in the world capable of changing your life, but they are the first ones that get the chance. If your character's parents die, this will obviously change their life, but only once. In writing, one big change often doesn't hold the impact of small changes that happen over time.
I'm not saying that you absolutely can't have dead parents. As sad as it is, it does happen. Just keep in mind that, unless it's relevant to the story, it's probably not necessary. There are so many other options! If your characters parents are dead, try to keep in mind the effect that can have on them mentally. If the parents died when your character was very young, they probably won't be as upset by it as they would if the death was recent. Also, just because your character's parents have died or are otherwise absent doesn't mean your character has to hate the world and avenge their deaths. Maybe they just live with their grandparents and that's how it's always been.
The main thing that I want you to take away from this is just because you don't want to write about parents doesn't mean you have to kill them. You probably don't write about each person that your character walks by in the mall, but they're there. Embrace the parents!