families, statistics, and snoopy

There's a very interesting post over at Kristan Hoffman's blog called, "On parents in young people's literature"

Below is an expanded version of my response (I sometimes write comments that are longer then the blog post they are addressed to, but I try not to 🙂 ).


I think this is two separate (though related) questions.

One is the presence vs. absence of parents (or parental figures) In most cases, this is a question of realism, since (like it or not) parents are a major factor in the lives of most young adults. The only teenagers I've known, for example, who operated largely without parental supervision (or even presence) were rich.

But the question of "involved adults in some positive capacity?" is a different issue. As Bill points out, many parents are lousy. In some cases not without reason, but parents in books should run the full range they run in real life, from spectacular to horrible. That's life.

My characters, in very general terms, often have families that they chose, usually to replace the ones they grew up with (so, "family" in the queer sense, as it's put in the introduction to the William Burroughs book Word Virus). Some have good parents, though, or sometimes a good one and a bad one.

Of my two most important teenage characters these days, one (Ron) grew up with horrible parents (several of them). The other had parents who were pretty good, as long as she was doing what they wanted her to do. Both had to run away and find other parents (or some equivalent), and neither is going back. (They know each other, at least a little, but they have not yet figured out the similarities in their lives. I've planted that for later. 🙂 )

But, on the other hand, Jan Sleet had a really good upbringing (with one parent – the sane one). Marshall apparently did also. As did starling, who, as I said last time, had a very normal early life, as far as we know.

But they all did have parents, of some sort.

But there are those who don't of course, and there is also the very powerful wish fulfillment of those (Harry Potter, Clark Kent) who find out that the poor hapless earthbound folk who raised them are not their real parents, that their real parents were special and they are special. Doesn't happen much in real life, but it happens a lot in stories because it's a myth that people want to believe.

Looking back, I have devoted a lot more attention to the cases where the original parents were bad, and I've barely touched on those where the original parents were good. That made me think about a line I'd heard once about good families and bad families, which turned out to be from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

It turns out there's even a statistical principle based on this, called the "Anna Karenina principle" I guess I've been following that, though I admit this was not a conscious plan.


Oh, and Emerald Barnes posted a great Peanuts comic strip. I will admit that Snoopy was one of my earliest role models as a writer. I'm really tempted to start my next story with "It was a dark and stormy night." And, based on my very initial thinking, it will show more of Jan Sleet's relationships with her parents. Both of them.

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5 Responses to families, statistics, and snoopy

  1. sonje says:

    Happy families? What are those? Everyone has something to complain about–and does–as far as their family goes. I think it’s actually a fundamental part of our personality development–to define and redefine ourselves by our family.

    Obviously, some families are “really” bad and some are just fine–particularly from the outside perspective of those in the really bad ones looking in on the “good” ones. But even those in the good ones have a list of grievances. I’d say that my MC in my series comes from a “good” family, but she still struggles with her relationships with her family.

  2. patwoodblogging says:

    Hi – found you linked from WordPress blog. Write a First Novel.

    Interesting posts on here, and this one made me think about how I write parents and families.
    Mostly bad, is the answer. And aren’t we as writers supposed to have had loads of terrible things happen in our childhoods, compost from which we can draw to write amazing angst-ridden passages?
    Probably. I don’t: my lot were lovely, I was much loved, not always to my satisfaction, but then c’est la vie.
    So I have to make ’em up, these terrible parents. But then, that’s what I try to do: make up terrible people to play the baddies in my stories. Maybe we have enough wicked stepmothers and wolves in fairy tales to compost into our villains.

  3. Sonje: You’re right – I think there can be some “the grass is always greener” thinking on the part of people who are not happy in their own families. They see other families only on the surface, after all.

    I’m only a bit into the first book in your series, but I already see what you mean about the MC and her family. 🙂

    Also, an additional twist on the “good” and “bad” family thing is that sometimes different children are treated very differently. I saw this in my ex-wife’s family (and in parts of my own family, too). My ex was categorized very early on as “the dumb one,” so her experience with her family was quite different from her younger sister (“the smart one”). An aunt of mine raised her first two children with very strict discipline, but then she obviously got sick of the whole thing and the two younger children were given a lot more leeway.

    Pat: Welcome aboard! Yes, I know what you mean — the terrible suffering when we were young, leading to the amazing angst-ridden writing. I try to avoid the angsty writing anyway ( 🙂 ), and even with the parents I write about who were less than satisfactory, there were usually reasons. This is the advantage in writing about the same characters over and over — you get more time to look behind things and find out why people are the way they are.

    And, like any relationship, sometimes it’s just a question of getting the right parent together with the right child. I have one character, Vicki, who was raised by her mother, who was pretty crazy, but Vicki was okay with that. She was used to the specific forms of craziness and could deal with them. But then the family decided that she needed a more stable environment and took her away from her mother, and the somewhat more normal-appearing family where she ended up was much worse. Vicki’s mother would have been a disaster for most children, but she was fine for Vicki.

  4. Maggie says:

    I am terrible at writing parent characters — they usually come off as too unrealistic — and that may be because I have never been a parent myself. I usually try to avoid parent characters when my main characters are teenagers, but that’s unrealistic, too. As you say, “parents are a major factor in the lives of most young adults.” I have yet to find a remedy to that particular writing problem…

    • There are quite a few runaways in my writing, and also one who was removed from her mother by outside forces. The parents usually re-enter their lives, one way or another, later on, though, but we don’t see much of the actual parenting.

      Part of it is that I don’t find traditional family/home life all that interesting to write about, but the other part is probably that I’m in my fifties, so growing up with parents is pretty far in the past for me, and I’ve never had children myself.

      One way to avoid the parents in a story about a teenager would be to write about a brief period of time (a week or two) when the teenager is away from home, maybe for the first time. A lot can happen in those brief periods, and it could make an interesting story. One of the things I admired about Vicki Cristina Barcelona was that near the end I was reminded that everything in the movie happened in one summer, and I thought that was realistic, since those sorts of summers can hold what seems like six months of events and feelings when you’re that age.

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