Friday, December 10, 2010

The Father Figure

The Father Figure

father figureI’ve noticed a thematic element in most of the fiction I write—the absence of a “Father Figure.” Now this doesn’t reflect my life…my mom and dad stayed together and he lived to a ripe old age of 75. So why write stories with a missing father figure? In fact, even in my stories where there is a father, there is no mother. So I’m left with 2 cases: single-parent or orphaned characters. Is there something of literary value in writing characters with fractured families?

I think maybe there’s an inherent conflict. There’s a sense of loss, of deep pain, of something missing in their lives. These characters are incomplete. There’s a need to reconnect, to rebuild their broken families by bringing new people into their lives. Another thing is that without exception, every single one of these characters is single (only two are even dating someone at the start of the story) and have no children (that they know about).

So this brings up a couple issues. Is this good literary fodder to explore or am I just stuck in a rut? Is there something about the Father Figure that I struggle with or avoid? Is this a character type I should explore more? Just for fun I dumped out most of my Main Characters with their parent and home status. While I’m at it I dumped out the number of siblings. Not many bros in there…I can relate to that (2 sisters). Hmm…also just noticed that when they have siblings, the Main Character is the youngest. I was a middle child. (Technically Viola is a few minutes younger than Sophia but that doesn’t count).

So that leaves me a few interesting possibilities to explore in future works:

  • Main Characters who are married and/or parents
  • Main Characters with younger siblings
  • Main Characters with both parents alive and well

Main Characters without fathers

Dawn Anami, Dawn’s Rise
Father died one week after her birth, identity hidden from her.
No father figure growing up
Mother died ~10 years ago, now an orphan living with aunt.
0 siblings

Sophia Stratton, Steam Palace
Father died 7 years ago
Mother is dying.
Lives with sister.
2 sisters, brother died in childhood before her birth

Jake, The Immortals
Father died before birth, identity unknown.
No father figure growing up
Story starts with mother’s death, now an orphan.
Potentially 1 brother he’s never met

Archie Magnuson, Dead Air
Father died  6 years ago
Mother ill, he is her live-in caretaker.
Casually dating a girl.
1 sister

Grett Hawk, Girl World
Biological parents unknown
No father figure growing up
Childhood foster mother died ~10 years ago, now has another.
Lives in a fraternal group home
15 “foster” sisters, no known blood siblings

Main Characters with Fathers

Alex Ross, 30 Days
Father still alive and kicking.
Mother not mentioned, out of picture.
Lives with girlfriend.
1 brother

Mary of Archa, Wild Mary’s Way
Father alive and kicking
Mother died ~12 years earlier
Leaves home at start of story.
0 siblings

So you can see I’ve left a trail of death and mayhem in constructing these characters. Note that tons of my supporting characters have fathers, brothers, sisters, children, etc, so this is really just about the main character.

What kind of family structures do you find yourself writing?


  1. When I was younger, none of my day-dreaming stories had parents. They were dead, on another planet, or simply ignored. As I pointed out on Twitter, if you look at all the Disney classic animations, parents are almost always absent, and when there is one, there is only one. The only example I could ever think of is 101 Dalmatians. Everything else? Single parents or orphans.

    In my view, depending on your story, family members can get in the way. If they are dead, the can provide a good back story, angst and motivators. When alive, if they are not part of the plot, why write them? They are assumed, like the roof on a house, the breakfast your character eats, and the bathroom they use, that you never mention but we all know it's there if we really think about it.

    I wouldn't worry too much. I'm starting to see themes in my work, too, and start to worry about whether I'm copying myself... and then I let it go. I realize once these themes have written themselves out of my mind, I'll have new themes to work on. I just hope no one notices. ;)

  2. Iiinteresting. I know it's very popular in YA to have one or both parents out of the picture—sometimes it's even seen as a cliché.

    I think sometimes we do this as authors to help isolate the characters, so they have nowhere to turn and nothing to do but fight. (And we don't have to worry too much about their family involvement.)

    Let me think about my characters.... Most of them are single (one widowed, one divorced to date). Most of them have two living parents, but they live a ways away and the character isn't good at keeping up with them for various reasons (which do not include estrangement/bad childhood/etc.). Most of my characters have siblings (1-3).

    I do have a couple characters who stand out here. I had one character who lost her father in WWI (as a teenager), and she couldn't move on from that. And I have one now who lost her husband, mother and possibly a sibling in WWII. She's very close to her father, the last of her family.

    Again, interesting stuff!

  3. I tend to write stories with two sisters who have lots of little brothers, or two brothers with no other siblings. And either both parents or none. Or I write stories with two girls who aren't related, but pretend to be sisters.

    I'd never thought of this before, trying to find a pattern in family structures. Interesting thought! And you're right, it leaves open other family structures to write about and explore that you might not have thought of.

  4. This is a good topic to explore and something you can try out as at least trying would help in the long run.

    In my own writing, I have a variety. While a couple of the characters, mostly secondary but an occasional main character, are missing a parent or both there are many that have their parents. My mutant YA is one where the main character has both his parents. His mom works a lot and his father doesn't spend too much time with him but part of the tension comes from the fact that neither have genetic mutation like their son does. My adult mutant mc not only has both parents that are part of the story but also has a boyfriend he's going to have save from the villain. But in that one the villain takes on a father-role too, which made for an awkward yet interesting few chapters. lol

    While not having a parent or both gives certain freedoms and tension, I think having dynamic parents and having relationships can also create different conflicts that move a story forward as well. I mean, sure it's fun to read about someone who goes on adventures and fighting paranormal monsters for example. But imagine having someone who does that then has to deal with the family as well.

  5. I'm working on my second novel, a sequel to my first book, and the main character lost his parents when he was young. It just fit the story and his lack of willingness to connect with others.
    Meanwhile, my parents are still alive and happily married.
    If it works for you, why change it?

  6. @Luna: I think you're right. I just need to write out the themes until I'm done.

    @Jordan: I think it just makes good reading.

    @Amber: Good stuff.

    @Dawn: I like the "parents just don't understand" theme. I may have to include it in the YA concept I'm working on.

    @Alex: Yup. Go with flow.

  7. What a thought-provoking article! I agree with many of the points raised here about using an absent parent to evoke sympathy and a character need, but often it seems to me that the writer just wanted to avoid having to deal with family dynamics. And I understand why.

    If you have both parents present you have to create a story for each one. What's their history, how did they meet, do they get on, do they truly love their kids, or see them as accessories? Yet the only one we're really interested is the hero or heroine. So much time has to go into building the parents as 3D people in their own right, even if they only get a few lines of dialogue at the beginning of the novel, that it's a lot easier to just kill them off or have them go missing.


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