A Special Character Cliché: Parents

In some children/YA books, parents can be reduced to cardboard clichés in order to be seen 'at the edges' of a story without being in danger of taking it over. Why is this? Simply because to create a realistic environment, we may need a parental presence. Mom or Dad get a scene or two using the walk-on cliché in order to include them in the story. Mom might stroll into her daughter's sleepover to drop off a bowl of popcorn or Dad might drop the gang off at the mall with a be good now, kids speech. Either way, many walk-ons are filler, and have no other purpose than to show that yes, the Main Character does have parents.

I'll just say this on the subject: rarely is filler a good thing.

So, let's look at relevant scenes with parents. Most books have parents taking on a minor role in order to let the plot and the young protagonists flourish. However, this doesn't mean that in characterizing good old Ma and Pa we need to resort to the cliché.

Here are a few scenarios I see much too often:

Dad whips up a batch of his famous pancakes to give Mom a break

Ring a bell? Sure, sometimes it's waffles or omelets, but always it's famous. Any way you stir it, this scene is usually a 'coffee break' in disguise--a chance to hash over story events or discuss a problem.

So does this mean that asking for advice, sharing worries or bouncing around ideas with a DNA donor is a bad idea? No, not at all. Parents are there to guide, to help. However, choosing a mealtime as the circumstance for a discussion draws bright red arrows to the coffee break plot device. If you need to pick a parent's brain, try cornering Dad as he hoses down the driveway or Mom as she jots a quick email to work.

Mom washing the dishes or preparing a meal/baking cookies

Another regular feature, with a familiar setting: the kitchen. I understand that the kitchen is a place where the family interacts on a regular basis, but it's used so often it has become predictable. The sum of Mom's life is not cooking, cleaning and straightening and to portray it as such is to fall into another cliché.

There are lots of places where your character can get Mom's attention, and it doesn't have to include her in the kitchen slaving over a pie. Maybe she's attacking dandelions in the flowerbeds like a deranged lunatic or spying on a neighbor. What if she's checking little Bobby's head for lice again because another notice came home from school? Stretch your imagination and give us a setting and circumstance that reveals something about Mom, which in turn sheds light on the MC's home life. Does Mom deal with life's moments with humor? Is she a control freak?

Bottom line...unless the mom in your story is baking a poisoned cake or flinging plates at the walls, try to avoid a kitchen scene. Chances are you can find a stronger setting and more original circumstance with a bit of thought.

Mom and Dad act clueless over a slight or unfair treatment toward a sibling

Now, while sibling rivalry and feeling slighted are common themes, showing it through clueless parents shouldn't be. Parents aren't clueless. They do pick their battles, they do sometimes choose the easy route rather than adhering to a stringent on-the-line fair, but our brains in la-la land clueless? No.

I have no issue with a MC feeling they are being treated unfairly--by all means, this is something that all young readers can identify with. But please, show those parents acknowledge they're being unfair "I know it's your brother's turn to do the recycling, but he has to get this science project done by tomorrow" etc, etc.

Other parental clichés to avoid:

--Dad reading the paper (don't most people read it online these days?)
--Mom doing mountains of laundry (yawn)
--Going out to a pizza restaurant or getting pizza delivery for dinner (Thai, anyone?)
Mom and Dad distracted or too busy for the character's concerns Often this is used because it's an easy way to force the child character to work on their own. If you use it, make sure you back it up. Make it a last resort, not the first.
--Using a child's mistake to preach (ACK! Die moral police, die!) Never preach. The strongest discoveries and best lessons come from within, not having a parent tell you why your actions were wrong. Save that for when your dog pees on the rug.

Care to add to the list? What parental clichés do you see happen frequently in books? Which ones bother you the most?

18 comments:

Kate said...

You've done it again! I had Mum straighten up from the stove just yesterday. I'm off to make her sit down with a nice cup of coffee right now!

Dads who come home from work and immediately start playing with the kids always get me. They don't exist in reality, do they? If you know one, send him my way?

How Publishing Really Works said...

You've exposed a pet hate of mine here: cliched characters with poor development and a Stepford-like quality to their actions. You've made a good analysis here, and one I've not seen online before.

Jane

Marian said...

My mom and I had a lot of conversations while she did the ironing. I don't think I've ever read of moms doing ironing in books, but the end result of that was that I now enjoy ironing.

She would also make me wax her legs while she watched TV. I'm not so much into waxing. :)

liss n kids said...

*Mentally does inventory of ms and is relieved to find a lack of kitchen scenes!*

So true! I read a lot of YA/MG novels, and I've seen every one of these scenarios multiple times! So far my main character has had his main parental conversation while attacking a hedge. Boys do more talking while working, anyway, or riding in the car. Anywhere that they're not face to face. Over the dinner table you're likely to get a lot of murmured "nothing" and "I guess."

Great blog! :)

Angela said...

Kate--lol. How about people can send them both our ways?

Jane--thanks. I do recognize it is tough to make parents feel 'real' with such small parts in a novel, but it can be done without resorting to the unual scenarios/Stepford qualities.

Marian--Leg waxing? Wow, now that belongs in a book...or a therapy session, lol.

Liss--good observation about boys. I agree, they'd be more likey to bring up something bugging them if they could concentrate on something else.

Pema said...

One of my favorite examples of the realistic mother is from Mitch Albom's "For One More Day". Yeah, the mother will slap you sometimes. Yes, the kid will get annoyed and treat the mother unfairly. The perfect situation? No. But perfectly realistic and truthful? Absolutely.

courtney said...

I love love love these character cliche run downs, because they're funny, true, pointed & smart. Aah, pwnage. It is a joy to read.

Just_Me said...

Kate: yes, Dad's who come home and play with kids exist. My DH handles laundry, kid playing after work, and bed time stories every night. And, no, you can't have him.

What I really dislike is the "Dumb Parent" cliche. The parents are absent minded and let the children do anything, including building rockets, selling toothpaste (it's an old book), and saving the world. I don't know if the cliche bothered me as much when I was younger but as an adult I look at TV shows and YA books and go, "Where the &#&$ are the parents???"

Not every parent is inattentive. Not every mother wears an apron. Not every Dad can only cook one food (or nothing). And not every kid is an unattended brat who needs to be taken out back or have their mouth washed out with soap.

.... All things considered maybe there's a reason I don't like children's books or YA.

Angela said...

Just_me, can I have him, then? J/K!!

Great additions to the cliches. Thanks for adding your thoughts Courtney, Pema and Just_me. I think realistic and truthful is what we should all try for.

FinnFactory said...

not only books -- but all media has this disease...and why are Grandparents always old and gray haired? you hit a nerve here, I agree --- i don't even think it's a lack of creative energy on the writer's part, just think that it is so lodged in our brain that it naturally comes out onto the page -- a big no, no. Mom wearing an apron, Dad coming home to kiss the wife, mowing the lawn in shorts (thanks for the memories TV dad!).

Angela said...

Good point on the grandparents. That really resonates with me, because I had kids in my early 20's, so likely I can expect grandkids possibly when I'm 45-50. White haired and old? I don't think so!

Marcia said...

The grandma cliche gets to me. The one where she's plump, smells like cinnamon,and wears a housedress,an apron and a bun.

I think this (and the mother-in-kitchen cliche, or any of them, really)comes from the writer reaching back into his or her own childhood for an adult figure rather than considering how adults are now. MY grandma looked like the above -- but if my grandma were alive today she'd be 122. We need to update.

This is a great blog!

mrh (from Verla's)

Mary Witzl said...

You have such useful, intelligent posts, and best of all, I TOTALLY agree with them!

Even if parents are fairly shadowy figures, what is shown of them should be true to life and believable. Sure, the story shouldn't be about them, but treating them as individuals makes the whole story more compelling and interesting. And even if they're awful people, we want some glimmer of insight into why that is so -- and preferably, their very awfulness should not be in itself a cliche.

Eek: a mother attacking dandelions in the flowerbeds like a deranged lunatic? Have you been spying on me?

Angela said...

I think this (and the mother-in-kitchen cliche, or any of them, really)comes from the writer reaching back into his or her own childhood for an adult figure rather than considering how adults are now.

I think this is exactly right!

Lol, Mary! *grins and says nothing*

colbymarshall said...

Thank goodness for no mom in kitchen scenes in the WIP...phew! I was worried for a second there!

Creative A said...

Love these character cliche posts. They're pretty great. Once again, you hit it head-on...I've read so many YA books with stand-in parents that it drives me nuts.

Other cliches:
The pesty parent who is kinda clueless but keeps butting their head in MC's business, and is totally shocked when they discover what the MC is really up to - but oh, it's ok, you poor thing, I'm just glad it's not Something Worse.

Or, the "how was your day at school?" scene as MC runs past with a "fine mom."

The workaholic mom and the frazzled, distracted scientist dad.

Great list :)

-A
www.headdeskforwriters.blogspot.com

Zoe Tweedale said...

I love your character posts!
clueless parents are more common than you would think: their 16 year old kids come back from a party, trashed, smashed, high and with an STD or two and they wonder why little Johnny's not feeling well after watching movies at Tommy's place. Honestly. I've been trying to avoid cliches in my work in progress, and I think the 'Mentor Figure' in childeren's/YA fiction needs a bit of looking into. S/he's the oposite of the sketcked in parent: the wize, helpful 'Mr exposition' who is nevertheless, despite the lengthy scenes, often a complete cliche.

Angela said...

Colby--lucky you! I have a few kitchen scenes to send down the garbarator...

Creative--great additions--Thanks!!

Zoe--good points, especially about the Mentor figure (why are they always teachers??)

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