Image: Matthew Loffhagen
If I’ve learned anything from my own experience as a parent, it’s that children are mirrors. They bring out the best and worst in parents and reflect to us the truth about our deepest struggles, needs, and desires. They give their adults the opportunity to see themselves for what and who they truly are; what parents do with that information is up to them. This is great news for authors writing characters in the role of a parent, as it provides a wealth of possibilities for character development.
Of course, this cuts both ways, and there’s the risk that portraying a character in a parental role might render them unrealistic, or expose the flaws in your plotting. Here, then, is a list of Dos and Don’ts to help you get the benefits of a parent character without the flaws.
Don’t rely on clichés when you write about your parent character. The problem with a cliché is not that it isn’t true, it’s that it’s not mined for complexity. Your character might seem cliché on the surface – maybe he or she is the heartless, uncaring, absent parent; the perfect, selfless mother; or the harried soccer mom – but that shouldn’t be all they are. Don’t stop at the label.Being a parent is a complex role – don’t settle for clichéd labels.Click To Tweet
Do strive for authenticity in portraying these roles. To make a stereotype authentic, you have to identify the psychology behind the façade. What experiences, voices, and people shaped that workaholic father? Does he think his dollars are how society expects him to show his children love? Is he wrong? Is that perfect mom really so perfect? Is she doing what comes naturally, or seeking a specific kind of fulfillment?
Question your characters until you understand their motives, their desires, their fears, and their protective mechanisms. Is she afraid of what her children reveal to her about her deepest self? Is he so hurt by his past that he’s driven to create a different life for his children?
In Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, the titular character’s mother resents the limitations children place on her life. This is woven through her behavior and expressed in many forms – for example, in her decision to decorate a room with rare maps. Not only does this make the character seem more believable, but it opens up new possibilities for plot and metaphor; when Kevin destroys the maps, the moment gains a deliberate symbolic significance.
Don’t neglect the reality of a parent’s responsibility to their children. I’m not just talking about the day-to-day chores that come along with parenthood; many parents are also emotionally and mentally burdened by the reality of their children’s safety, happiness, health, education, and development. It’s another cliché that a mother lies in bed at night worrying about any number of things that could happen to her kids, but that’s because it’s a reality for so many parents. Even when their children are perfectly happy and healthy, parents are all too aware of the dangers around them at every moment. It’s not a constant burden, but it’s a very central part of the experience of being a parent.The responsibility of parenthood is a huge influence – don’t ignore it in your characters.Click To Tweet
Do develop your characters in a way that reflects their preoccupation with their children. Does your character worry that her children might get hurt or sick? Is he afraid he won’t be able to provide for their future? Then think about ways this preoccupation might manifest in a parent’s behavior and speech. Are they overprotective? Do they place unrealistic expectations or responsibilities on their kids? Are they up at night or working overtime to compensate for these anxieties?
In Terry Pratchett’s Thud!, this sense of responsibility is a central plot point. Here, Sam Vimes has sworn to read to his son at the same time every day, no matter what the circumstances. Later, faced with exhaustion and life-threatening danger, it’s only the drive to honor his promise that allows Vimes to triumph.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a parent’s value system. Every parent has a parenting philosophy that determines the way they’re bringing up their kids. For many, this is a conscious list of guiding principles, for other’s it’s an unconscious worldview that informs their decisions and interactions with their kids. But whether they’re intentional about it or not, every parent pulls from their own upbringing to form their parenting approach. For some, this means doing what their parents did, for others it means not doing what their parents did.Parenting isn’t just reactive, so give your characters an overriding philosophy.Click To Tweet
Do develop this parenting philosophy in your characters. This doesn’t have to be something overt that you explore during the story itself, but it can be a powerful tool to guide your character development. Is he a permissive parent? Is she overbearing? Do they push their kids too hard? Are they always making excuses for their kids’ bad behavior? What does this reveal about their own identity? Are they conscious or unconscious of this dynamic, and does that make them flexible to change or stubborn? There are a wealth of ways this aspect of a parent can inform their own self-awareness or lack thereof.
Perhaps one of the most famous parenting philosophies in literature comes from Roald Dahl’s Matilda.
I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
It may be simple, but it’s the consistent motivation behind Matilda’s clashes with various guardians, and one that’s struck a chord with generations of readers.
Writing a parent
There’s a central tension that many people face when they have children. They go from being their own person to being another person’s parent. Suddenly, their life is not all about them and their desires. It’s easy for a person to lose a sense of themselves, to forget where they end and their children begin. It brings a whole new level of complexity to a person and their family dynamic.
These three aspects of the parenting role – complexity, responsibility, and philosophy – can be useful tools for developing a believable and textured character. Imagining how these facets of a person inform their relationships, behaviors, and even speech patterns can help you avoid clichés and stereotypes and write more nuanced characters.
If you need some inspiration or you get stuck, interview a real-life parent. I guarantee they’ll have plenty to say!
What insights have you gained from writing a character who is a parent? How do you bring complexity to the roles of parents in your stories? Who are some of your favorite literary parents, and what have they taught you about your own characters? Let me know in the comments.
Or, for more on developing your characters, check out Get To Know Your Characters Better With This Novel Device and Don’t Let Fake Minor Characters Ruin Your Story.