Friday, April 15, 2011

Getting Rid of Mom!

Moms can be a real problem for children's writers.

It's not that they mean to be. But when Mom is hanging out in our stories (or Dad or Grandma or a teacher), these adults can tend to take care of our young characters too much.

Now, in real life: Taking care of our kids = good parenting.

In fiction: Taking care of kids = less opportunity for our child characters to solve problems for themselves.

Recently, my critique group caught me. In my latest work-in-progress, I began to fall into "The Mommy Trap".

My young protagonist needed to go off an adventure. How could his parents let him do something so crazy? my Mommy mind questioned. So I spent my opening two chapters spending lots of time convincing Mom that it was safe.

In real life, this would be the right thing to do. After all, a mom is supposed to keep her child safe.

But in fiction, this put way to much focus on my protagonist's mom-- and way too little focus on him.

Of course, that's why so many of my favorite books as a child were about orphans like Anne of Green Gables. But even if their parents were around, the grown ups basically had to be unaware of all the crazy adventures happening right in their very own homes. And they definitely couldn't jump in and solve the problem!

So, I'm going back to rewrite. Mom is still going to be there, but my protagonist is going to take center stage.

If he doesn't, it won't make for a very interesting book. And I think my main character and his problem are pretty interesting. :o)

So, do you ever have problems keeping grown ups from dominating your children's stories? How do you keep them from taking over?


  1. Don't get rid of mom! This topic comes up alot in my critique group. I don't know what the answer is, but many of us feel there are way too many orphaned/neglected kids in kids lit! Wouldn't it be interesting to find a way to incorporate parents in a meaningful way- without letting them dominate the story?

  2. Hi CL--

    Thanks so much for voicing an opposing viewpoint! I really appreciate it.

    In fact, I wasn't actually planning on getting rid of mom to solve my problem. (I just couldn't resist the opportunity to give the post a dramatic title. :o) )

    My current plan is to have her there, but to make it logical for her to accept this crazy adventure (as opposed to having her a. dominate the opening two chapters or b. look completely clueless when she agrees to something that no normal parent would agree to.) Hopefully with this "logical" reason in place, Mom can be there without dominating my scenes. :o)-- Thank you for the great idea, J.A.!

    I can think of books where the parents are there and do care but still don't overly dominate the story. (I love the mom in "Al Capone does my Shirts". You can tell how very much she cares, but there is plenty of space for Moose to have his adventures.) I hope that the mom in my opening scenes is meaningful (she and my protagonist have a good mother-son relationship), but by getting rid of the need for her to object, I will just be getting rid of a real plot sticking point... if that makes any sense.

    Now, if only I can write it so it works like that. :o)

  3. I know it's not a book, but when I read this post, The Incredibles came to mind. I love the way mom and dad play central roles, but each child has a pivotal part that enables her or her to solve at least one major problem-usually to help get mom and dad out of trouble--and experience character growth. What a well-crafted screenplay!

  4. As my fellow Paper Waiters know, the parents of the MC in my YA WIP are very important. In the first draft, Dad was definitely hogging way too much air time. And Mom didn't really have much going on other than dealing with her son. But that is the stuff of first drafts, right? In draft two, Mom and Dad are just as important, but Dad is a continent away and Mom has more in her life than just being a mom.

    Sarah Zarr handles parents beautifully. Once Was Lost is a great example of teen-parent conflict that always keeps the MC front and center and thinking like a teen.

  5. There are many ways to "get rid" of the parents without really getting rid of them.

    Check out Marian Dane Bauer's 1987 Newbery Honor book, ON MY HONOR. The father gives the MC permission to do "something so crazy" thinking the boy is up to the responsibility. Unfortunately, something goes horribly wrong and both characters, father and son, have to live with the consequences.

    Also, Suzanne Collins's the Underland Series bring the parents along on the journeys, but then incapacitates them somehow so Gregor has to make the decisions.

  6. I am loving these examples! Thank you all so much!

    J.L.-- I will definitely have to check out The Incredibles!

    J.A.-- Once Was Lost is now on my to read list! (And I loved your analysis of how you are shifting the emphasis away from Mom and Dad in your WIP!)

    Meg-- Thanks for more great ways to "get rid" of parents without really getting rid of them!

  7. Well, my problem was with my villain, not the mom!
    My current WIP is a middle grade steampunk. As it is basically historical fantasy/scifi, it wasn't too hard to get rid of the parents - but then my other adult characters started to become more interesting than my young protagonists. Whoops.