How Parental Influence Defines the Main Characters of YA and MG Literature

We’ve talked before about parents and other adults being absent in YA and MG literature. But whether or not parents are present in a novel, they greatly affect the composition of  the main character. In fact, parents might just be the most important element in creating deep characters for YA and MG novels. Here are a couple of examples of how main characters are defined by their parents’ influence:

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

Why is Katniss a hardened huntress destined for success in the arena? Because her mother is practically cataonic with grief over her father’s death and her family’s suffering. It’s up to Katniss to find food for her family, a responsibility that both forces Katniss to find skill in hunting and leaves her emotionally hardened. Since her mother’s mental absence also leaves Katniss in charge of caring for a younger sister, it’s no surprise Katniss comes to serve as protector to a young girl (Rue) in the arena. So Katniss’s defining traits stem mostly from the role her mother has played (or failed to play) in her life.

Feed (M. T. Anderson)

We can easily understand why Titus, the main character of Feed, is a shallow, fun-seeking consumer so immature as to deem the entire planet of Jupiter “stupid” after he travels there on vacation: he is a mirror of his society. But the picture becomes even more clear every time Titus’s dad pops into the story because we see that his dad is just as shallow. He uses words like dude and girlf and says things like “Do you know how inefficient trees are, next to an air factory?”

Contrast him with Violet’s father. Violet is quite different from all the other teens in the book, mostly because she had her feed (an internet connection in the brain) installed relatively late in her childhood. She uses a larger vocabulary and tries to fight the constant barrage of materialism from her feed. Once we meet her father, a professor who has only a homemade feed and uses phrases like “observe the remarkable verdure,” Violet’s character becomes even more understandable. Her father tries to speak “only in irony” so his words can’t be simplfied–his way to preserve what he feels is a dying language; Violet tries to confuse her feed by creating complicated, unpredictable spending patterns. They are two of a kind.

Which characters in YA and MG literature do you see as being defined by their parents’ influence? Or have I overstated the importance of parental influence in creating deep characters?

Parker Peevyhouse

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6 responses to “How Parental Influence Defines the Main Characters of YA and MG Literature

  1. Interesting insight, P. Never really thought about that before, but I can think of examples of MCs that are both like their parents or who act as they do largely in reaction to parents. Good noodling material.

  2. This really shows what an integral part parents play (or should be playing) in the main character’s lives. Too often I think authors/writers try to sweep parents under the rug and pretend they don’t exist, when they could so clearly be used as a defining force in their characters lives.

  3. Excellent food for thought, delicious even. I think any fully developed character is affected by their parents, even if they can’t remember them. (Harry Potter.)

    FIRE by Kristin Cashore is on my brain right now and it’s a great example of how a parent shapes the character. Cansrel had a huge affect in the way Fire chose to use her power, and ultimately make very difficult/controversial decisions, but his presence in the book is relatively minor.

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      Liesl, so true how large a part Cansrel plays in FIRE considering he’s not even alive! His influence on Fire was probably her largest conflict in the story.

  4. LaWanica

    Another great post. I completely agree with everyone. I used to roll my eyes at the “orphan” syndrome that plagues MG and YA fiction in general. I always thought it was just too easy of a “fix” for pesky adults. The good writers always address how this orphanhood affects the main character, rather than bask in the freedom of not having to deal with adults and everything they bring along with them. It’s okay to be “clever” when trying to get your main characters on their own, but that has to be addressed. How does that affect the character if their parents are never home, or are dead, or died when they were very young, or live in another village… Adults (or lack thereof) are just as important in our own upbringings, and that shouldn’t be forgotten, even when our characters are bent on saving the world. How they save it and why, comes from who they are on the inside, and that’s shaped by who played a role in raising them.

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      Good points. It can be hard to figure out how an orphaned character has been affected by his missing parents without falling into cliche. Some authors come up with interesting psychological details, though.

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