Harry Potter. Frodo Baggins. Luke Skywalker. Katniss Everdeen. What do they have in common? Well, besides being heroes, they suffered the childhood loss of one or both of their parents. When my son was younger, it seemed that every book I read him had a protagonist with at least one dead or missing parent. And it’s not just fantasy. Tom Sawyer lives with his Aunt Polly. Jane Eyre is an orphan. Hamlet’s just lost his father. King Arthur doesn’t know his father. Many fairytales have wicked stepmothers. It’s hard to think offhand of any hero or heroine who still lives with both parents at the time the adventures begin.
I suspect that a lot of this is because an adventure story is also often an archetypal story about leaving home and entering adulthood. It’s about the hero’s self-actualization. It’s about the heroine learning to use her own agency. Killing off the parents is a symbolic representation of this journey. (Frodo and Bilbo are somewhat unique in being middle-aged when their adventures begin.)
Killing off parents also often serves useful plot purposes – death of a family member destroys a person’s support system, creates a reason for vengeance or a need for help, is the first sign of catastrophic evil, or in some other way becomes the shake that gets the story moving. Handled right, it can bring out rich emotional depth in the characters as they grieve or change their lives.
Wrecking the family before the story starts, however, also cuts off all sorts of interesting possibilities for a more complicated story. Human families are both fraught with conflict and a source of strength and motivation. This was something the Greek tragedians knew. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, so his wife Clytemnestra kills him, and then her son Orestes kills her. Oedipus famously kills his father and marries his mother, then goes wandering the earth with his daughters. Antigone chooses to bury her brother and is thus condemned to die by her uncle. The climactic point of The Iliad is not a battle scene, but is when Hektor’s father Priam comes to the Greeks and pleads to be allowed a proper burial of his son. I think this family drama is one of the things the gives Game of Thrones such broad appeal. Tangle families with politics and power, and there’s a recipe for limitless stories.
Family is one of the things I’ve tweaked in MOTH AND SPARK. Both protagonists come from families that get along internally. All four parents are still living. No hero-orphans here.
There are two main reasons that I did this. First, it’s a love story. When a person first falls in love, that’s one of the major points differentiating self from parents. I thought it would be interesting to have characters going through all those thoughts about love and family while family is still around to have an influence on the decisions. The normal tension of bringing home a significant other to meet the parents allows the characters to have all sorts of emotions they wouldn’t otherwise. The tension is even greater if you respect your parents and are worried they will disapprove of your choice.
Second, I did want to tangle family with politics and power. What’s it like to grow up knowing you’re going to inherit the family business when the family business is running the kingdom (instead of, say, a plumbing company)? What about when something as personal as marriage is reduced to obligation? How about being an adult who still has to take orders from the parents? It’s a situation that is pretty foreign to me as an ordinary middle-class person, and that made it interesting to speculate about. If I’d made the main royal character the king instead of an adult prince, a lot of family dynamics would have evaporated.
MOTH AND SPARK tells a story about each of its two main characters fulfilling a quest with support only from each other and not from their families. Tam and Corin are in fact cut off by distance and events from their families in the last part of the book, so in that sense the novel fits the familiar pattern. Independence from one’s family means family members can’t help. However, once the quest is achieved, family is back in the picture. Independence exists within the context of relationships.
Fantasy as a genre does more than retell fairytales. It allows for the exploration of possibilities that don’t exist in the “real” world. As a reader (and, I admit, as a parent) I’d like to see more stories where family dynamics influence the hero or heroine through the entire book, rather than being a backdrop. As a writer, I want to dig a lot deeper into this area.
People unfamiliar with the genre often dismiss fantasy as not about important or real things. Sometimes that’s the case, and there’s nothing wrong with escapism. But fantasy families can have the same experiences and rich emotional lives that literary realism families do, and I hope that as the genre grows and expands, we’ll see more fantasies where family matters.
Anne Leonard lives in Northern California. She has degrees from St. John’s College, the University of Pittsburgh, Kent State University, and University of California-Hastings College of Law. Leonard began MOTH AND SPARK while attending the University of California-Hastings College of Law (where she graduated cum laude) eking out a few hours on weekends or a half hour on the bus, or wherever she had the chance. After 3 years, she had a draft, but ultimately decided to practice law first. At last readers will be introduced to the deadly harsh steppe lands of Sarian, to the white-barked tree-lined streets of Caithenor.