How to Write (or not write) Families in a YA Novel

Feb 21, 2011

The LTUE conference is now over, and it makes me a little sad. One of my absolute favorite things about conferences is connecting with people, and I was able to connect with a lot of people! Seeing old friends and meeting new ones makes my heart happy.
Me with an old friend (David, whose blog I yoinked the picture from) and a new friend (Kate, who is an amazing teen writer).

And of course, I learned a ton. One of the panels in particular made me think. It was about the "orphan phenomenon" that occurs in YA-- you know, the fact that every hero/heroine either has no family or a disfunctional/disconnected one.

The basic consensus is that this happens because YA books are about teens finding themselves. If they have a supportive, functional family, they have someone to run to who helps solve their problems. And the character needs to solve their own problems for a YA novel to ring true.

There were some things in the panel that I agreed with, and some I disagreed with, but here's my basic takeaway: whether your character is an orphan or has a huge family, there MUST be a reason for it.

In the book Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (which I HIGHLY recommend), family is a huge deal-- the MC's brother has died, and much of the book is her coming to terms with it (and dealing with parents who, in their own ways, aren't coming to terms with it themselves). In The Maze Runner by James Dashner (another great book), no one has a family-- they're all amnesiac teens trapped in a gigantic, death-filled maze.

In both of these cases, the inclusion or exclusion of a family is purposeful, with a good reason that is tied to the plot. It makes sense within the story. Creating an orphan character simply so she can run off and save the world without a curfew isn't good enough.

Of course, your character is the one saving the world. They need to be the ones to solve the story problem, and have a reason not to run to their family to solve things. The family doesn't have to be gone, but there needs to be a reason your teen can't rely on them.

In my own stories, family usually plays a key role, but there are always REASONS the teen has to solve the problem on their own. In Devolutionaries, Ash's grandfather (his parental figure) is the problem-- he's been kidnapped. In The Unhappening of Genesis Lee, Gena knows her overprotective parents would flip out if they knew who she was working with to solve the problem, so she doesn't turn to them.

Whether you make your character an orphan or give them a family (dysfunctional or otherwise), you'll be facing cliches and stereotypes. To avoid them, just make sure whatever you do is purposeful. If you give reasons within your story for things to be the way they are, you can make just about anything work.

So, my friends, what are your thoughts? Do you write orphans or characters with family? Do you think YA books need more families-- or need more orphans? What books have you read (or written!) that makes either situation work or not work?

And remember, this is the last week to enter the raffle for a chance to win a critique from agent Sarah LaPolla and editor C.A. Marshall! Go enter for a chance to win-- and to help a few kids in Africa get an education!


David P. King said...

Say. That picture looks familiar! Nah. I knew you were yoinking it. Yoink away :)

I missed this panel, so thanks a million for covering it. I've only written one orphan (my first book of course), a few with single parents and a dysfunctional couple, but not a full family who has it together. There is room for that in future installments, though. And you are right. Anything you write for characters needs a purpose.

Again, excellent post.

Jennifer Hoffine said...

Yes, The huge percentage of dead parents in YA has always bugged me...I think the history of this does have its roots in older children's lit...Like, there's only on Disney Princess who has both parents (Sleeping Beauty), and most of those stories come from fairy tales.

I do agree that the family should fit the story (great advice!). But I also think having more dysfunctional families where both parents are alive would be more representative of what a larger percentage of teens are actually dealing with today.

Misha Gerrick said...

So true. I think that anything in a story must have a reason.

As it happens, parental issues are something that all of my characters have in common. One of the few things in fact.

Everything with a plot orientated reason.


Angie said...

Loved LTUE. Loved seeing you there. I don't write YA, so I didn't go to that panel. It's an interesting topic. I know one of the things that annoys me about YA is that parents are largely idiots. As a mother to YA age kids, that bugs me. Good thoughts, Shallee.

BK Mattingly said...

Great points and advice. I like the stories where there is an example of a happy, somewhat normal family along with some dysfunctional or non-existent families. I like that they cover a range of family types.

Jolene Perry said...

This is a very timely post because I'm in the middle of a project right now in dealing with the family of a 17 year old boy. It's been fun, but I agree when writing YA - it's hard sometimes to find that balance between family and no family because we want them to have that independence.

mshatch said...

I definitely agree that there has to be a reason. In my story grimoire there was a good reason for my mc being an orphan. In my current tale, my mc has both her parents and I plan to make use of the fact.

great post.

Kari Marie said...

I've often wondered about the no parent thing. I'll be starting a YA novel soon and part of the premise of the girls life is her kooky family. I'll keep your thoughts in mind about purpose. Thanks!

Sangu Mandanna said...

Great, great post! I've heard agents and editors talk about the orphan phenomenon before and it always makes me think of how it can be done in a new, surprising or purposeful way that makes sense - your post covers all the main points, I think!

Talei said...

Really informative post! I have noticed the YA orphan trend, and I guess it does make sense if they're saving the world. I also agree that there needs to be a purpose for why they are orphaned or otherwise.

For my MS, my MC still keeps her family but she lives away from them.

Have a wonderful writing week!'-)

Anonymous said...

I love the general advice to give everything a purpose to avoid stereotypes. :D Thanks for sharing! Glad you had fun at LTUE.

Anonymous said...

Two of my YA books don't have an orphan character, but my new wip does. I see the MC as an island onto herself, at times running to her friends but it's up to her to save herself.

Jessica Ann Hill said...

Great post! I don't write YA, though I do read quite a bit of it. I don't think there needs to be more or less orphans. I think it's all about how it is addressed and either way, it needs to be done with a purpose.

Hermana Maw said...

I've thought about this a lot. Thanks for the reminder to make sure there is a purpose behind everything. :)

Karen said...

Often times, I don't really notice whether families are present or not in stories. But when I usually notice, it's often because the adults take over. One of my biggest pet peeves with Fablehaven was that the adults took over way too much. And it was annoying. Granted, the kids were the ones who always solved the big major problem in the end, but that was after a whole book of having them being pushed aside by adults. I guess that can have kind of a cool impact, but still...I think it's best when you don't have to think much about whether adults have a role in the book or not. That's usually when it's done well.

Christina Lee said...

Yes to Revolution and Maze Runner!! Yep, I recently had this same conversation. I've read so many non-existant families in YA that I find it refreshing when a family is more intact (and I've wriiten my stories that way too--at least one of the parents).

writing snippets said...

LTUE did Rock it this year! I missed that panel also. I like your question, since this has been debated in our writers group for a few years now. In my YA epic fantasy I do have my main character have a parent, becuase it is such a driving force for the story. My other YA urban fantasy character has a family too and again it is pinnacle to the story. So yes. Family is important in my stories.
Thanks, Lillian

Abby Minard said...

This is great- I actually wrote a post about this the other day that I haven't posted yet ;p I love this phenomenon. My crit group and I were talking (there are 4 of us) and we all came to the conclusion that our mc's parents are either dead or out of the picture. Your reasoning is so right. We can't have the parents in the way of the teen's personal journey. It makes it more believable when a teen goes on this crazy journey when the parents aren't around to ground him or whatever. Great post Shallee!

RaShelle Workman said...

LOVED Revolution! The orphan issue is def one to think about. The way I deal with it is I try to think about things from the parents POV. The fact of the matter is MOST parents have lives of their own and whether we want to believe it or not a lot of teens DO solve problems on their own. Sure, in a teen fiction novel this is enhanced, but it doesn't have to be overdone.
Now I say that and then I think of my MC's. The girl has loving parents who are King and Queen (problems that keep them away from their daughter. They don't want to be away, but it's part of what they must do). The boy MC has an abusive mother who's around too much. Anyhoo. There ya go.

Great post! =D

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