A Tradition in Fiction: Killing Parents

If anyone knows about death, it's Sean Bean

If anyone knows about death, it’s Sean Bean

First, I know there are exceptions to the above meme like ‘Brave’ and ‘Peter Pan’.  That’s not the point here.

A recent thought crossed my mind and led me to look at the parentage of the champions.  I have 2 orphans by murder of parents, 1 orphan by battlefield death of parents, 1 orphan by getting separated from parents, and 2 with both parents alive.  Due to spoiler issues, I’m not going into details about them.  All I will say is that one of the heroes with living parents has a lot of family dysfunction.  That leaves ONE with a family life that is unmarred by death or loss.  A really interesting result that I created so casually without a second thought.

It isn’t really strange to have characters with dead or simply missing parents.  The orphan turning into a hero is fairly common even before Harry Potter.  Some stories don’t even touch on the parents, which people don’t really question depending on the genre.  A big reason for this is to give the sense that the hero has no family to look out for him or her.  It creates a sense of isolation when the character heads into danger.  Mom and dad aren’t around to protect them or give advice.  It’s an important piece of social foundation that is missing.  You can replace it with a mentor type, but there is a unique sensation that comes off a parent/child dynamic.  Even adopted parents have this.  I think it stems from an interest in more than the hero’s skills and future.  A mother and father will show concern for their child in all aspects.  Possibly even becoming an obstacle that turns into one of those standard ‘rebellion’ stories.

Another reason for killing or removing parents is because it is an easy way to put angst and pain into a character.  Want your hero to lose faith or scream helplessly to the heavens? Want him to be emotionally numb or out for brutal revenge?  Well, one good way to do that is to have the bad guys kill mommy.  Maybe the father, but the mother tends to be in there somewhere.  With fathers, you tend to have the absent, unknown, or died before the story began scenario.  I don’t think killing daddy has the same impact as killing mommy.  We tend to put more weight behind the mother/child relationship since most stories put fathers in the provider role instead of the caretaker one.  Then again, there’s always Inigo Montoya.

Inigo Montoya Princess Bride

Inigo Montoya Princess Bride

Now I do think genre and setting play a role in this.  A world where violence is common would have a higher chance of set an event happening.  For example, a post-apocalyptic dystopia like the Shattered States.  We expect there to be death in such a world and parents tend to be fair game since they’re working on protecting their children.  The bad guys are more inclined to kill here too.  Now, a genre like Romance might not have such a ‘death friendly’ setting.  There are ways to do it, but going too far could make things a little far-fetched.  If the female lead lost her mother to cancer and father to a mugging while the male lead lost his mother to a bizarre zoo accident and his father died in the boxing ring then you may have gone too far.  All of those are viable by themselves or in pairs, but sometimes it gets silly when everyone is an orphan by extreme circumstances.  How often do protagonists’ parents die of old age anyway?  I guess you have those elderly kings that pass on and leave a bunch of heirs to fight over the kingdom.  By the way, that always ends with the bastard child nobody knew about inadvertently stumbling his or her way to the throne.

This is a very big topic that everyone has their own opinion on since everyone has a different sense of family.  Even those in the same position will find that their thoughts on the subject vary.  As far as fiction goes, I can come up with several theories as to why there is a parent killing tradition.  Builds up the hero, removes characters with impact, makes the villain seem more evil, sets up a backstory, and many more.

So, what do you think about this part of fiction?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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42 Responses to A Tradition in Fiction: Killing Parents

  1. Batman. ‘Nuff said.

    Oh, all right. And Oedipus. Which gets us to the “I’m an orphan ’cause I killed my parents” kind of story. Does that count?

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  2. My book left me with nothing to do with the parents, so about a third through the book, I just stopped mentioning them. Oh, they’re still there. They just don’t matter.

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  3. L. Marie says:

    Great topic! I’ve heard people complain about Disney’s penchant for killing parents. Sometimes I think they overdo this trope. (Maybe they realized that. I don’t want to give a spoiler, but something changed in the recent Pixar movie.) But I can understand the need to neutralize the parents and any other authority figures who might come along and “rescue” the main character.

    Since I usually write about alienated characters, one of my teen heroines has lost a dad; the other is an orphan. That’s just the way I saw them when I developed their characters. The one who lost a dad early on was adopted by a two-parent family. So she has some parental figures. The other one has a grandmother.

    In my middle grade series, my characters come from two-parent households. I didn’t see the need for them to be parent-less. So I had to come up with other ways to get the parents out of the way.

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    • Not sure which Pixar movie you’re talking about. Though Mulan and Brave had living parents. The funny thing with Disney is that most of their stuff stems from old works like mythology and folklore. I think we do point a finger at them more because they do children’s movies like Bambi, Lion King, and The Good Dinosaur.

      While writing this comment, I looked at the Disney section of my DVD collection. There are a lot more with ‘absent/never mentioned’ parents or one parent. So the hate does seem a little misplaced when compared to the parental graveyard that’s comic books. 😀

      You bring up a good point. Where do adopted parents fit into this? Superman’s birth parents died in his origin, but he has his adopted parents. Both might still be alive in the comics even though the movies love killing Jonathan Kent. In my own works, Nyx lost her birth parents long before her introduction. So she has her adopted parents, which still gives her a sense of family. Maybe having the death happen during a story is a different thing.

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      • L. Marie says:

        The movie is Zootopia. I don’t mind saying directly what changed. But my younger brother gets mad if I say anything about a movie he wants to say, so I try to keep mum on spoilers. 🙂

        I agree that adopted parents are usually forgotten in the equation, though they provide so much love and support. Even Alfred is like a surrogate dad for Bruce Wayne.

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      • That was a fun movie. I didn’t even think of parents in that one. Shows that not every hero needs that plot hook or even the folks to get involved.

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  4. twixie13 says:

    I usually end up sort of numb to it, especially if the parents die prior to the story. I also think I may be sort of guilty of this one, myself… Two of my characters lost their mother when the younger of the two was born (leading to a childhood of abuse), though they did end up being adopted after he finally threw them out. Then there are the two sets of twins that grew up in a lab. Neither set really knew their parents, period. And only one set of parents there is confirmed to be dead. No word on the others’. Of the main good characters, there’s one that made it all the way to adulthood with two living parents. Only for them to die in book 4. Of course, with the sets of twins, they’d really had each other and some of the doctors at the lab for family for the most part.

    But yeah. I’m way more likely to be hit by the death of a character’s parent(s) if we see at least some interaction with them first.

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    • I’m guilty too. Think it’s such an easy tragedy to write into a character. It’s also something that nearly everyone faces at some point in their lives. So there’s a sense of relatability as well as personal fear in there.

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  5. Nothing builds character development than to kill off a few family members. It is usually good when this happens while the character is young so we have the angst of the character growing up under the cloud of revenge. (and maybe having to make it on their own)

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  6. I think it’s been done for centuries. If they aren’t dead, they are far removed and inaccessible. I’m thinking King Arthur here, but it’s nearly the same thing with Luke and Vader. In my new book, Gina’s parents are gone. In Wisp, Patty had a mother and step father, but dad was dead. Similar situation in Cock of the South. Makes me want to rethink this from now on. Some scenarios become low hanging fruit, and there is sweeter stuff if you put a little more effort in. I’ve even done a version of this to the Yak Guy. At least Lisa Burton was manufactured, and had no parents.

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  7. noelleg44 says:

    What an interesting post! I hadn’t thought that about Disney, but you lured me in with the picture of Sean Bean! Anyway, the killing of parents occurs in real life, so why not deal with it in fiction?
    It’s a great way to build tension and amplify your character.

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  8. adeleulnais says:

    Loved The Sean Bean meme. This post made me think. In one book Wisp, his parents were abducted and killed. In the Suleskerry books, the parents are still alive for the main characters but there are good reasons for that. Hmmmm,

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  9. People do tend to turn to their parents for emotional support and advice. And, in the case of young characters, parents have this way of swooping in to save them from having any adventures at all because it might be dangerous! Having the parents be absent in some way forces the “hero” to stand on their own and removes that obstacle of loving parental interference.

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