Parents are cannon fodder!
I have your attention now, yes? There is a prevailing trope in fiction that parents are essentially used for the hero or heroine’s character development (if they’re fortunate) by dying at some point in the story. The absence/killing off of parents is a very prominent staple of fantasy books, right along with absentee parents and “oh, look, that is my dad bent on ruling the world” syndrome. Okay, the last one can apply to the hero or heroine’s mom too, but it is usually their dad. Off the top of my head, I can name Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings (Aragorn, Frodo, Eowyn and Eomer among others), The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Kate Daniels series, Divergent, and Hunger Games as books across the different fantasy subgenres that all have at least one parent who is dead or dies. Okay, I’ll throw in Star Wars too just because it’s combined parents are cannon fodder with absentee parent and “My dad’s an evil overlord” all in one angst-riddled character arc…and that’s only pulling from the movies.
Now, even I have written stories where the parents must die in the backstory because it would have thrown my plot out the window if they had lived. However, I have made the decision to defy the trope in my WIP urban fantasy and not only have the parents live but they’re happily married without neglecting their children in the process. What if more Christian fantasy writers dared to defy the All Heroes are Orphans trope instead of defaulting to using parents as cannon fodder because it’s the easy solution? I think it would be interesting and maybe a little more in keeping with “Honor your father and mother” than killing all the parents. But, in all seriousness, while it is true that the heroes who come from broken homes or are orphans are very relatable to children experiencing the same situation, the lack of parents who are competent, survive, and have a loving relationship with each other and their children (note: this does not mean everything is rosy and perfect) can send a rather detrimental message about parents in general or even imply that children who are not orphans or from broken homes cannot be heroes. Not every fantasy book with the orphan hero falls into this unfortunate implication, Harry Potter, for example, does rather well in providing heroes who are in both situations with Harry being the orphan and Ron and Hermione both coming from homes with loving parents.
I do think that there are stories which cannot be written without getting rid of at least one parent (it’s usually the mom) to drive the hero down a specific character development arc. However, there are also stories where I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the author hadn’t opted for the easy route of parent cannon fodder. Sometimes it even feels as though the parent cannon fodder trope was enacted as a copout to avoid spending time developing the parents as characters. These are the stories where you don’t know but you still suspect it would have been more potent and more interesting to keep the parents around to introduce how the hero’s character development would affect the established family dynamic. There is obvious conflict when the parents have been unjustly executed or made the big heroic sacrifice to keep their child alive or perhaps to show how they finally approve the child’s heroic destiny. But, what about the unexplored conflict of the parents who are commenting about their child’s destiny and how they don’t approve of going all the way to the mountain of menace to destroy some enchanted sword because back in their day they let the evil minion soup come to them for glory and battle?
Maybe you are plotting your next fantasy and are in the midst of figuring out the all-important backstory for your hero or heroine. What if instead of going the route of orphan/dad’s an evil overlord, you consider bringing in a whole family who is quirky yet functional? Fantasy writers are often accused of using the same tropes and staples as the greats because they aren’t creative enough to think outside the fantasy trope box. Well, we might not be able to reinvent the wheel, but we can at least paint it a different color. Prove the critics wrong (oh and maybe cut down on the “are you sure you had a happy childhood” questions) and take the plunge into rarely explored waters of Parents are Useful and Stay Alive. At the very least, it should make an interesting character study and you can also give your hero or heroine something other than revenge as a personal motive for their heroic journey.