In some children/YA books, parents can be reduced to cardboard clichés in order to be seen ‘at the edges’ of a story without being in danger of taking it over. Why is this? Simply because to create a realistic environment, we may need a parental presence. Mom or Dad get a scene or two using the walk-on cliché in order to include them in the story. Mom might stroll into her daughter’s sleepover to drop off a bowl of popcorn or Dad might drop the gang off at the mall with a be good now, kids speech. Either way, many walk-ons are filler, and have no other purpose than to show that yes, the Main Character does have parents.
I’ll just say this on the subject: rarely is filler a good thing.
So, let’s look at relevant scenes with parents. Most books have parents taking on a minor role in order to let the plot and the young protagonists flourish. However, this doesn’t mean that in characterizing good old Ma and Pa we need to resort to the cliché.
Here are a few scenarios I see much too often:
Dad whips up a batch of his famous pancakes to give Mom a break
Ring a bell? Sure, sometimes it’s waffles or omelets, but always it’s famous. Any way you stir it, this scene is usually a ‘coffee break’ in disguise–a chance to hash over story events or discuss a problem.
So does this mean that asking for advice, sharing worries or bouncing around ideas with a DNA donor is a bad idea? No, not at all. Parents are there to guide, to help. However, choosing a mealtime as the circumstance for a discussion draws bright red arrows to the coffee break plot device. If you need to pick a parent’s brain, try cornering Dad as he hoses down the driveway or Mom as she jots a quick email to work.
Mom washing the dishes or preparing a meal/baking cookies
Another regular feature, with a familiar setting: the kitchen. I understand that the kitchen is a place where the family interacts on a regular basis, but it’s used so often it has become predictable. The sum of Mom’s life is not cooking, cleaning and straightening and to portray it as such is to fall into another cliché.
There are lots of places where your character can get Mom’s attention, and it doesn’t have to include her in the kitchen slaving over a pie. Maybe she’s attacking dandelions in the flowerbeds like a deranged lunatic or spying on a neighbor. What if she’s checking little Bobby’s head for lice again because another notice came home from school? Stretch your imagination and give us a setting and circumstance that reveals something about Mom, which in turn sheds light on the MC’s home life. Does Mom deal with life’s moments with humor? Is she a control freak?
Bottom line…unless the mom in your story is baking a poisoned cake or flinging plates at the walls, try to avoid a kitchen scene. Chances are you can find a stronger setting and more original circumstance with a bit of thought.
Mom and Dad act clueless over a slight or unfair treatment toward a sibling
Now, while sibling rivalry and feeling slighted are common themes, showing it through clueless parents shouldn’t be. Parents aren’t clueless. They do pick their battles, they do sometimes choose the easy route rather than adhering to a stringent on-the-line fair, but our brains in la-la land clueless? No.
I have no issue with a MC feeling they are being treated unfairly–by all means, this is something that all young readers can identify with. But please, show those parents acknowledge they’re being unfair “I know it’s your brother’s turn to do the recycling, but he has to get this science project done by tomorrow” etc, etc.
Other parental clichés to avoid:
–Dad reading the paper (don’t most people read it online these days?)
–Mom doing mountains of laundry (yawn)
–Going out to a pizza restaurant or getting pizza delivery for dinner (Thai, anyone?)
Mom and Dad distracted or too busy for the character’s concerns Often this is used because it’s an easy way to force the child character to work on their own. If you use it, make sure you back it up. Make it a last resort, not the first.
–Using a child’s mistake to preach (ACK! Die moral police, die!) Never preach. The strongest discoveries and best lessons come from within, not having a parent tell you why your actions were wrong. Save that for when your dog pees on the rug.
Care to add to the list? What parental clichés do you see happen frequently in books? Which ones bother you the most?
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.