The parent trap

So, now that my brain has been released from its stint in editing prison, I’ve been thinking about stuff again.  Ah, sweet thoughts….  One thought that just keeps badgering at me is this:  where the heck are all the families in fantasy and sci fi?  Generally speaking, parents, siblings, and grandparents seem to serve pretty much one purpose in spec. fiction:  tragic backstory.   So often, if families appear in the genre at all, it’s mostly offstage.  They are either dead, evil, imprisoned by the antagonist, estranged and/or separated from the protagonist, or never mentioned at all.

The orphaning of the hero(ine) in sci fi/fantasy is so commonplace its like we don’t even notice or comment on it anymore.  What’s this about?  In real life, families provide a ton of drama.  They’re there for love and support, to build us up or break us down.  Or we’re in conflict with them, which provides lots of juicy plot too.  Literary fiction mines this wellspring till the geyser practically runs dry.  Why don’t we see it in genre fiction?

Consider the last couple of books I read as a (somewhat) representative sample:

1. In Vernor Vinge’s “A Deepness in the Sky” families are definitely part of the narrative, but all close family members are killed off very early in the story (at least for the human characters).  Their deaths serve as a motivation for the protagonists’ fears and their desires for revenge (e.g. tragic backstory).

2. In Marie Brennan’s “Midnight Never Come” families are really not mentioned at all.  The hero and heroine certainly must have come from somewhere, but families aren’t discussed meaningfully.

3. In Daniel Fox’s “Dragon in Chains” we do see some family dynamics at work, but they still fit into the tropes I mentioned above.  The heroine’s grandfather survives throughout the story, but he is separated from her for most of the book.  The hero’s family is never mentioned, except to note that they sold him into slavery.  Another main character’s mother serves as a minor player who spends most of her time plotting against him (e.g. families as evil, tragic backstory, or separated from the protagonist).

4. The protagonist in Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” appears parentless.  No mention is made of any family outside his insular world of wife and work.  Did he spring fully formed from a hole in the ground?

These four books are just random examples, but they range across many sub-genres, settings, and even publication dates.  I don’t mention them to be critical – I really enjoyed each of them – but to point out a common practice in our genre.

So what’s behind this?  Why are there so few families and parents playing a meaningful role in speculative fiction plots?  Do we tend to orphan our protagonists in sci fi/fantasy because we need them isolated for their quests?  Is it a cheap way to add pathos and drama to their pasts?  Is this a sign of our times and culture?  Or do we find it too difficult and/or inconvenient to deal with real family relationships in our fiction?

I’m inclined to think the tendency relates mostly to the first and last points.  Much of sci fi/fantasy revolves in some way or another around the protagonist’s journey (towards adulthood, towards becoming a hero/heroine, towards the completion of an epic goal, etc.).  We seem to have decided, as a genre, that relying on family to complete those goals or quests is to invalidate their results.  The protagonist must be cut adrift and make his/her own way.

Family dynamics make great drama, but do the complications they introduce (the obligations, especially) make the right kind of drama for sci fi/fantasy?  Imagine Rand al’Thor stuck at home taking care of aging parents.  Or what if Bilbo had a younger brother, one who depended on him for food and shelter.  Would he have been so quick to run off with Sam and the Ring?

Yeah, this kind of stuff can be damned inconvenient for a writer who wants to get their characters off on an adventure.  But family interaction can be a rich source of plot-y inspiration, too.  Just look at the best exception of all:  George R.R. Martin’s epic series, Songs of Ice and Fire.  Hell, these books are ALL ABOUT family drama–families torn apart, families struggling to remain loyal to each other, families scheming, family betrayal–and they still manage to be epic and enthralling.  In fact, I’d argue that family dynamics is one of things that makes them so gripping.

After all, whether the relationships are good or bad, family members are often the people we have the most complex and interesting relationships with.  Why would we intentionally leave such meaty stuff out of our writing?  Why don’t we find family-derived interaction deeply and meaningfully woven into the plots of sci fi/fantasy novels?

What do you think?  Am I right?  Am I wrong? Should families play a bigger role in the stories we tell?  Are there other great exceptions to the general rule?

10 thoughts on “The parent trap

  1. Catana

    Show me a book or a story in which family plays a major role, and you show me a book or story I’m not going to read. Why? Because there are only so many variations, and after a while, they’re repetitive and boring. The further away you get from family, the more chance you have for originality.

    1. mirandasuri

      I hear what you’re saying; there can definitely be a lot of dull and unoriginal ways to write family dynamics into fiction (of any genre). But isn’t that true of pretty much any plot element? Space opera can be totally unoriginal or refreshingly unique. The idea of the “quest” itself, or incorporation of side-kick characters, or a romance, or really any other element you can think of…these can all be repetitive in genre fiction, but they can also be done creatively.

      I’m not necessarily advocating that family should play a bigger role in spec fic (it would obviously depend on what kind of story you’re trying to tell), but its frequent absence seems a pity to me.

  2. jill

    I think you’re right that most science fiction/fantasy books don’t have families. The 2 exceptions that come to mind are Pride & Prejudice &; Zombies (&; sequel) but of course that’s based on Austen, and the Night Watch series by Sergei Luyanenko. Maybe Russian or other foreign writers are more of an exception.

    1. mirandasuri

      Hi Jill!

      Yeah, I had wondered too about the cultural component to this, but am not familiar enough with foreign SF/F to comment on whether it was an issue there too. Interesting point!

  3. Danielle

    I think it’s for the same reason that we don’t see a protagonist begin in a happy relationship either — there’s just more drama if things are a little uncertain, mysterious, dark. If there’s no family, the protag probably doesn’t have any strong ties, so then s/he is free to adventure and get into trouble and all that sort of fun stuff.

  4. Amy

    I think you may be right, but suddenly my head is flooded with sf/f novels that feature families:
    Miles Vorkogisan books by Lois Bujold
    Among Others, by Jo Walton (although to be fair, some of the key family in this story are dead or barely present)
    Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin
    Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

    Or what about Dune? although here our protag starts out fairly young.
    The Ender books prominently feature the brother-sister relationship.

    And of course, I read a lot of YA, which usually has family present at least part of the time.

    That being said, a few years ago for a musical theater revue show, our theme was “Orphans”. There’s a lot of them in musical theater too. I think you have good points about leaving the family behind to go on a quest, raising stakes by having dead/missing/absent family, etc.

    1. mirandasuri

      Hi Amy,

      Definitely – there are always exceptions. Shades of Milk and Honey is a good one to mention, as is Dune. I haven’t read Among Others or the Miles Vorkogisan books, but I feel like Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (which I loved) has family dynamics as a backdrop rather than critical part of the action (tragic backstory/evil grandfather trope).

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