Tips To Create & Write Better Parents & Parental Figures
Creating and developing your characters' parents or parental figures is a great way to add substance to your work. For one thing, it can open up potential for new plots and types of dramas. For another, they're often great for building up backstory from and around, and they can be used to explain many things about your characters - why they believe and feel certain things, why they ended up following certain paths, why they ended up picking up certain skills, where they acquired certain tastes and preferences, and so on.
But far too often, they end up being written very badly in some way - maybe they're cartoonishly evil, or maybe they're too good to be true, or maybe there's something that's just off enough that they don't feel quite real.
Problems can also come in when people make their main characters parents or parental figures - they sometimes make their characters too good at it, or they just don't quite know how to make them act like parents.
Either way, here's some advice for when you're creating and writing parents or parental figures!
Table of Contents
- The first thing is to remember that they are people.
- Consider what might go into how they view and treat children.
- And a few more things to keep in mind.
- In summary!
The first thing is to remember that they are people.
People in general are neither completely good nor completely bad - they all have personal strengths and flaws, which in turn often translate into strengths and flaws in their parenting abilities. For example, someone might be wonderful at giving emotional support, but might not be very good at setting rules and boundaries. Someone else might be willing to help a child at the drop of a hat, but have a poor ability to correctly determine which type of help is most needed.
While some parents are total monsters who will inflict just about every horrible thing they can think of upon their children (EG, the "lock the child in a closet and starve/torture it as punishment" variety of parents), they are extremely rare. And while there may be situations that justify giving a character parents like this, it should not be used lightly - EG, using it simply for shock value, or to wring pity out of your audience, or to simply give your character a reason for not living at home or writing/calling home, or any combination thereof.
A more common form of "monster parent" are your run-of-the-mill narcissists, though the cruelty they inflict is typically much more subtle. Narcissists tend to act as if reality is whatever they declare it to be - it's as if in their minds, they are the main characters of some story they can edit or retcon on a whim, and that story always runs on Protagonist-Centered Morality. But again - don't use this kind of thing lightly!
On the other end of the spectrum, there is such a thing as giving characters parents who just too good to be true - IE, parents who taught absolutely perfect morals, always had their values and priorities in harmony with those of their children (unless it's because their children are wrong somehow) have never unfairly lost their tempers, never jumped to any unfounded conclusions, never doled out any unfair or hasty punishments, never at any point put what they wanted before what their children wanted, always understood their children perfectly, always knew just what they needed, were always there for them, and were always completely supportive of their worthy dreams and goals. Because people always have flaws, and because different people always have different opinions, views, and priorities, it's impossible to have parents this perfect.It's also inevitable that they and their children will at some point have wants, dreams, and priorities that come into conflict with each other - if they don't, then either they or their children just aren't human. Some parents are better at figuring out how to balance what they want with what their children want. Others are terrible at it - they either ignore what their children want in favor of doing whatever they want, or they sacrifice everything they want in favor of giving their children everything.
So when you're developing your characters' parents or parental figures, stop and put some thought into them: what sorts of strengths and flaws did they have that affected their parenting? In what ways were they good parents? In what ways did their parenting come up short?
Consider what might go into how they view and treat children.
How their own parents saw and treated them as children. What their own parents did when raising them, for good or for ill, they may presume is simply what one does when raising and handling children and do that themselves. Or if their parents did something they absolutely hated, they might try to avoid doing that to their own children. (However, many parents end up trying too hard, and end up going too far the other way.)
How authority figures say children ought to be handled. For example, parenting advice from older relatives can have an impact. So potentially can books published by child psychologists, if they ever read them. Spiritual leaders can also have immense sway in how parents treat their children - so if the spiritual leader says that it's the will of God that children should be raised a certain way, then the parents will very likely do that (especially if they'll be shamed or ostracized if they don't).
Their own ability to manage themselves and their own emotions. Those with short tempers are going to be more prone to angry outbursts and meting out punishments without really thinking out whether the punishment is proportionate to the crime.
Where their priorities lie. What kind of people they want to see their children become when they grow up can influence where they might try to push them, whether for good or ill. And the more wrong or inappropriate they consider any particular action their children take, the harsher the punishments will likely be. Good parents will be able to (at least most of the time!) make a reasonable assessment of what should most and least be prioritized, but not-so-good parents might skew something somewhere.
The tendency to err to the side of caution. Many parents would rather see their teens get a little pouty over not getting to go out late at night than find out they've gotten seriously hurt or have gotten themselves arrested. From their perspectives, making their children miss out on parties they think sound questionable isn't that big of a big deal - it's a short-term inconvenience that protects the long-term health and safety of their children. This isn't to say that they're necessarily right - they might be overestimating the danger due to their own disposition toward fearfulness, or their own prejudices, or any sundry irrational beliefs they may have picked up that make them think the world is more dangerous than it actually is - but for the most part, they do at least mean well with this sort of thing.
Whether they remember what it was like being young. Unfortunately, many parents don't remember well how the world seemed when they were younger, and so have a difficult time understanding how something that seems like a minor issue to them would be a big deal to their children. But some do, and thus can empathize with their children's feelings and perspectives better.
And a few more things to keep in mind.
Most parents will react when they believe their children are in real danger. Many youngsters tend to assume that because their often parents don't care about (or even think worthless) the things they care most about, they don't care very much about them and might not even care if they dropped off the Earth tomorrow. In reality, parents who believe their children are (or potentially are!) in serious danger will typically do anything and everything they can to protect and save them - most would move Heaven and Earth if they could. Should their child just mysteriously vanish or run away, you can bet that they'll be terrified that the worst has happened, and they'll feel a piece of themselves has just been torn out.
They'll also get really protective/defensive around people they think are treating their children unfairly or are overstepping their boundaries. You know how you feel when you see someone being rude or unfair to a close friend or family member? You know how you want to jump in to the defense? Parents typically have the same instinct toward their children. Sometimes this can be a good thing (EG, getting someone who is genuinely being unfair off their children's backs), but sometimes not (EG, being overprotective by shutting down people who offer their children constructive criticism or by pulling them out of conflicts they really should be resolving on their own). And of course, this is a variable trait, too - different parents have different sensibilities over what amounts to going too far.
And parental instincts do other things. Parental instincts can make one slightly more forgiving of mistakes (after all, they're children - they can't be expected to get everything right at first) and make one more inclined to try to teach one's own skills and knowledge, and more inclined to offer assistance if it seems necessary.
A huge amount of parenting is guesswork. There's often no way of knowing exactly what will work for a child and what won't, so parents often have to just try whatever seems to be the best option under the circumstances and hope for the best. Sometimes guesses are going to be right, and some guesses are going to be wrong. Good parents will usually be able to note where something failed and work out a different approach to try, but not-so-good ones might just keep trying the same thing over, over, and over again in the hopes that it will eventually work.
- Parents are people. Few people are complete monsters and nobody is totally perfect. Every parent will make mistakes and mess up somewhere along the way; good parents will learn from their mistakes and try to do better.
- The kind of parenting advice they'll hear from authority figures, how they were raised, their own values and priorities, how well they can empathize with their children, and how their own personalities influence their behaviors can affect how they will raise their own children.
- Parental instinct tends to drive most parents to err to the side of caution, and most parents will do everything they can to help a child they believe is in serious danger or needs defending.
- Parental instinct also tends to make people go easier on mistakes and makes them more likely to try to teach and give help.
- At the end of the day, a lot of parenting amounts to guesswork - trying what you think might work based on the information you've got and hoping for the best.
These might also be relevant to you:
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