Mama Mia!

For those of you who are about to dive into NaNoWriMo, all my best wishes! Don’t forget to eat and sleep and read this blog!

I look forward to meeting one–carpelibris!–or more of you this Saturday in Albany, New York!

Now, imagine fanfare, a trumpet blowing, confetti. See it first here: the final cover for Stolen Magic!

I think it’s appealing and inviting, just what we want a cover to be.

And on to the post. Two related questions came in over the summer. On July 23, 2014, Elisa wrote, What do you do with parents? I mean, I write from the perspective of children and teens–for the most part–and the things the children/teens do in books these days (you know, saving the world, etc.) are not even remotely possible, most of the time. Kids don’t do that sort of stuff. Plus, since technically our brains haven’t fully developed yet, we wouldn’t have the wisdom to deal with such situations and would need a wise and generally smart, fairly all-knowing adult with us to deal with such things. (Because, from the kid’s perspective, grown-ups know EVERYTHING! Seriously, until I was eleven, I REALLY thought my parents knew basically everything!) So, what to do with the parents, or even grown-ups in general? I know lots of kids in books are orphans, but that’s really cliche, and don’t even get me started on having the kids save the parents, nuh-uh, not even gonna go there, it’s WAY too twisted. I want my parents to be good parents while, at the same time, their kids can do some fairly cool stuff. I can only have them be invalids so often. How do I keep them involved, and not interfering too much, while being really solidly good (also smart, I hate it when the kid is brilliant but the parents are idiots, in real life, the kid would probably be pretty dumb too, you learn from your parents after all) parents?

And on August 19, 2014, Elsabet wrote, What do I do with parents? I really don’t like how uninvolved parents are in literature these days. They’ve all but disappeared! I want the parents in my stories actually BEING there. But them being there means they would cut into the adventures of my kid/teen MCs. How do I work around or through this? Actually, how to I work WITH this? I don’t want the parents to be dumb, or dead, or evil, and I don’t want the kids to be bratty or sneaky. Kids lying to the parents is just not an option. For one, most parents would see through the lies – therefor making it unrealistic – and secondly, I don’t want sneaky, scheming, lying “heroes” in my stories. I don’t like glorifying ugliness. Upon occasion I will have one (scheming liar) as an MC, but only to bring a point across, or to create a contrast. So how do I work this?

The questions generated this from Kenzi Anne: I’ve discovered it’s easier to write parents when they have an actual character. I read the “How To Train Your Dragon” book series a while ago (they are adorable) and I love how the parents are unique individuals with their own characteristics and personalities that actually add to the story– rather than just being the “mom” or the “dad”–there for reality’s sake but not really the story’s. Giving them hopes, dreams, fears, etc. like you would for a main or secondary character might help you to incorporate them better into the story and the plot :). Parents are people too!

Elsabet added: I would like to be accurate, authentic and realistic. Actually, the real reason I want to write parents like this, is because I am modeling them somewhat off of my own parents. My parents are the very best, they really are. And they would do anything to protect their children. They would never be foolish enough to get caught in a situation where they both needed to be rescued at the same time, and if, by some completely random circumstance and several simultaneous coincidences of astronomical oddness they did happen to get into such a situation, they would never wish, or even allow us (their kids) to come to harm by trying to rescue them.

This topic really is a problem for us writers. One of the first laws of children’s literature is that the young protagonist has to solve the story. The parents can’t do the solving or the saving. Readers are asked to suspend their disbelief, big time. Okay, maybe it’s unlikely that a parent needs rescuing or that so many MCs are orphans or that a teen can save the world, but the reader knows this is fiction and, if the story grabs him, he’s happy to go along.

We counter the unlikeliness by developing our situation realistically. Maybe we set the story in a dangerous part of the world. If we’re writing fantasy, we can establish that kidnapping or hostage-taking is common in this kingdom. Then we create a detailed setting and complicated characters and believable characters. The reader may think, I’ve read other stories of parents who need rescuing, but this one is pretty exciting and I’ve never seen it done exactly this way before. And he keeps turning pages. As I think I’ve said before here, there aren’t many possible plots; complete originality is either unattainable or incomprehensible. Even Shakespeare recycled stories from older sources. We take the common elements and reshape them in uncommon ways.

You who know my books are well aware that the only parents I allow on the scene are, ahem, defective. The good ones are either dead or out of the way. In The Wish, Wilma’s mom. a single parent is terrific, but most of the action takes place where she isn’t. So that’s one way–and the true-to-life way I got to be the MC in my own actual growing up. My parents were good people, but they were offstage when I faced most of my challenges: at school, at a friend’s house, in the local park, at the skating rink, in one of the museums I could walk to or get to by bus or subway. (I was lucky to grow up in New York City, where I didn’t need an adult to drive me places.) You can give your characters public transportation to help separate them from grownups.

In Fairest, Aza’s adoptive parents are super caring, but they can’t leave their inn to travel with her to Oscaro’s castle. In their defense, they have no way to anticipate the danger that their daughter will encounter, and, besides, she’s under the protection of a duchess. In A Tale of Two Castles, Elodie’s loving parents send her off to become an apprentice, unaware that the apprenticeship rules have changed. So that’s one strategy: the young MC leaves home for an ordinary reason, but extraordinary things happen, and she can’t go back. The parents, if they know, are wringing their hands, but they can’t rescue their child.

I’m as guilty as any other kids’ book writer of killing off good parents, and I agree that parental mortality is much more common in fiction than out of it, which is fortunate. However, there are orphans in the world. Dave, the orphan I write about in Dave at Night, is loosely based on my father, whose mother died of childbirth complications a few months after having him, and whose father died of (ugh! and gasp!) gangrene when he was about six. I hasten to add that they died a hundred years ago, and medicine has come a long way since then. I doubt that anyone in a developed country dies of gangrene anymore, and death after childbirth is very rare. Interestingly, my father’s stepmother was as bad as Snow White’s. Sometimes life imitates art.

Here are three prompts:

• Your MC’s mom sends her to the corner store for a container of milk. Let’s say she goes reluctantly, because she was in the middle of something, and she isn’t pleasant when they part. On the way, or when she gets to the store, something unanticipated and horrifying happens that makes return impossible. Write what happens in a scene or a story or your NaNoWriMo novel.

• Your MC, Matthea, has great parents, whom she loves and admires. Whenever she has a problem, she discusses it with them, and they always offer great advice. In this story, the advice is good as usual, but following it never seems to work out as planned. Sometimes Matthea flubs when she acts on it, and sometimes the other person doesn’t react as expected. She returns for more advice, which also backfires. Matthea is in a downward spiral. Write the story.

• In the real fairytale, Snow White’s father isn’t around at all. In your version, he is, and he’s kind, and he doesn’t want bad things to happen to his daughter. Include him in the story, but make it all go wrong anyway.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thanks for the NaNo well wishes! 🙂 Also, I am so very, very excited for Stolen Magic!! A Tale of Two Castles is such a phenomenal book–I love it almost as much as Ella Enchanted–and I am really looking forward to getting to read more about Elodie and everyone else.

    I'm definitely guilty of leaving parents on the sidelines, but interestingly enough I just decided yesterday that an older character who is accompanying my MC on her adventure (who is basically like an uncle to her) is going to be key in helping her realize her own potential, and that having or not having certain qualities doesn't define her personal worth. I also decided, however, that the story would only feel real to me if the uncle character had his own personal growth over the course of the story, and my MC will be key for helping him realize his own personal growth as well.

    Really, that's what I think is important for including parents (or any adults) into stories: they're people too, and they also still have things to learn. This has become more and more apparent to me as my son has grown (although he's still quite young). Even though I'm a mom, I'm still messy and bad at keeping our apartment organized, and I'm still have trouble putting down a good book at night, even if I really need sleep. Even though I'm a parent, and even though I have taken on a lot of responsibility to support myself and my son, I still have plenty of growing to do 🙂 And I personally find that a character's growth over the story is one of my favorite parts of reading a fantastic book.

  2. This was a great post!

    I'd just like to recommend a few books that I think have a really good kid/adult relationship-sort-of-thing: Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull, (it's super good! Read it!), and the Serpent Tide, by K.L. Fogg. Serpent Tide is really inexpensive on Kindle, and it's super fun to read. Every time I read it, I find myself with a huge smile on my face. Anyway, thought I'd just recommend these because they're good examples of how adults can be in the book without taking over the children's spotlight.

  3. Great cover, and I'm looking forward to Saturday!

    I just read Gone-Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enright, this weekend. It really brought home that parents are much more protective now than they were a couple of generations ago. (I would routinely vanish outside for an afternoon, and I was an undersized kid on crutches. My parents had a general idea where I'd be, but there were no cell phones or anything like that. This was in the '70s) So setting a story even a little bit in the past might give your MC more opportunity to get into…interesting situations.

  4. EEEEE what a beautiful cover!!!! <3 I love it to smithereens. ^_^ (Not literal ones… I would never abuse a book like that. XD) AAAAHH now I can't wait for April even MORE! So pretty, can't wait! 😀

    Ah, yes, the "Parent Problem" as I refer to it… This was an interesting post on the subject… I'm going to be thinking about this more; maybe this will solve some of the problems with it! Thanks for another great post! ^_^

  5. I was kind of having trouble with the idea for one of my characters. She's a loner, and I've never written an MC who was a loner before. I like to give my characters a good, quirky supporting cast with a really close best friend and a geeky friend and lots of other unique characters. But if my character is a loner then that means basically no friends. She's an only child too, so no siblings. About the only people she has are her parents and then she has a dog. Any suggestions for a book with about three good characters and a dog, and then the villain?

    • I assume by loner you mean introverted, not good with most people etc. If that is the case, then that just means that your MC won't have a lot of friends, not none at all. She can still have a supporting cast of three or so friends who are probably misfits as well. Frankly, most of the characters I write ARE loners or misfits, mostly because I have never had an exorbitant amount of friends myself or I forget to write in interactions with other people besides like, one other person who is normally some sort of love interest. I think that any plot can be used with that cast of characters, though you may find that that size cast is just hard to work with. I do assume though that each of these characters are involved enough that it would be possible to tell the story or the majority of it from any of their POVs. That said, they is still room to place in tertiary characters to liven things up.

    • A dog is a great idea! In the Percy Jackson and The Olympians series, Nico Di Angelo is a loner. But he's also a son of Hades, so instead of having friends, he basically hangs out with dead people. Maybe your looking for something more uplifting, but remember you can find counsel for your characters without it being an actual person.

  6. Thanks for answering my question Mrs. Levine! It was quite helpful. I especially thought that having the adventures happen when the parents aren't around was helpful. Realistically, especially for my teenaged MCs, the parents can't always be there, sooner or later the parents start letting their kids doing things by themselves/with older siblings etc. The adventures can happen while the MC is doing errands in town, or at the library, or while their at their jobs in the city, or while they are traveling with an older sibling/cousin/aunt/uncle. Thanks again!

  7. Thank you Mrs. Levine. I just read your post, and I think it is very good and I echo Elisa. I think it is quite helpful. Also, today I have been listening to Farmer Boy (Laura Ingalls Wilder)on CD, and I love how much Almanzo RESPECTS his parents. He is always so proud of how his father is an important man, how he has the biggest barns, how his father has the best horses, how he really does think his father is the very BEST. And he thinks is mother is beautiful and talented and he is proud of how she makes all the families clothing herself, dyeing, spinning, weaving or knitting it, sewing it ALL BY HAND, by the way, how she is the best cook. He's so proud of his parents. I think it is such an inspiration.

  8. I had a cute fairytale moment the other day I thought I'd share. So I'm reading Sleeping Beauty to Kellyn, this girl I babysit, and in this version the princess has brown hair. At the end of the story, when she rides off into the sunset with her prince, Kellyn started crying. "She's never going to see her family again!" I tried to explain that no, marriage doesn't work like that, she's just going to a nearby castle and the in-laws will come over for dinner every Sunday, but she couldn't be consoled. So I turn to the next story, Snow White. Snow White's mother had brown hair. "See, Kellyn? The princess is grown up now and has her own baby." Then I turn the page and she dies. I worried Kellyn would cry again, but she just studied the picture of the evil stepmother, who had a wimple. "Oh, I get it. She's evil now."
    I find it interesting that she freaks out over a girl leaving her parents but not the same girl turning evil and trying kill her own stepdaughter.

  9. I have a problem, and I was wondering if you guys could help me out.
    My story is told from the POVs of my two main characters. But I just realized that one of them is basically only there for the other one. What can I do to give her her own story? Should I just get rid of the chapters with her point of view?

  10. Basically, her story line basically only exists for when she's in the other person's life. (Did that even make sense?) She doesn't really have a story of her own.

    • It sounds to me like she's a supporting character. If so, well, think on it. Is she needed to make you story coherent and understandable, and also just a little more interesting by adding another character. If not, maybe you don't need her. If she IS needed, it's not so bad that she doesn't have a story of her own. In one of my stories, I have two MCs and three narrators. One of the narrators is a supporting character, but I need her because the two MCs are so epic that everything with them is big big big, and I need her so that the readers get the smaller–but still very important–details, so that when my ending happens it's not "Oh my goodness, when did THAT sneak up on us!?!?" She's the one that sees the little things that the MCs are too busy being epic to see. I give her a little bit of a story, not a big one, actually it's pretty cliche, but because she is a supporting character, it's okay with me, her story is not really part of the big story, it's just there because I like the idea of her doing her own little "thing". I don't need her story to to further the plot of my big story, but I let her, because I love her and think she deserves a little fun too. Does that help at all?

  11. I just had a horrible thought. What if Ella from Ella Enchanted lived in the real world? Every time she saw an ad that said "try our chicken sandwich" or "vote for this candidate" she'd have to obey it. The poor girl would buy so much stuff she didn't need.

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