If you want to write books for children or young adults, killing your character’s parents is a common trope you might want to replicate. I’m writing about why it happens, the impact on your story, how to do it yourself, and alternatives that work to the same effect.
Take Away The Safety
The arms of your parents should be the ultimate safe space, and it’s what it represents in books for children. If your parents are with you, no harm should befall you. You’re safe from danger in all forms.
In Frozen, during their childhood, Anna is injured by Elsa but their parents are there. Anna is then kept safe, and Elsa prevented from harming her again. Their parents act as a safety net to keep the girls safe, until their death. Once they are out of the way, Anna and Elsa are pushed together and the safety net is gone. The adventure is free to begin.
In Lilo And Stitch, Lilo’s big sister Nani is struggling to keep her safe. She’s putting a lot of effort into raising the little girl, when it doesn’t come naturally to her because she’s only young herself. With their parents gone, the girls struggle for money, find it hard to maintain their home, and are at risk from the alien invaders. Had their parents survived, Nani and Lilo would both have had a normal and safe existence, but then Stitch would never have joined them and their story wouldn’t have happened.
Once the parents are out of the way, characters can be sent on their adventures and the threat of peril feels real. If the parents can’t swoop in and save your character, the story stakes are much higher.
Freedom For Adventure
As well as safety, parents represent constraint. When the parents are there, your character would be stopped from having an adventure. Parents are concerned with safety too much to allow it.
In Anastasia, Anastasia’s parents were killed during the Russian revolution. This leaves Anastasia free to join Dimitri and Vladimir, to flee the country and get to Paris. Running away with two strange men under a different identity is not the kind of safe and responsible behaviour parents would encourage.
If your characters are free from parental constraints they are able to take risks, follow their dreams, take the path less trodden. Parents represent responsibility and closed doors.
Why Kill The Mother?
Absent fathers is a more common in real life than absent mothers, and the same is true of stories. Whether it’s stories from a long time ago when fathers were sent away to war, or simply fathers being able to create babies and then disappear before the birth, absent fathers is never a shock factor in stories. Mothers are the constant. Mothers are supposed to be eternal.
Killing the mother pushes your character into the space where they can have their adventure, but leaves the option open for a father to step up and become what they need.
In Bambi, when his mother is shot by the hunters, the father he doesn’t previously know steps in and raises him. In Finding Nemo, when his mother is eaten, Nemo has his adventure and Marlin must face his fears to rescue him.
The Wicked Step Mother
Conflict is an essential part of any story, and conflict in the home can be what forces your character out of the home and on their adventure.
Snow White’s wicked step mother, the Evil Queen, wants to kill her for being too beautiful, so Snow White must escape and goes to live with the drwaves. Cinderella’s wicked step mother forces her to work and locks her in the attic, so Cinderella is motivated to try and change her life and get to the ball.
The Wicked Step Mother is the cruel replacement for a beloved and safe mother, twisting what your character expects from a mother. If their step mother had been kind and loving, their adventures would never happen.
Raised By The Father
When the mother has been killed, your character will be likely raised by their father. The father who struggles with his children is a trope in stories we see time and time again, and even though it does a disservice to capable fathers in real life, there’s a reason it’s done.
Just as the wicked step mother puts conflict in the home that pushes your character on their adventure, the father conflict has the same effect.
Ariel is misunderstood by her father, and it’s his act of destroying all her human treasures that pushes her away from the safety of his castle and into Ursula’s trap.
In Beauty And The Beast, it’s Belle’s loyalty to her father and love for him that pushes her into her adventure. If he had come home, or she hadn’t tried to rescue him, Belle would never have met The Beast and her story would never have happened.
In Nanny McPhee, it’s the death of the mother that causes Mr Brown to seek a wife, and brings Nanny McPhee into the children’s lives. Had their mother never died, Mr Brown wouldn’t have struggled to raise his children alone and their adventure with Nanny McPhee would never have happened.
Alternatives To Death
Whilst killing the parents is the swiftest and most efficient way of taking away that safety and control in your characters lives, there are alternatives that work well. As long as the parental influence is gone in some way, your character can have their adventure.
In Tangled, Rapunzel’s parents are alive and waiting for her, wanting to offer the comfort and safety that she needs. Rapunzel’s story involves learning that the woman who raised her was actually her kidnapper who imprisoned her, so she loses what mother’s love she knew, but refinds it in her real parents.
In Brave, Merida is emotionally distanced from her parents which pushes her into the story adventure. She attempts to regain a connection with her mother but accidentally turns her into a bear, which sends her into a greater adventure and through the course of the story she is able to come back to the safety of her parents.
Craving The Bond
Your character will crave the emotional bond of a parental figure, and that will be a motivating factor through your story.
Either they want it from existing people in their lives, or they seek it out from characters to represent in in their parents place. Oliver is drawn in by Fagin because he craves an adult to look after him, and that desire is what pushes him into having his adventure.
You can give it to them in the form of the parent who survived, from who they were previously alienated, like in Bambi. It can be in be a caregiver who raises them in their parents stead, like Nani raising Lilo. Or, if your parents both survive, it’s because your character is able to find their way back to their parents safety and reconnect with them, like Merida in Brave.
Letting that desire for a parent live and breathe will connect your audience to the character. Children craving the support of a parent is natural and human, so they will relate and understand it.
How To Write It Yourself
Children and young adults are not usually in a state to face peril, adventure, risk, because of the presence of their parents. In whatever way your character’s parents are taken from them, the aim is to let your character be free to have their adventure.
If you kill their parents, consider the emotional ramifications of it. You have to be able to deal with the consequences of that death and the raw pain it will leave.
Killing them when your character is too young to understand that pain and beginning your story when they’re an orphan but old enough to have their adventure gets around that, but you’d still need to separate them somehow from the person who is now responsible for their well being.
If you keep the parents alive, there has to be a reason they are free to adventure. Parents will naturally try to prevent risk to their children, so the best option is to have the child runaway for whatever motivates them, such as in Moana. Moana’s parents prevent her having adventure until Moana chooses to leave them.
Let Me Know Your Examples
There are so many more examples I could use to demonstrate how this is written and why, because it’s so very common in stories. Harry Potter, Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, Aladdin. All these stories feature parents being taken from the Protagonist in some way, and the desire to have that bond.
Drop me a comment if you can think of any examples that stand out to you and why you think they work, I might come back to explore this topic further because writing for children is such a wonderful endeavour.
You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get. If you’ve found my work helpful, please consider dropping me a tip in my Paypal tip jar to help me keeping bringing you free writing advice!