A lot of people die in my story, some of them are parents. One of the main characters for example lost his father (and one brother) in a car crash when he was young, which he was a part of. He became partially deaf as a result. This happened before the start of the story. Then he loses his mother in the course of the story when he's an adult many years later.

Can you go overboard with this? What are some of the things you should avoid if you use dead parents in the story? The main point is kinda to show how these losses affect one of the main characters, but I also don't want the dead loved ones to just seem like tools in the developement of one character. How can I use this trope well? Should I show them more and have them affect the story in other ways besides through their children?

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    it's good to have some variety. Maybe you should keep the mom alive and just have her move away abroad. – Aspen the Artist and Author Apr 17 at 15:49
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    Relevant TVTropes pages: Conveniently an Orphan (getting the parents out of the way of the plot) and Orphan's Ordeal (milking it for drama) – Philipp Apr 17 at 16:21
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    Philipp's comment has great links to specific ways of using dead parents as a trope, but I would argue that dead parents in general are not. Like Chris's answer said, " loss of parents is probably the most devastating, emotionally-fraught experience that nearly all people might reasonably expect someday to experience in a normal life without any unusual tragedies". So it's meaningful for a reason. – levininja Apr 17 at 19:00
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    It's worth noting that having a parent die when you're an adult is a common thing, and a thing that a lot of people genuinely struggle with -- this person who's been supporting and caring for you your whole life is suddenly not there anymore, and all you have left of them is memories and things. You could write some really powerful stuff around that. – Nic Hartley Apr 18 at 1:25
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    As long as you only kill two of them! – ErikE Apr 19 at 0:18

Young protagonists are often presented as orphans, because it gives a plausible reason they might be fending largely for themselves. For adults, on the other hand, there are many possible other reasons parents might be offstage --many books about adults simply never mention the parents.

However, loss of parents is probably the most devastating, emotionally-fraught experience that nearly all people might reasonably expect someday to experience in a normal life without any unusual tragedies, so it's very relatable and of intrinsic interest, even for people who still have both parents. For that reason, it offers a lot of storytelling possibilities, which I think justifies your decision.

As far as parental backstory --most of us continue to relate very egocentrically to our parents, even after we grow up. We are only dimly aware of their lives outside of us. So I think it's OK, as a choice, to focus only on the parent's relationship with the protagonist. But on the other hand, learning about who your parents are as people, outside of you, can be one of the more interesting experiences of growing up. So that can also offer possibilities if you want to explore them. Ultimately, there's no definitive answer, there's only what does and does not serve your book and where you want it to go.

I personally think "dead parents" as an explanation for why a character might act outside of the "norm" is just lazy writing. People do insane things in life with both parents in tact and likewise, people lose both parents and live completely normal, healthy lives. Explore your characters deeper. Go deeper. Make more sense of their world. "Dead parents" doesn't really do anything.

I have a son who is eleven years old. He reads most of his books on his own, but sometimes, just for fun, I read a chapter or two to him at night – or I even read some of his Middle Grade fiction myself, if it looks interesting.

So I have read a lot of Middle Grade books in the last years, and what really surprises me is how often the protagonists in these books have lost their parents! This trope begins with Frodo, who grew up with his uncle, and continues to Alex Rider, who grew up with – you won't guess it! – his uncle.

I don't think there is a problem with a Middle Grade character who has lost their parents, but it begins to weigh on my son that about half the kids he reads about are orphans. He has begun to express concern that I might die!

So if you are writing Middle Grade fiction, I'd be very grateful to you – and I am sure many other parents and their children will be as well – if you would allow your protagonist to have parents that do not die.


Now, if I understand you correctly, you are not writing Middle Grade fiction. So having a few parents die should be no problem, right?

Only if you handle it right.

I have read a lot of books in which characters experience the death of a loved one, and I am apalled at how little most characters are affected by this. They cry a bit, and then they go on with their lives, almost as if nothing had happened. It always seems to me as if the writers didn't understand the incapacitating effect that the death of a loved one has on most people.

For most people, the death of a parent, child, or lover – especially if the death was violent and premature – is a traumatic experience, and many never get over it without psychotherapy, and some not even then.

So if you write a character whose parents are killed in the course of your story, you must consider that this person will be fundamentally affected by this experience and will most probably need more time to get over it than your story lasts. And this makes certain events in your story unlikely after that death. The protagonist will probably not fall in love in the week after their mother died. They may be so sticken that they are unable to go to work. If they were present when their parents were killed, it is highly unlikely that they came out of this experience unscathed. Read about PTSD, if you want to learn how people normally react to extreme trauma.

Of course there are people who are not affected by the death of their parents, but these people are special. Their relationships to their parents was so bad that they are relieved instead of sad. Or they are emotionally cold and unable to empathize. In any way, you need to motivate why they can go on as if nothing had happened.

I find all this so difficult that I have avoided the death of loved ones in the books that I have written. And I throw away all the books that don't handle this well.

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    You'd be surprised how easily people seem to get over extreme trauma without displaying any outward signs of the pain, especially if they have a reason to. Always being calm doesn't mean you're okay; it means you're acknowledging the pain, taking a moment to get the worst of it out of your system, then setting the rest aside to deal with when [insert plot hook] is done. – Nic Hartley Apr 18 at 1:27
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    I agree, @NicHartley, but we are not talking about a coworker or neighbor of yours here, who might not display their true feelings to you, but about the protagonist whose character is developed through these events. As the OP says: "The main point is kinda to show how these losses affect one of the main characters." So even if the protagonist does go to work and "functions" in that context, we will see how they deal with this on the inside and in the privacy of their home. But people are different, and maybe that protagonist is deeply religious and happy for their mom to go to heaven. – user29032 Apr 18 at 5:03
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    I should have specified that the process of deciding to focus elsewhere is rarely a conscious one. In the case of trauma, a common defense mechanism is to simply not think about it, as odd as that sounds, and it's done subconsciously. From persona experience, it can be all but impossible to recognize it from the inside; it's not unreasonable that a child would have trouble there, too. (Of course, there are some subtle signs that I still rarely see exhibited, but my point is just that what seems like calm can be something else) – Nic Hartley Apr 18 at 15:52
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    Yes, @NicHartley, you are right again. Still, as a reader, I expect the author to give some kind of acknowledgment that something exceptional has happened. Even those who spress their experiences completely – and many cannot even remember the traumatic experience afterwards – do not remain unaffected. They often have unexplicable fears, panic attacks, or flashbacks. I would expect someone who remains highly functional after the death of a loved one to break down eventually, maybe after some other minor stressor, that someone else would shrug off. – user29032 Apr 18 at 16:27
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    To give a specific example to the above comments: I could imagine a protagonist "falling in love" (or starting a romantic relationship, at any rate) shortly after their mother died, as a subconscious way of managing/ignoring the grief. Of course, that's not a particularly healthy reason to start a relationship, so it would probably have negative consequences for the relationship later on... which would make for an interesting story. ;) – DLosc Apr 18 at 21:55

Can you go overboard with this?

Obviously you can go overboard with anything, but a few dead parents (or both parents dead, maybe even three parents dead (natural and adoptive) is within the realm of plausible losses. Two certainly is, many children really do end up orphans and in the foster care system, or adopted (sometimes by relatives). I read once of a family that adopted a 12 year old neighbor when his parents died in a car accident; the kid was the best friend of their own 12 year old. I've read of kids adopted by their married aunts or uncles or even grandparents, due to loss of parents.

Losing parents to disease or accident or war is part of life, and traumatic, and can be an instigating incident that changes one's life, for better or worse. Not necessarily better because the parent is dead, but perhaps because it motivates other more positive changes in behavior (like better health changes or more diligent self-care), taking responsibility for new people or things, choosing a new and more ambitious career or path to change.

What are some of the things you should avoid if you use dead parents in the story?

The same as anything else in your story, don't take it beyond the plausible limits or consequences. Parental death should probably not be the ONLY motivator in the story for all characters (unless you are writing about a whole mess of orphans). Don't stretch reader belief. That said, two people might be brought together in love because they were each orphaned at a young age and "get" each other through sharing similar traumas. That might be an interesting story (including how they feel about having kids).

But only about 1 in 185 kids (under 18 in the USA) are orphans, and only about 1 in 700 kids are up for adoption. (Others are in foster care or have become legally responsible for themselves). Keep that in mind when creating orphans in your story; it is unusual. That said, support groups or meeting people in the foster care system can account for many orphans knowing each other.

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    Wow. 1 in 185 is actually way higher than I would have expected, having not met an orphan that I'm aware of, in over 30 year – Wayne Werner Apr 18 at 0:17

I'd advise you to consider what are some of the things you might include with loss of a parent, rather than just 'what to avoid.'

I think if you look for the detailed, specific ways that loss of a parent impacts an individual, you can make these each unique. The age of the child at the parent's death, the details of the death, and so on, will all impact the nature of grief. Having lost both parents and a step parent I'll attest each loss is unique.

I also +1 the idea of loss through other means. The mom moves away, or develops dementia, or alcoholism, or they simply have a falling out or some such. There are lots of ways we lose people.

You should show how they interact with your protagonist before to give the reader a feeling for the importance of these characters. Everyone knows that parents are important, but highlighting the bond between the character and his parents is important to make the reader feel the importance.

Afterwards you should be careful about how this changes the people that are affected. The character will obviously be mentally scarred by this and the mother will have quite a few problems herself. Furthermore caring for her only remaining child alone will put more of a burden on her. Show how they changed after the incident, how their relationship changed and how they slowly started to get back into their normal, everyday life - before he suddenly loses his mother, too and is reminded of all the horrible things from his youth, all the fear that he just can't fight because of how young he was, all of the problems that arise from this. Show what is different this time. This time he has to plan the funeral, while still grieving. This time his mother is not around to care for him, but maybe a girlfriend tries to help him?

If you are careful about this it shouldn't be a problem to have both parents die in your story. Just don't go overboard with the "everyone he loves dies". If you always spend five minutes of screentime before killing of a character your reader can't get attached to the characters and the readers will soon realize that they shouldn't get attached because it's obvious that everyone dies.

This is his brother Luke. They always play together in the garden and are the greatestestest brothers of all time!
< accident >
Now, Luke is dead...

But this is his mother! She was still trying to cheer him up after Luke died. She is the bestestest mother of all the time!
< accident >
Now she is dead...

But this is his girlfriend Lucy! She is the bestestest girlfriend ever!
< accident >
Now she is dead...

But this is his good friend Joe-

This will get boring very fast!

Every loss should count and get its own screentime. If you can't afford the builtup and showing the problems that follow you shouldn't let a character die just to foster the "everyone around him dies" image.

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    "If you always spend five minutes of screentime before killing off a character, your reader can't get attached to the characters and the readers will soon realize that they shouldn't get attached because it's obvious that everyone dies." This was my biggest problem with Attack on Titan. – F1Krazy Apr 17 at 15:58
  • See also: George R. R. Martin – Wayne Werner Apr 18 at 0:16
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    Unless that's the story. Anyone getting close to X dies an unexpected and unexplained death. – gnasher729 Apr 18 at 8:14
  • @gnasher729 now you are making me think of the Final Destination movies. Of course the "story" there is in how they end up dying, and they characters themselves are only important insomuch as it allows for the deaths to be set-up by exploiting their character flaws (for the more 'interesting' characters/deaths at least) – Baldrickk Apr 18 at 8:51
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    @Baldrickk I had been thinking of either X is a serial killer, or some serial killer is fixated on X. – gnasher729 Apr 18 at 13:05

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