This inaugural post is near and dear to my heart, largely because it’s a problem that I’ve discovered in my own writing. I just got my third packet back from my graduate advisor and, in it, she and I realized the same thing:
the father in my work-in process (WIP) is non-existant.
Sure he’s mentioned in passing. And he serves a legitmate purpose in the furthering of my plot. But when it comes to the actual “presence” of my father within the story, it’s as though he’s nothing more than a shade – a ghostly shadow passing in and out between chapters whenever I feel like summoning him. He has no life, no motivation of his own, and no ambition save to stiltingly choke out the few lines of diaglogue that I, his maker, have graciously given him.
In other words, to steal a phrase from the delicously audacious A.M. Jenkins…
the father in my novel is a “plot bitch.”
What is a plot bitch, you may ask? A plot bitch is a caricature. A cliche. A rendition of a human being that is so shallow that it scarcely deserves the title. It is paper thin. And, just like paper, when you hold it up to the light, you can see right through it.
Naturally, I was horrified to discover that I’d done such a thing. But I found comfort in the fact that, according to the New York times, I am not alone in my tendency towards “plot bitchiness.”
In her essay, “The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit,” Julie Just asserts that parents in YA stories are increasingly clumsy, ineffectual, and unrealistic:
…some of the most sharply written and critically praised works reliably feature a mopey, inept, distracted or ready-for-rehab parent, suggesting that this has become a particularly resonant figure. …Afflicted by anomie, sitting down to another dismal meal or rushing out the door to a meeting, the hapless parents of Y.A. fiction are slightly ridiculous. They put in an appearance at the stove and behind the wheel of the car, but you can see right through them.
Though there has been some slight controversy over this article, I would like to suggest that Just isn’t arguing that writers can’t use characters who have some of the aforementioned traits. I believe Just’s real complaint is that, in a growing number of YA novels, parents are defined solely by these traits. Mopey with a capital “M.” Rehab with a capital “R.” And nothing more. These adjectives become place holders, subtitutions for actual identities. They are a quick way of “telling” the reader what a parent is like instead of showing them why he or she has become such a thing. Such parents make their entrances and exits, spout of a few lines of dialogue, and then disappear into the background again. They are rendered ineffective so that it is “easier” for the YA protagonist to move on and acheieve his or her goal.
In other words, they are plot bitches.
It’s not that your parents can’t be mopey. Or distracted. Or in serious need of counseling. But there needs to be a reason why – and that reason must be compelling enough to drive their everyday behavior. Yes, parents are secondary characters. But just like your YA progatonist, parents have their own stories too. They have a unique set of hopes, dreams, ambitions, and baggage that makes them who they are – all of which influence the way they interact with your protagonist (which in turn, of course, affects the way your protagonist interacts with the world).
In a traditional story arc, the protagonist has a problem – a hole, a void, something that needs filling – and the majority of the story is spent trying to figure out how to solve that problem. The stakes are raised and tension is heightened, however, when conflict is present in a story. After all, if a protagonist can reach his or her goal too easily, what’s the point in reading? There’s no risk. No danger involved. Conflict, however, adds excitement and urgency. It makes the reader want follow your progtagonist, to journey with him or her for the duration of a novel.
The problem with bumbling, absentee, faux-parents in YA is that they sometimes result in a lessening of the sort of conflict that is crucial for keeping readers engaged. When the parents hold no weight, when they have no importance or power, not only does a story become unrealistic: it becomes frightfully predictable and boring.
If, however, your parents have a history – a set of goals, desires, and motivations – that drive them to act in a particular way, the miraculous can begin to happen. 1) You will find yourself crafting well-rounded, complex, and realistic human beings. And 2) The wants and needs of said human beings may come in direct conflict with the wants/needs of your protagonist, which is a lovely way to rachet up the tenison in your novel.
A great example of this is the mother in Nancy Werlin’s The Rules of Survival. She is anything but a plot bitch (though she may indeed deserve the latter half of that title). In many ways, she drives the plot because her wants/needs are constantly clashing with Matt’s (the protagonist). She cannot, however, be accused of being a caricature. She is just as compelling as the progaonist she was created to compliment.
Marion Dane Bauer states it perfectly:
Your character needs a history that relates directly to his struggle…ask about the past as well as the present. What happened before now to make her want what she does? Is there something from her past that makes her problem more imporant to her? Or more difficult to solve? (What’s Your Story, 18)
By knowing the history of both their primary and secondary characters, writers can avoid the increasingly depressing scenario that Just desribes – one in which contemporary YA parents are no more authentic and, in fact, even less consequential than their literary predecessors (8).
So do your self a favor: whether you are in the midst of revising your current WIP or in the process of starting a new story, ask yourself: do my parents have a life and history of their own?
Or are they just my bitches?