Saturday, January 07, 2012

Kill Your Hero's Family (Then Torture Him)

Not too long ago, I gave the female lead (heroine's such a romancey word, yes?) in the first book of my paranormal romance series a makeover. She has to be undamaged enough to move into a relationship quickly without being coerced, but she also has to be enough of a loner that, should she (ahem) go missing for a few weeks, nobody will miss her.

So I began looking at other urban fantasies and paranormal romances with strong urban fantasy elements to see what type of backgrounds produced the lead characters. Note that I don't think this holds true for other romance categories, although it often does.

There are a LOT of dysfunctional families out there in the UF/PNR world. Here are a couple of theories why, based on nothing more than why I need my own characters to be family-challenged.

* Nothing brings out a neurosis like family. And for characters to be engaging, they need hot-button personal issues that factor into whatever hardass neurotic they turn out to be.
* Normal family issues get in the way of plots. Unless you're Rachel Morgan and your family becomes part of the plot, family members get in the way and can sidetrack your character from her plot arc.

Does the literature support these theories? I'll look at just the most widely known ones because I'm too lazy to do a lot of research I need to get back to revisions. 

--Anita Blake. Anita's mom died in an accident when she was very young, and she was raised by her strict Catholic grandmother who didn't think much of her skills at raising the dead. Estranged from granny, and always dealing with dead-mommy issues.

--Mercy  Thompson. Mercy's dad, a Native American from whom she gets her skinwalker abilities, died when she was young (or did he just disappear into the rodeo world?). Her mom then married a whitebread kinda guy and had some whitebread kids, so Mercy always felt like the ugly duckling with her dark hair and skin. She's still on speaking terms with her mom, but doesn't see her often.

--Harry Dresden. Harry's mom died young and he was raised by his magician father, who then also died young. He was taken in by a wizard mentor for training, things went sour, he ended up having to kill said mentor, and barely escaped the White Council death penalty. This backstory plays out over the early books, but the trauma of his mother and the secrets surrounding her death (mommy issues), and especially his rocky history with the council, are major issues for Harry.

--Sookie Stackhouse. Well, Sookie's parents died when their car was swept off a bridge, so she and Jason were raised by their grandmother (who conveniently gets knocked off in book one--I'm not worried about spoilers because, really, has anyone NOT read at least the first book of the series?). So Sookie has parent issues, which factor into the later books as she learns more about the source her psychic skills. She was also molested at an early age by her only other relative, a great-uncle. Vampire Bill took care of that pesky loose thread. 

--Rachel Morgan. Kim Harrison's female lead is sort of a lone ranger in the genre. She's on good terms with her mother and her brother, for the most part. Mom lives nearby. Daddy issues come up during the series, though, and mom's got some problems that Rachel is always having to fix.

--Harry Potter. Harry's parents died protecting him from the evil Lord V--oops--He Who Must Not Be Named. It drives the whole series. 

--Bella Swann. Bella's a child of divorce. She simpers her way to live with awkward dad so ditzy mom can enjoy her new hubby. Bella's struggling to find a personality and instead finds glittery vampires she can totally make herself subservient to, while whining. Yes, that's my patented summary of Twilight.

--Wrath. Each of JR Ward's Black Dagger boys has issues out the wazoo, but Wrath is the classic. He's the last purebred vampire in the world, and has all kinds of guilt hangups because his father shut him up in an air duct when the killers came. He watched his parents die, then blamed himself because he was too weak and small to save them, which made him become the Boy Who Lived. *Oops, having a Harry Potter flashback.* (Okay, and then there's everyone's fave Vishous, partially castrated by his evil father, and Zhadist, made a sex slave by an evil vampire queen. These guys are seriously damaged, true?)

Who else? Who are some of your favorite heroes or heroines, and did they come from happy, stable homes? Have you written a hero or heroine who has dysfunctional family issues?


Heather said...

This is so true! I just started the Cat and Bones series, and talk about parental issues . . . Great post!

Carla Swafford said...

Suzanne, this is such perfect timing. I'm dealing with this very issue in my series. So far, out of two books, I don't have one hero/heroine with a live parent (called the dead parent syndrome in romance and other genres, if truth be told). In book two, the reader will meet a future heroine with daddy issues. Well, that is later (book four) everyone will realize that she has big time daddy issues.

Anyway back to book three, I plan to bring out info about parents for the brothers whose stories will be slowly revealed. I'm determined that they have live and breathing parents, but they most likely won't show up until the end of the book.

I believe families can add great layers to story. Give the characters substance that make us understand why they react as they do.

Great post!

Lexi said...

Works for me, too, Suzanne. The heroine in my current book is half demon and has parent issues and identity issues, too! Good point about those pesky loose ends, i.e., family members or secondary characters. I read once that Stephen King had too many characters in THE STAND and had to kill a bunch of them off because it got too unwieldy.

Chris Bailey said...

A heroine with a supportive and loving family is absolutely too difficult to write. Not to mention too 60s sitcom. And even then, Opie had to deal with Aunt Bea and Andy's girlfriend.

Cari Hislop said...

I write Regency romances (Georgian England). It was common for adults in 1816 to have only one surviving parent; it's an authentic built in trauma, but I don't think all heroes and heroines need an obviously traumatic background. They simply need to have issues wich can be resolved or come to terms with by the end of the book.
Though if your hero is a hardass it's hard to see how he'd become hardass without a traumatic childhood or some sort of trauma that broke his heart.

Seriously though, growing up in a 'normal' happy family can be as traumatic for some people as growing up neglected (depending on their personalities and the personalities of their parents). Personality is a great source of tension!

I give my characters the Myers Brigg personality test. Once I know who they all are and how they react in given situations that opens up a giant can of worms and there's no end of tension-possibilities!

Suzanne Johnson said...

Thanks for the comments! Glad to see I'm not the only one with family issues--good luck with the "living, breathing" parents in book three, Carla! And Cari, I love the idea of putting characters through Meyers Brigg. I also like to analyze them with Enneagrams.