Saturday, June 18, 2011

Writing About Fathers

It's Father's Day tomorrow! Time to turn all gushy about how much we love the fathers in our lives. Well, unless we're busy writing top ten lists about the worst fathers in the world.

There are a lot of fathers in fiction. I haven't made an exhaustive study, but it seems that quite a lot of them are bad fathers. Why? Because that makes for greater tension. Better conflict. If a character has had to forge their own way in the world, or to overcome a really bad parent, that character has a lot of depth that can be explored as the writer tortures them some more.

'Cause we writers are sadistic like that.

One of my favorite musicals is Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. Act II, of course, is the best one. Happily Ever After is over, everything the fairy tale characters achieved in the first act is revealed to be rather empty / problematic / messy / fake. Oh, and a giant comes to avenge her husband's death.

Has anyone noticed that the parents in that play are almost universally deficient? All the mothers die, with the sole exception of Cinderella's evil step-mother. All the fathers are absent at some point, either emotionally or physically. Usually chronically absent.

There's a turning point in the play, after the baker's wife is killed, leaving the baker a single parent. The baker, true to the form of the play's fathers, hands his baby to Cinderella and walks away, determined to find someplace to live without so much dang trouble. Along the way, he runs into his own father, long suspected dead (after stealing greens and consequently losing his daughter, Rapunzel, to the witch, and his wife to death-by-grief). This absent father passes on some much-needed fatherly advice to the baker: running away doesn't help. Have a listen:

After this song, the baker returns to the remaining group, they carve out a plan to kill the giant's wife, sing a poignant song about how no one is alone, and end triumphant, though still grief-stricken. The baker goes on to actually parent his child.

One of my college roommates played Cinderella in her high school production of Into the Woods. She told me that the boy who played the baker had a real-life absent father, and he was thrilled when his father decided to attend the play. I'm sure he imagined that the song No More could spark a similar turnaround. At the halftime intermission, his father came backstage to congratulate him... and to say he was leaving early.

In my own WIP, I have a variety of parents. Absent, involved, theoretically-fine-but-never-mentioned, overbearing, loving, etc. I'm working on helping my parents be more "real," which is hard when I'm already over-budget on word count. Still, little by little, I'm slipping in moments with parents.

In honor of Father's Day, I thought I'd post a snippet of my WIP, showing my MC's relationship with her father. Hope you like it:

Dad pulled back and lifted Brina's chin in time to see the first tears spill down her cheeks. “Hey, now, none of that.” He gently brushed them away and pulled her close, hugging her tightly. Brina wrapped her arms around his chest, between his upper and lower wings, and squeezed.

“They hate me, Dad.” Brina’s voice was almost carried away by the soft morning breeze.

“They don’t know you, Brina. They’re scared of you because you’re different. They hate your skin and your wings, but they don’t hate you. That’s impossible. If you let them get to know you . . . .”

“They don’t want to know me.”

Dad pulled back again and held her shoulders. His face was intent as he stared into her eyes. “That’s what makes this such a great opportunity for you. They’ll be forced to spend time with you outside the classroom. To see you as a person, as a fellow actor. You’ll see. It’s really hard to hate someone you work with—especially when that someone is as cool as you are.”

Brina looked away. “Dad, I’ve been going to school with them for ten years. One play won’t change things.”

Dad smoothed back her hair from her face. “Try it out, and I won’t make you do it again, okay?”

From Brina’s window below them, she heard her mom call up. “Brina! Rand! Breakfast is ready!”

Neither of them bothered to yell back, since she’d never hear them. They were too small. Instead, Dad climbed to his feet and held out his hand to help her up.

Brina put her hand in his, but looked away toward the rising sun as she stood.

Dad squeezed her hand. “This too shall pass, darlin’.”

Brina nodded, then drew a deep shuddering breath, wiped away her tears, and flew down to get ready for school.

So what kind of parents do you have in your WIP?


  1. Great writing and it's good to see that at least one person out there appreciates fathers enough not to make them "dead" for a main character.

  2. That's lovely, Robin. You got me teary there. All the fathers in my WIP are good dads. Not perfect, but good.

    Jo Rowling, when she announced before the release of Deathly Hallows that two additional people would die (compared with what she had planned in the epilogue, which she'd written before any of the books) explained that it was because she'd let one person live who had been meant to die.

    That person was Mr. Weasley. The snake attack in OotP was meant to kill him. But when it came time to write it, she realized that all the fathers in the series sucked. She couldn't bring herself the kill off the only decent father figure.

    Tonks and Lupin were the two who had to die instead.

  3. Thanks, Michael! I wanted to give my MC a little haven of people that actually liked her. :)

    Donna--Jo totally make the right call on that one. It think she'd have lost fans if she killed off Mr. Weasley. Harry lost every other father figure in the series.

    It was also sad to lose Tonks and Lupin, but leaving their infant son behind was a powerful parallel to the beginning of the series.

    Oh, and: Yay! I made someone cry!! *does happy author dance* :D

  4. Great post!!! I have a range of fathers in my novels. Some are dorky, some are uber-strict, some are terrible, but I must say I enjoy writing father-figures that are examples of good men. My current WIP is that way and the writing seems to flow so much easier.

  5. Thanks, Steve--you must have great parents. Me, too. I struggle to write believable dead-beats. :)

  6. That story about he boy in the play was sad :(

    I was blessed with a good father but tomorrow when we sing to the father's in primary, my heart goes out to
    -the girl who's father died last year
    -the boy who was adopted by a single mother
    -the siblings who's dad just left the family months ago
    and those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

    There seems to be enough drama in real life sometimes.

  7. Shelly--strangely, I just got a comment on my Poetry Summer Week 3 post that is almost a perfect reply to yours: a mention of the poem Success is Counted Sweetest by Emily Dickinson.

    Those of us with great fathers probably don't appreciate Father's Day like those who must do without.

  8. I am guilty of having an absent father in my WIP, but he is trying to reconnect with my MC. I find that so much YA lit has dead parents or absent parents. The parents of my MC are definitely side characters, but they do factor into and effect the main plot and MC's struggle.

    I really liked the father in your excerpt. He reminded me of Atticus Finch.

  9. Phil--Thanks! I can think of no higher praise than that my MC's dad (who is actually a lawyer), is channeling everyone's favorite father-lawyer. :)


  10. I've written a lot of different fathers. In my book coming out next year (Grace & Chocolate--plug) the mc's father is a very meek man who has survived a relationship with an alcoholic wife. I loved writing his story, because he has to realize he played a good part in his daughter's troubled upbringing, though he feels he failed.
    In another book, The Orchard, the mc's dad is vain and manipulative. That was also fun to write, especially when he is put in his place.
    Hope your Father's Day was great!

  11. AND it was great to get a peek at your writing!!!

  12. Krista--those are great fathers to write about. I think any parent who really truly tries... will end up with guilt that they didn't try harder. :) Unless, of course, we realize that adversity makes our kids stronger, too. :)

    Can't wait to read your book!