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In Support of YA Parents
Written by
She Writes
February 2018
Written by
She Writes
February 2018

This guest post was written by Sarah Nicole Smetana author of The Midnights a "voice-driven coming-of-age YA novel is perfect for fans of Katie Cotugno and Playlist for the Dead."

People like to joke about the cliché YA parents who are either totally absent, totally awful, or totally oblivious. Yet at the same time, many of our favorite stories exist because of this very same trope.

And I get it. I really do. One of the most exciting aspects of teenage-hood is the sudden independence—your ability to explore the wider world without your parents to protect you, and without anyone telling you what to think or how to act. So why should parents matter in a YA story, when it’s so interesting to read about a protagonist faced with this myriad of exciting coming-of-age experiences on their own? Besides, it is a truth universally acknowledged that parents just don’t understand.

But even though they might not understand their teenage kids, that doesn’t mean that parents aren’t important in kids’ lives.

Consider the ever-elusive idea of “voice.” In many ways, voice is directly tied into a main character’s history and background. And, unsurprisingly, history and background are inextricably linked to one’s parents. We are the way we are because of our parents, and how we were raised. Even if a character doesn’t have parents in the story—has gone to live with an unfamiliar uncle, perhaps, or has been an orphan since birth—that lack of parents will almost certainly matter, too, and can come to define a character’s personality and aspirations.

So can you still get away with absent/awful/oblivious parents? Of course. You can get away with almost anything, if it’s done right.

Should you want that, though? Not necessarily. Regardless of whether they’re predominantly on or off the page, parents have the potential to elevate, and strengthen, a story.

For instance, in my debut novel, The Midnights, both of Susannah’s parents feature prominently. On the surface, the story hinges on Susannah’s search for individual identity—which may seem like it should exist separate from her parents. However, learning about the complexities in her parents’ lives ultimately affects her understanding of herself. For her father, I wanted a character that shone bright, made a deep impression, and then disappeared. He dies early on in the book, but even after he’s gone, he continues to linger in Susannah’s consciousness like a Technicolor ghost as she struggles to keep his memory present. Furthermore, he remains an inherent part of her character, and her desire to impress him continues to dictate many of her actions throughout the book. Absent though he is, he still influences her desires, dreams, and choices.

With Susannah’s mother, Diane, I struggled much more. I actually began with a cliché parent stereotype, but quickly realized that for this story to work, her character required much more nuance, and page space. As I gradually peeled back Diane’s layers, as well as the layers of her relationship with Susannah, I uncovered such exciting tension lurking underneath the surface of the clashing mother-daughter dynamic. I realized that the old adage goes both ways: parents don’t understand their kids, but kids don’t understand their parents, either.

Ultimately, the relationship between Susannah and Diane became one of the most interesting threads in the book, as well as a driving force. Diane wants the best for Susannah, but doesn’t truly acknowledge what Susannah wants for herself. Similarly, Susannah sees her mother as, well, just that—her mother. She does not recognize that Diane is a person of her own, or even realize that her mother once had big dreams, too. And as Susannah’s search for her own identity barrels toward its penultimate conclusion, these misunderstandings must inevitably come to a head and find a resolution, because even though Susannah is growing into her own independent person, she will forever be linked to her parents. At its roots, her identity is constructed from the father she emulated, the mother she misinterpreted, and the world in which they raised her.

How much a parent character is on the page obviously depends on the story, but parents don’t need to be constantly present to be powerful. They don’t need to be consistently in the protagonist’s thoughts, either. Still, as the writer, it’s useful to remember that a teenager and her parents are most likely linked by more than DNA. A thousand invisible threads bind them together, affecting the protagonist on a subconscious level.

And as exciting as it is to send a teen protagonist off on a wild adventure far away from home, it can be just as exciting to bring them back, where their parents are waiting. Because in my experience, there are few narrative tensions more intriguing than those between a teenager who is desperate to exert her independence, and the parents who aren’t quite ready to watch her go.

Sarah Nicole Smetana grew up in Orange, California, where she wrote songs, played in a few bands, and successfully pilfered all of her parents’ best vinyl records. She received her BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and her MFA in Fiction from The New School. Currently, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their three-legged cat. THE MIDNIGHTS is her debut novel.

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