On writing grownups

al_zorra and aberwyn have been talking about the fictional and societal tensions between mothers and daughters, which got me to thinking about the tensions between parents and children in general in fiction.

When I first started writing, and especially when I first started writing for younger readers, one of the comments I would get regularly from editors and critiquers was that my parents were “just too mean.” I always toned said parents down when asked, but on some level I really didn’t understand: I felt like I was just being realistic. I was just out of college, when I started writing, and the parent point of view made less sense to me than the child point of view, in many ways.

Around the time I wrote Secret of the Three Treasures, I began to get it, because it was so clear to me that Tiernay West’s mother was–from her point of view–just trying to keep Tiernay alive so that she’d survive to adulthood. I found I had at least some sympathy for that view, though it was directly at odds with Tiernay’s desire to get out into the wide world–a desire I also had sympathy (a lot of sympathy!) for.

When I began working with a Scout troop–I’d finished writing the original draft of Secret by then–this dynamic became clearer still: that children yearn desperately for freedom and the wide world; that parents desperately want to keep their children whole and alive and safe from that world until they have more skills with which to survive there; that neither side is wholly right or wholly wrong. I saw, too, the painful extra layer of tension added by the fact that both sides, whether they admit it or not, desperately also don’t want to hurt each other. Though both sides will hurt each other, when they feel they need to, because those desires to be free and to protect are both so strong, and both so important.

When I write, I’m still 10 or 15 on the inside, and that’s still where my primary sympathies lie as a writer. (When I’m not writing, my sympathies lie all over the place, depending on the circumstances.) But now I get that it’s not enough to just understand my protagonist, or even my protagonist and a few close friends. As with any secondary characters, understanding the motivations of parents and making them real–making those parents neither sources of all truth nor obstacles to all goals–can only deepen the story.

As a sort of corollary, I also find I’m not working as hard to get those parents out of the way these days. I still don’t want parents stepping in and solving my protagonists’ problems, of course. But there’s a lot to be said for making them a tangled fallible human part of the story and its concerns, rather than a simple “too mean” impediment to same.

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