Week 15: How Parental Figures shape characters

Mark and josh 2 - Shadows

One of the longest running themes I write about in my books is the importance of having parents who love and guide their children, however, most of my characters have one or more dysfunctional parents, or none at all. My main character has been molded over the course of the first series to becoming a better parent than his parents, and thus a better leader for the Shadows.

So what kinds of parents impact our characters the hardest? I have many examples throughout the 14 books of The Shadows, but the four that stick out the most are: having an Absent parent, having Divorced parents, orphaned characters with no parental figures, and most of all having Surrogate parents. Read on an I will provide examples, how this affects the characters, and how to apply this to your writing.

An incredibly important part of character development is shaping your characters, and who shapes people’s lives more than their parents? I hope this will be helpful for developing your characters, into believable, realistic people, whom readers will love to follow.

1. Absent Parent

My main character’s journey begins in an aesthetically normal family, but the readers soon learn that Mark clashes with his father, January who is distracted, and not very assertive. Through the first series, Mark constantly disagrees with his father’s method of parenting, to the point of calling him by his first name towards the end of the first series. Mark’s goal in life is to do things better than his father, to be a more assertive person, to be a better leader, and to be a better protector and provider. This leads Mark to micromanage people. It starts with his brother who does need the help, but it leads to Mark micromanaging the Shadows who are later in his care. He struggles to keep their trust since they feel he is taking away their freedom, and he especially clashes with Caelan who has two living parents he still has a relationship with. Mark has a hard time seeing boundaries in how he could cater to different people’s needs. Some people need more hands-on attention than others, he Mark’s judgement could better from taking as step back which he is forced to do in book 10 Kindred’s Lies.

How do you apply this?

If your character has an absent parent ask yourself a couple questions about them:

  • How does your character react to this parent?
  • Do they take advantage of this lack of rules?
  • Do they act out against their parent?
  • Or do they pine after that parent to get their affection?
  • Does this make them feel less valued?
  • Or do they feel liberated because of having a light-handed parent?
  • How would your character parent? The same or differently?

2. Divorced Parents

I’m very fortunate to not be a part of a divorced family so I do not speak on this subject from experience. In The Shadows I have two characters with divorced parents. One, Caelan, whose parents divorced when he was very young. And another, whose parents divorce later in the story. While the latter is a bit of spoilers, Caelan, I took a lot of time to develop with references from friends of mine who do live in divorced families.

Caelan’s father had an affair when Caelan was very young, he doesn’t remember the man very well because he distanced himself with his first family, leaving Caelan and his two siblings, behind in the dust. Caelan is my “angsty teen” character, and after he gets past acting out, being a goth loner in school, and generally not caring, Caelan’s philosophy early on is knowing how to do everything by himself. Caelan hates needing help, and insists on figuring things out for himself. So when Caelan’s Shadow starts changing, he has no idea what to do, he instead internalizes his problems, thinking he’s alone. In book 10 Kindred’s Lies, Mark sees he’s losing a lot of weight and not eating, and because Caelan internalizes everything and won’t ask for help, Mark assumes he’s become Anorexic, and tries to force Caelan to get help, only pushing Caelan further into the dirt. It isn’t until Caelan accepts help from his friends, and is reunited with his father that he recovers.

How do you apply this?

I’m sure many people can draw from personal experience to write this situation, and if you don’t have any experience, there’s a strong likelihood that you know someone who dealt with having Divorced parents. If you can, ask them some questions, here’s just a few I asked:

  • If you remember it, how did it feel when your parents separated?
  • Do you live between your mom and dad? what’s that like?
  • Is there anything really good or bad about moving between two places?
  • Were you ever angry that your parents separated?

These questions can be a little rough, and maybe you can just ask yourselves these questions while watching or reading media involving children of divorced families. But if you have a friendship with someone who understands this better than you do, it can’t hurt to get to know their perspective.

3. Orphaned Characters

There’s no shortage of orphan characters in media today! It can be tragic and terrible, or it can be whimsical and hopeful, like the way the Little Orphan Annie excitedly awaits finding her family. There’s a million ways to take this, and I have quiet a few characters who have no parents, or grew up with no parents until later on.

I’m going to focus on my character Ohara Ravenwood. He’s a side character, but he’s always had a special place in the story to me. When he’s introduced, he’s been living on the street, he has no home, no name, no education, and no hope, he’s been captured and is pretty much waiting to be killed until William Halo (one of the three main characters of book 8 Nostalgia) rescues him by proxy. Later the readers learn how little he’s gotten by with, he doesn’t mind, but he’s still determined to survive because of his Shadow, and the animal instincts it gives him. Ohara is transformed when he gets married in Book 14 Dragons on Skye. Ohara gains someone by marriage he has never had in his life, a family. He takes his wife’s last name, and he becomes her son, Honi’s step-father. Finally, someone who has never had a parental figure in his life, must parent a child who is not his own. He’s very protective of them, keeping in mind that he is still not Honi’s true father, but he connects with his son through his animal instincts since Honi’s ability is to turn into a wolf. He’s still a side character who doesn’t get a lot of attention, but I love him and how he’s transformed since he was first introduced in book 8 Nostalgia. 

How do you apply this? 

There are so many ways to deal with orphaned characters, but because this specific category deals with characters with no parental figures, I’m going to leave questions for adopted characters for the next category. I doubt we know many people in our lives who know so one who has grown up with virtually no parental figures, so ask yourself a few questions, and put yourself into the character’s shoes.

  • How would you deal with being alone?
  • How would you take care of yourself?
  • How motivated do you think you would be to take care of others if no one ever cared for you?
  • Do you think you would struggle with it?
  • Would you always want some kind of parent?
  • Or would you eventually be okay with not having parents?

4. Surrogate Parents

By far the strongest theme I have in my long series is the importance of just having a parental figure who loves you and will take care of you, even one will be enough. It won’t be perfect, but it’s necessary. Most of my characters have one surrogate parent, Mark, who struggles with his role, but is dedicated to shaping them into adults. In book 14 Dragons on Skye Mark has a conversation with someone who asks him how many kids are his. He answers, with many kids running around the house, “Just one.” then proceeds to tell this person all about the home he’s created for them. To which this person replies, “So… you have more like forty children now, don’t you?” I have so many characters who have been influenced by Mark as their surrogate father, and you’re just going to have to read the books for yourself to see how they were all shaped by him.

The one character I can focus on is Jules, Mark’s younger brother. Jules was born right after Mark’s father, January died, and Mark agreed to take care of his little brother, and be a parent to him. Mark adopted Jules, and raised him like a son, an older sibling to Mark’s daughters, and eventually his first biological son. Jules always knew Mark was his brother, but growing up he struggled to see Mark as a parent, this was made even harder for him when Josh was born. Josh was a stark reminder that Jules was Mark’s brother, not his son. Mark was a heavy-handed parent who always expected Jules to be as strong as he was, but Jules saw Mark’s powers, had none of his own, and felt inferior. This leads Jules to do some pretty nasty things in TS:Nostalgia, in order to get a Shadow like his brother. Jules eventually has his own son, Iszeldier, and though he loves Iszeldier, he only has Mark’s example to go on, and when he sees parenting with a heavy-hand like Mark does is hurting Iszeldier, he steps back, and becomes an absent father, just like January before him. Ironically, Jules wanted to be like the father he had never known.

How do you apply this?

My mom was adopted, so I have her experience to go on. I have so many examples of surrogate parents in TS, I know this category can be taken down so many different roads. However the strongest one I can see is the fear of abandonment.

  • If you aren’t my real parents, then where are my real parents?
  • If they’re alive, why didn’t they want me?
  • Why did they leave?
  • How can I become wanted by them?
  • Would they have been a better parent than you?
  • Would I be a better parent than them?
  • What can I do to be loved by the people around me if someone who loved me is gone?

I believe this is the strongest character arc, it’s filled with so much emotion, and so much struggle, but at the same time there’s so much triumph to be had. In Ohara’s case he became a father, by adopting, to be a parent to the unwanted and the left behind. His two children do struggle with the fact that he’s not their real dad, but even as they search for their parents, they still love him and look up to him.

Do you have any examples of characters who have been molded by any of the four category? Maybe you have a different Parent category in mind altogether! I’d love to hear all about them. Feel free to share your stories in the comments below.


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