Thursday, January 20, 2011

Deadly Vehicles of YA Parent Death

Hey YA authors – it’s me again. Let’s talk about killing off the parents, shall we?

Now I’m not going to rage against killing off protagonists’ parents. I agree, it’s useful, getting the parents out of the way. It forces their children to go off on their own and do dangerous things without meddling adult supervision. It empowers your teenage readers, bolstering their dreams of independence. It adds character development and, when done well, is an easy way to shake things up and get a story started.

No, I’ve got no problem with you killing off the parents. What I have a problem with is the method that is continually used to get rid of said parents.

The car crash.

Why is it always a car crash? Seriously, according to statistics on the leading causes of death in the US, only 1.8% of people die in “Motor Vehicle Accidents.” And yet, according to YA fiction, the average family vehicle is the most deadly weapon known to mankind. What’s more, it’s always the same kind of car crash – “Your parents were crossing at an intersection when another driver (often a drunk) ran a red light and struck them, killing everyone involved. I’m sorry for your loss.”

Admittedly, I can see how a car crash could be convenient. Unlike say, heart disease (the top cause of death in the US) death by motor vehicle accident is unpredictable and therefore a believable way for death to come as a devastating surprise. The fact that the other driver was also killed eliminates the burdensome possibility of harboring vengeance against their parents’ killer. And it’s an easy way to get rid of both parents in one fell swoop.

But it’s just so lazy, not to mention predictable and kind of dull, especially when there’s only one parent involved. There are so many other kinds of accidental deaths that haven’t been done a million times. How come we don’t see more YA parents dying because they…

- Fell down a flight of stairs
- Fell from a ladder while changing a light bulb
- Fell into the path of a subway train
- Got caught in an bank robbery gone wrong
- Were mugged, Batman-style
- Were walking along the railroad tracks and didn’t hear the train coming
- Fell into the tracks of a subway train
- Worked themselves to death by exhaustion
- Had a freakin’ heart attack (heart disease kills 30% of Americans!)
- Got caught in a terrorist bombing
- Or just plain walked off one day and never came back

There are lots of possibilities, and they’re all more interesting and memorable than a car crash. I especially like the ones where it’s possible for them do die quietly at home while the kids are at school. As Buffy the Vampire Slayer showed, there’s lots of drama to be had in coming home to find your parental unit dead. It’s certainly more dramatic than getting the bad news from a cop.

So all I’m saying here is – think about your form of death. Please. The car wrecks can be done, if they’re done well and/or get really good foreshadowing before hand. But if you’re just trying to get rid of the parents to get the story started, put a little more thought into it. Your family’s deaths should not be generic and cliché.

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