Why Urban Fantasy Heroes Come from Dysfunctional Families

I’m giving the female lead (heroine’s such a romancey word, yes?) in my current WIP a makeover. She has to be undamaged enough to move into a relationship quickly but she also has to be enough of a loner that, should she (ahem) go missing for a few weeks, nobody much will miss her.

So I began looking at other urban fantasies and PNRs with strong UF elements to see what type of backgrounds produced the lead characters.

There are a LOT of dysfunctional families out there in the UF/PNR world. Here are a couple of theories why, based on nothing more than why I need my own characters to be family-challenged.

* Nothing brings out a neurosis like family. And for characters to be engaging, they need hot-button personal issues that factor into whatever hardass neurotic they turn out to be.
* Family issues get in the way of plots. Unless you’re Rachel Morgan and your family becomes part of the plot, family members get in the way and muck things up.

Does the literature support these theories? I’ll look at just the most widely known ones because I’m too lazy to do a lot of research I need to get back to revisions. 

–Anita Blake. Anita’s mom died in an accident when she was very young, and she was raised by her strict Catholic grandmother who didn’t think much of her skills at raising the dead. Estranged from granny, and always dealing with dead-mommy issues.

–Mercy  Thompson. Mercy’s dad, a Native American from whom she gets her skinwalker abilities, died when she was young (or did he just disappear into the rodeo world?). Her mom then married a whitebread kinda guy and had some whitebread kids, so Mercy always felt like the ugly duckling with her dark hair and skin. She’s still on speaking terms with her mom, but doesn’t see her often.

–Harry Dresden. Harry’s mom died young and he was raised by his magician father, who then also died young. He was taken in by a wizard mentor for training, things went sour, he ended up having to kill said mentor, and barely escaped the White Council death penalty. This backstory plays out over the early books, but the trauma of his mother and the secrets surrounding her death (mommy issues), and especially his rocky history with the council, are major issues for Harry.

-Sookie Stackhouse. Well, Sookie’s parents died when their car was swept off a bridge, so she and Jason were raised by their grandmother (who conveniently gets knocked off in book one–I’m not worried about spoilers because, really, has anyone NOT read at least the first book of the series?). So Sookie has parent issues, which factor into the later books as she learns more about the source her psychic skills. She was also molested at an early age by her only other relative, a great-uncle. Vampire Bill took care of that pesky loose thread. 

–Rachel Morgan. Kim Harrison’s female lead is sort of a lone ranger in the genre. She’s on good terms with her mother and her brother, for the most part. Mom lives nearby. Daddy issues come up during the series, though, and mom’s got some problems that Rachel is always having to fix.

–Harry Potter. Harry’s parents died protecting him from the evil Lord V–oops–He Who Must Not Be Named. It drives the whole series. 

–Bella Swann. Bella’s a child of divorce. She simpers her way to live with awkward dad so ditzy mom can enjoy her new hubby. Bella’s struggling to find a personality and instead finds glittery vampires.  

–Wrath. Each of JR Ward’s Black Dagger boys has issues out the wazoo, but Wrath is the classic. He’s the last purebred vampire in the world, and has all kinds of guilt hangups because his father shut him up in an air duct of sorts when the killers came. He watched his parents die, then blamed himself because he was too weak and small to save them, which made him become the Boy Who Lived. *Oops, having a Harry Potter flashback.* 

Who else? Who are some of your favorite heroes or heroines, and did they come from happy, stable homes? Have you written a hero or heroine who has dysfunctional family issues?

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate’s Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man’s Curse; Black Diamond).

4 thoughts on “Why Urban Fantasy Heroes Come from Dysfunctional Families

  1. Oh, good question!

    Yes, I think these families issues are almost so overdone as to be a trope. 🙂 But I still write them that way anyway, not just as a convenient plot point, but because that’s just who they are.

    One of the authors I beta read for has a UF with an intact family, but they don’t know about her “real” life. So I’ve seen it both ways.

  2. I agree the “missing family” syndrome has almost become a trope in urban fantasy, Jami…but I keep doing it too, because I don’t want them mucking up my plots 🙂

  3. I actually thought that Bella’s family background was the one thing in Twilight that actually approached a kind of genius. Yes, she is the child of divorce, but it’s not an over-the-top “War of the Roses” kind of divorce where the parents do everything they can to undermine each other. Both parents love Bella. They don’t use her as a pawn in their struggles, in fact they seem quite reasonable about it. Bella’s mother, however, is a bit on the infantile side, and Bella sees herself almost as the responsible adult. It’s a fine set-up, almost archetypal. Bella moving from her mother who smothers her with incompetent protection to her father, who encourages her to be independent. Unfortunately Bella squanders this fine heroic set-up to become a pile of jelly for Edward to rescue.

    Harry Potter’s background, of course, is a deliberate and conscious evocation of the archetypal hero raised by the wrong family — Moses, Sigurd, Shasta in C.S. Lewis’ “A Horse and His Boy.” Rowling knows her mythopoetical literature well. Still, the Dursley scenes are among the most tedious in the subsequent books.

    I agree with Jami — the “dysfunctional family” is easily overdone. I think most families are more functional than their most dysfunctional members like to admit. As one of Despair Inc. “Demotivator” posters declares, “The one constant in all your dissatisfying relationships is you.” If the hero’s family must be dysfunctional, then let it be, but a little nuance is welcome.

  4. I think this stems from the difficulty of writing fantasy into an everyday life.

    Urban Fantasy is about bringing reality and fantasy together, and that can be a little trying. Imagining your main character with a great happy family that expects him/her to be at Bobbi’s baby-shower, the Jefferson’s Semi-Annual Family Reunion, and little Jeffey’s third birthday party when instead they could be combating evil/not-so-nice…

    How does the character justify it? Explain it to the family? There’s bound to be conflict in some regard, even if the family is all living and happy.

    In Rachel Morgan’s case there is an entire established population of people that “come-out”, and that eases the need for secrecy a bit.

    Dysfunction can also help people relate and empathize with the character.