Wednesday, 16 February 2011


Talking about gender and, more specifically, origins in class this week reminded me of an article I read last year about fathers in literature. A shortened version is available here:

It highlighted the fact that in most novels, (particularly those written for children) the father is dead, missing or in some other way "inadequate" as a parent. I'd never noticed this while reading, and was determined to prove the BBC wrong (because that's the kind of thing I enjoy doing), but I struggled to think of any books I'd read that had strong father figures in them. So I started looking back at things that I'd written myself. Of ten important characters, only two had two parents still alive and living together, one had both parents living but separated. Three had lost both parents years, sometimes decades previously, three had lost one parent at some point, and the tenth had witnessed his father murder his mother in his teenage years.

All of these decisions were made subconsciously, I suppose, since I'd never thought about the fact that hardly anybody had a traditional or stable family life. There was, in the original article, a suggestion that writers wrote about children with inadequate parents because they had inadequate parents themselves. It was implied that all writers had terrible childhoods, came from broken homes and that only with years of suffering behind them could someone write a great novel. I believe Charles Dickens was the writer's evidence for this. But I, and I'm definitely not saying I've written a great novel, come from a stable if not particularly exciting background. My parents have been married for 25 years, and, though I hated every moment of my childhood, looking back it probably wasn’t that bad. So why, then, if I come from the traditional 2.4 children family (we actually have three kids in our family, though I suspect my brother is the .4) would I write characters with bad families or troubled backgrounds? Is a normal, boring family just that? Can a great character honestly ever say that their childhood was "fine"? Do you have to have traumas in your past in order to write well?


  1. I am an example of a child from a "broken home", and I have to say from personal experience, some aspect of this often creeps through into my writing. I grew up with a mum and 2 sisters, and I've noticed that a lot of my writing is surreptitiously feminist ... I'm not suggesting my upbringing is the only reason for this, but in keeping with your piece, it could certainly be seen as one reason. However, I wouldn't say that in order to write anything half decent, you need to have had a "trauma" in your past. I do think though, perhaps rather obviously, that past experiences (traumatic or otherwise) will undoubtedly have an impact on the direction of your writing.

  2. 'Do you have to have traumas in your past in order to write well?' This is an interesting question that you could attempt to answer in a future post. You have set the discussion up well here.

    And the reference to you brother being the .4 was very funny!