What shocked us most about this trope, as we went through our Book Review Master list,
was how common this trope was. Literally, we went down our master list and struggled to find series where this trope didn’t apply. No, seriously - nearly every last series we’ve read included this trope. It has become less of a trope and more of a requirement in the genre.
Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series has Kate with a dead mother, a dead stepfather and a hard childhood training to be a killer
Jennifer Estep’s Elemental Assassin series has Gin who was tortured and her parents were murdered when Gin was a child.
L A Banks’ Vampire Huntress series has Damali who lost her parents to vampires and demons when she was a baby
Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series has Harry orphaned and then raised by an abusive (and evil) wizard.
Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series has Kat’s mother raped by a vampire who then brought Kat up to loathe herself.
Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire series has Sookie as a sexually abused orphan
LJ Smith’s Vampire Diaries has Elena and Jeremy both as having recently lost their parents.
The very premise of the Secret Circle requires that all 6 witches have lost a parent - or two.
Kelley Armstong’s Otherworld series sets new records with unhappy childhoods - Elena lost her parents as a child and was traumatised watching them die then went through a series of foster homes when she was sexually abused. Clay was abused as a child and ran away. Jeremy’s father was abusive. Jaime’s father was dead and her mother was (and is) abusive.
Laurell K Hamilton smashes Kelly Armstrong’s record - Anita lost her mother, Jason had an abusive father, Stephen and Gregory had a sexually abusive father, Nathanial had an abusive father - and of course Meredith Gentry has been beaten, tortured and faced repeated attempted murders by her aunt and uncle and has an abusive mother. The majority of the characters have an abusive or tragic past.
I could go on - Morgan Rice’s Vampire Journals, Patricia Brigg’s Mercy Thomas series, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments, Yasmine Galenorn’s Sisters of the Moon, Seressia Glass’ Shadowchasers, Kim Harrison’s Hollows, Vicki Petterson’s Zodiac series, Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, Lauren Dane’s Goddess with a Blade - on and on, but tragic childhoods seem to be standard throughout the genre - an inclusive list would literally involve referring to nearly every book we’ve read and every series we’ve watched. It’s almost as thought the authors believe that the reader cannot identify with protagonist unless they are suitably traumatised in some manner. And we’re not talking about loss of a parent - we most certainly know that there are innumerable single parent households where the children have had happy and joyful childhoods. But these are not them. Perhaps the greatest link between these childhoods is not so much the loss of a parent - but suffering, tragedy, pain and angst.
In some ways the ubiquitous nature of lost parents and suffering children makes it impossible to absorb the impact of any of them. It reminds me of Monty Python’s 4 Yorkshireman sketch
(originally taken from “At Last the 1948 Show”
It has reached the point where it's almost a competition). I can see it now:
Author A: My protagonist had a sad childhood, no-one understood her.
Author B: Well, my protagonist was misunderstood and had a tragic accident
Author C: My protagonist was misunderstood AND lost her best friend
Author A: hah, well My protagonist lost her best friend who died in front of her
Author C: in front of her? My protagonist was splattered by the blood
Author B: Well my protagonist lost her mother - who died tragically in front of her AND was splattered by the blood
Author A: Well MY protagonist lost her mother AND her father and held their hands as they died
Author C: My protagonist lost her parents and was tortured horribly my vampires for 2 weeks
Author B: 2 weeks? My protagonist dreamed of only being tortured for 2 weeks! She was tortured for 10 years!
Author A: MY protagonist was tortured for 100 years in a special pocket dimension of torture!
Author C: My protagonist was tortured in the pocket dimension of torture AND sexual abuse...
And so on and so on. It has reached a point where I read of a character with a terrible, tragic past and I feel no impact from it. It has been so over done that it has lost its emotional impact. It has been used and abused so often as a form of cheap and quick drama that it is demeaned and diminished. I dislike intensely that these life changing and often horrific experiences are reduced to cheap drama and empty characterisation.
And it is empty. Very rarely do these characters have much in the way of long term effects from their traumatic experiences. We rarely see any of them seek therapy, or any kind of help to deal with their past. At best we see a few nightmares or sad moments designed to make them look tragic (or to add a brief barrier in the romance before the magical healing sexing kicks in) rather than to analyse the effects of the abuse. It is offensive that these real life horrendous experiences are treated so cheaply and used so casually without the respect and caution that they deserve. I also believe that this minimises the difficulties of people who suffer with PTSD and similar issues. How many times does true love - or even just good sex - cure the troubled heart, the hurt mind and the scarred soul? Major mental illnesses, extreme past trauma, doesn’t disappear on the wave of a magic wand or by applying a penis the size of one’s forearm. It sets up the idea that if you just push the trauma aside it will either dissipate or become easier to live with over time, or that it is easily solved and cured. To be clear, these are life shattering events and it would not be a weakness to seek help nor are they always cured.
So why do we have this repeated? Well it’s easy characterisation. The traumatic past sets the protagonist up as an underdog, the wounded character that we’re supposed to feel sorry for. By being pitiable we’re supposed to instantly root for the character - we want her to succeed and do well simply because she has been through so much. It’s instant (and lazy) way to get us to identify with the protagonist and to like them. And, again, that is problematic because these really devastating experiences are being used so cheaply - so disrespectfully.
Another usage for the loss of parents also works in a way that it leaves the female protagonist open to the influence of the supernatural. They are isolated, vulnerable and often lacking role models or people they can trust to advise them. In some ways this adds to the predatory nature of many of these relationships
especially when we also consider the age gap between the supernatural creature and the, often, school aged protagonist. They are easy prey - wounded, alone and often with less support - which is, in some ways, further victimising them.
Many of these traumatic experiences are also outright abusive. The thing about growing in an abusive situation, is that it is far more often that when one matures the abuse is so normalized that when it occurs again it is seen as acceptable. There is no recognition that they are repeating the past or how the past has influenced their decision to accept clearly abusive relationships. That the woo is used to excuse the violence, stalking and manipulation ends up giving them cause to justify their repeated acceptance of this behaviour thus continuing the cycle.
Of course this is all serves to enforce the role of woman as victim and is therefore highly sexist. Women are not the heroes of their own stories and are only redeemed by the love that enters their life rather than finding the inner strength to seek help or to refute the abuse entirely with a declaration that they deserve more out of love, life and relationships.
All in all, this trope of abused and traumatic childhood is problematic on many levels. It cheapens and exploits severe abuse. It demeans how much this affects your life and it uses severe abuse not as a topic to explore in itself - but as a tool to be used for cheap and easy characterisation. These topics deserve better - and, really, is it really that necessary for every protagonist to be that tragic?