The Danger of Safety

Let’s go to the circus together. Shall we?

There is much to see, and all of it excites. But the events that really make the trip special are the ones that defy death. You know which ones I’m talking about.

It’s what the circus is known for: the tightrope and the trapeze. Performing artists walk or fly through open air high over the audience’s heads, and all are amazed by their feats of skill.

Such skills are acquired through practice, naturally. And during practice, the arena is fitted with safety netting, hung just below the high wires, to catch any falling performers.

But that safety netting is not present in the actual show. Not only would it obscure the audience’s view of the action, it would ruin the stunt completely, and I think we all know why.

It’s Not a Miracle if You’ve Got a Backup Plan

All entertainment can be summed up in one statement: people want to see a miracle.

It’s why magic shows exist. It’s also why movies exist. Comedy is best when it speaks the unspeakable. Action is best when it does the impossible. And drama is best when it reconciles the irreconcilable.

People want to see the absurd made real.

And the presence of a safety net destroys that. Suddenly, those trapeze artists are no longer flying through the air, they’re just experimenting in a controlled environment where nothing is ventured or gained.

Bravo. *Sarcastic clap*

How This Translates to Writing

Recently, I’ve noticed a concerning trend in the publishing world.

Now, agents and acquisitions editors make decisions about what kinds of stories to publish, and many of them are charitable enough to advertise what kinds of stories they are looking for.

But one item that has been popping up lately on people’s wish lists is extremely out of place. So much so that I have to question the wisdom of the current generation of industry professionals in even considering it.

I am referring to the idea of family support structures in fiction.

Now, this is not so much an issue in adult fiction with adult protagonists, since whatever family structures an adult protagonist has are dependent on that protagonist to keep them alive. These family structures do not support the protagonist. If anything, they make life harder.

But for Young Adult and Middle Grade stories, it is common for the main characters to either lack families or have glaring holes in them. One parent will be dead, or both. The surviving parent will be feeble, unhelpful, or outright abusive. Any siblings will be younger or otherwise unable to help. And there is good reason for all of this: if the character has the support of a loving family, they have a safety net.

And any story that has a safety net, much like every tightrope act that has one, is not a miracle. Nor is it even an event. It’s just practice. And nobody shells out money to watch practice.

Yet here we are, and I keep seeing requests for living parents, and even for support from extended family, to hold the protagonist’s hand, and lift them up when they lose all confidence in themselves.

And Their Heart is in the Right Place

Wanting both parents to be alive is part of an ongoing fight against cliches. Mostly because the dead mom or dad trope has been Disneyed to death.

And wanting extended families thrown into the mix is part of an effort to highlight the importance of extended families in society. Because they’re PRETTY FREAKING IMPORTANT. For most of history, living with extended family was the norm. In many cultures, large extended families sharing a roof is still considered ideal and families will make an effort to make it work.

There isn’t honestly anything wrong with depicting an extended family, and there is nothing wrong with living in one.

The Problem is Helpfulness

No, the real issue is using these families as a kind of emotional support pillow, to soften the hardships the protagonist has to endure. Requests have been made to show how the character takes strength from their family network.

And that is wrong. A protagonist has no business taking strength from their family. As a rule, any family member who has any strength to give must be dead or incapacitated.

Even emotional support is dangerous. Does your heroine have a loving mother who encourages her to follow her pop star dreams? She’s killing the story. She will keep the story from ever being loved and leave it in the gutter to die. The story must therefore kill her in self defense.

How about the supportive grandpa who is the only one who believes your child hero’s claims about witches in the forest? Well he’d better be doddering to the point of useless. Otherwise, his only viable function is as a damsel in distress for the hero to save.

And if you take that one supportive relative and multiply them—once, twice, or a dozen times—you have killed your story. You have wiped your bottom with the pages and flushed them down the toilet. Because a safe protagonist is a dull protagonist.

Life Does Not Spare Us

I am reminded of a quote by an American novelist:

I realized that if I was going to assume the responsibility of writing about my home, I needed narrative ruthlessness. I couldn’t dull the edges and fall in love with my characters and spare them. Life does not spare us.

JESMYN WARD

This is an important lesson for every author. Because dealing with fictional characters is not like dealing with real people.

If you see a real person drowning in quicksand, the only right course of action is to rescue them. Always.

But if a fictional character is drowning in quicksand, you must not rescue them. You must instead roll boulders into the quicksand to crush the character, or send a shower of fiery arrows to chase them as they swim through the mire. Or surround the sand pit ROUSes, ready to pounce as soon as the protagonist escapes the trap.

Capybaras are freakin’ HUGE.

When it comes to family structures—nuclear, extended, adoptive, or otherwise—you are allowed to have whatever the story requires, but only as long as it does not solve problems for the characters.

If anything, a character’s family situation should deprive them of options, or make their existing options harder.

Safety is Dangerous

I don’t want to name any examples, but I have also seen some recent works of fiction, in various fields, that attempt to shelter the protagonist with a loving support structure. And those stories never fail to FAIL.

Until the safety net is removed, there is no miracle. We love Harry Potter because the Dursleys were so cruel to him. Spider-man is Marvel’s most popular character because he has been strung through multiple family deaths and is hated by the city that he protects. And neither of them would be remembered today if they’d had someone to kiss their boo-boos better every night.

When a character triumphs despite their lack of support, and rises from the ashes of defeat like a mighty phoenix—that is a story that satisfies.

It may be a cliche, but it’s a cliche that people never tire of. Perhaps only because we want to believe that we are also capable of triumphing against adversity. We want a miracle in our own lives, which is why we keep watching those trapeze artists and hoping that, on some level, we are like them.