If you read a lot of my stories, there's generally one parent missing. This isn't because I've lost either of my parents, but because I know how lucky I am not to. Losing a family member can be one of the hardest things that a teenager can deal with and yes, I have dealt with that risk. My dad had cancer when I was a teenager and I struggled to cope with the uncertainty, I couldn't focus on my school work and I didn't tell anyone about it, because I didn't know what to say or what the outcome would be.
In my stories, I try to tackle issues that a lot of teenagers have to deal with, even if I don't have personal experience with them. For example, in one of my stories, the MC chooses not to have an experimental treatment for a brain tumour, because the chances of survival are in the single percentile and he wants to live what he's got left of his life, healthy and able to live those days to the fullest. In Evander, I have three boys who are in a love triangle, who end up in a relationship together. I've never had a relationship with two people at the same time.
But, as a writer, if you only wrote what you knew, you'd run out of material really quickly.
Personally, I like to challenge my characters. I like to put them into uncomfortable, awkward situations and have them fight their way out, finding their strength and courage during the journey.
I also use the 'missing parent' option, as a way of cutting down on characters and limiting the support system of my characters. If a girl doesn't have a mother to turn to, when in the midst of a high school drama, who will she turn to instead? Where is she going to get advice and who is going to help her through it? If a guy grows up without a father, what effect is that going to have on his psyche, on the way he interacts with friends, school kids or other adults?
If you can limit the options for your characters, you put them into a corner that they have to fight out of. That's how I want my characters to operate. There will be the occasional 'control' character, who has the perfect life and realises how lucky they are, in contrast to the other characters, who have less than perfect lives. But, in reality, most people don't have perfect lives. Even if they say they do.
Because I write MM romances, as well, there's often a situation where my character has been thrown out by their family and lives with a friend, has moved in with one parent while the other hates them, or is lucky enough to be appreciated and accepted by both parents.
Mostly, I remember being in high school and everyone having a different story. That's what my characters have; no two are the same and no two have the same home life. Some are lucky, some are really unlucky, while some coast along in the middle.
Life is never stable. Things happen, people get sick, go away, are deployed or have been gone for so long that there's no memory of them. It's the same in my stories. Realism is important to me and if there was no loss, grief, love, longing or need in my characters, the story would lose heart.
Check out a few different situations I've covered so far:
Decadent - Lachlan has both parents, one accepting and the other reluctant
The Other Side - Konnor's parents disown him
Right Kind of Wrong - Tam's parents are the perfect loving couple, who have always openly accepted him
The Cellist - Ben's parents are there, but he's not close to them. Roman's mother is negligent at best, while his father is a violent bully.
The Alpha and the Oracle - Katarina lost her mother at an early age, but her father is very close to her. Milo has both parents, but isn't particularly close to either. He ends up hating his father.
In my upcoming stories, I challenge a few more parental related issues. In one particularly hard-hitting YA novel, one character, Tate, is homeless, after his mother was arrested for drug dealing. He isn't close to her and doesn't know who his father is. When he's sent into foster care, two dads treat him in two different horrible ways, so he chooses to live on the street. His love interest, Romeo, is in foster care, after running away from his father, who got sole custody of him when he turned 8 and his mother died. From then on, Romeo was sold to multiple men and has to live with the consequences of his father's brutality.
Life isn't fair, for my characters, but it's not fair in real life, either. How many times do you open a newspaper and read an article about a criminal or someone who joined a gang or terrorist organisation, because their home life was unstable? I've seen the documentaries and read about the theory that the loss of one parent during the first 5 years of life can be a contributing factor in creating a serial killer. It doesn't have to be true, because there are plenty of people who have lost a parent at that age and turned out fine, but it's a risk.
How often do you read a report of a man or woman who was killed or died in a tragic accident, natural event, mass murder, terrorist plot and left kids behind? The first thing I wonder is - how will the kids cope?
So what do we do with our characters? We make them as real as possible. Use the news, use psychological evidence, use whatever is at your disposal, to make your characters as real as they can be.
No matter what you do to them, there will be someone out there who can relate to it.
This sums up everything I want my characters to experience.