This time in Writing DNA we're discussing Family Ties. Not the sitcom from the 80's for those who remember, but the family relationships that can influence (or hinder) heroes and villains in Young Adult Mysteries.
Lamar "L.R." Giles: What traits run in your family? Do you come from a long line of athletes or chefs? Are you all tall, short? Does everyone have brown hair? Does your family have an affinity for solving (or committing) crimes? From the YA Mystery genre's first family, The Hardy Boys, to Katarina Bishop, daughter of an art thief in Ally Carter's Heist Society, sometimes crime is just in the blood. As writers, we're often asked what motivates characters? There's nothing quite like a long line of trouble makers and trouble seekers to imbue a character with the right amount of drive and skill to get the job done.
Diana Renn: In many young adult mysteries, a young sleuth's family seems to provide obstacles to effective detective work (setting limits and curfews, restricting their freedom) OR the family recedes into the background, maybe popping up as an occasional annoyance. More and more in YA mysteries, I see only children (siblings complicate plots, and mystery plots are complex enough). I see many absent, traveling, alcoholic, or clueless parents -- often single parents -- again, perhaps because it's easier to get them out of the scene and explain why the young sleuth has the freedom to hunt for clues or to get into dicey situations. But I'm always looking for exceptions. I find some mysteries are really compelling when they hit close to home -- that is, when they directly involve the main character's family members. If a young sleuth is motivated to find a missing sibling or parent, or to clear the name of a relative who's been wrongly accused, or to save a family business -- or to save a family name -- that's high stakes, and I'm all in. I particularly like Peter Abraham's Echo Falls series -- there is some family dysfunction, but they are a nuclear family dealing with realistic issues. I also love Laura Resau's Notebook series (The Indigo Notebook, The Red Notebook, and The Jade Notebook) because the mysteries the teen sleuth pursues directly relate to her ongoing quest for a family; the mysteries she solves in various countries put her on the path to finding lost family and becoming more anchored in the world.
Elisa Ludwig: I'd argue that family relations are critical to character development in any story. How the protagonist feels about their parents and their siblings, even if these characters don't play a prominent role, tells us a lot about who they are. In mysteries, family can support or obstruct the protagonist's search for the truth, or they can provide extra motivation—something to prove. A recent example is Sheela Chari's Vanished. Neela, the protagonist is thwarted in her search for her missing veena by her parents' rules and refusal to believe her. At the same time, Neela's pesky little brother is a constant source of comic relief before they ultimately find some understanding. All of these relationships make the story that much richer, and they ground it in a believable context for readers.