Cover to Cover: The emphasis on family in twenty-first century literature


Do you ever feel a sense of empathy for the bad guys in the books you read, or the movies you watch?  Even in the case of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, I was intrigued by the origin story of “He Who Must Not Be Named.” And, of course, that’s why Half-Blood Prince, which dives deeply into Voldemort’s past, is my absolute favorite in the series.

Don’t worry; there are no spoilers in this column!

When I’m reading, I can’t help but question why the antagonist chose the path they’re on in the story. What was that traumatizing past experience, I ask, that caused them to take up the role of the adversary? 

Luckily, Rowling and other contemporary authors often answer that question for us, devoting passages, chapters and books to explaining the harsh upbringing of “the bad guy.”

In fact, I’d say that the destructive nature of these characters is routinely traceable to the negative relationships between the antagonists and the paternal figures in their lives. One example would be Mr. Harvey in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002), in which Sebold devotes a chapter to Harvey’s childhood, and clearly establishes a connection between the harmful upbringing of the antagonist, and the harm he later poses onto Susie Salmon and others.

Author Colson Whitehead does the same thing with Ridgeway in his 2016 novel, Underground Railroad. Like Sebold, Whitehead briefly cuts away from the main plot, setting aside a chapter to give his audience a glimpse at the negative relationship between father and son.

And it’s not just in literature; movies and television series also often take extra steps to showcase the dynamic between father and son. CW’s The Flash dedicated an entire episode (season 2, episode 3, The Family of Rogues) to establishing the negative relationship between Leonard Snart, a.k.a. Captain Cold, and his father Lewis.

In this, there is a message directed at two different groups. The first is to today’s parents, asking them to consider their own parenting styles and the impact even the smallest actions might have on the development of their child.

The second is to young adult readers, who may have experienced similar dynamics within their homes, providing reassurance that the adoption of the unfavorable ideas and practices they may have experienced is not the only option for them as they continue to mature.  

Either way, it’s interesting to note the special attention that’s been given to the interactions between antagonists and their families in these stories and many others. By showing how those relationships shape antagonists, authors encourage us to look to our own lives, beseeching us to establish and foster strong, healthy relationships with those we love.


Graham Duncan is a graduate of Clinton High and Lander University. He works as a staff writer at Lander, and is pursuing a master’s at Converse College. He can be reached at

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