I ask because, having already written in past years about notable dad characters in honour of Father’s Day (which, of course, was yesterday), I thought I’d do something slightly different and categorize them by type instead. To my semi-dismayed semi-surprise, out of nine categories I came up with… only two were positive. Doesn’t say much regarding literary daddishness, does it?
So without further ado… here are my categories, in all their glorious alliterativeness:
Sometimes, the dad figure is entirely absent from the story --- we could probably create a sub-category here, labeling it Deadbeat Dads --- creating nearly as large a strain or hole in the family dynamic as when mom’s AWOL. (Note use of qualifier. Ain’t nobody can replace a mom.) For example, the Pevensey pater in the Narnia books is gone, presumably off to the nastiness of World War II, so his absence isn’t his fault. But it does make things waaay more difficult for the rest of the family.
President Coriolanus Snow of Hunger Games notoriety is one cunning dude, as we witness when he regularly spars with Katniss. Donald Sutherland portrays him brilliantly in the films, particularly with that creepy… well, I think Stephen King called it (in relation to one of his own characters) a ‘shit-eating grin’ --- a rictus of the facial muscles utterly devoid of human warmth or good humour. It makes the contrast between Snow’s tenderness for his grand-daughter and his coldness towards Katniss all the more unnerving.
George Banks in the 1964 film Mary Poppins. (A bad dad? In a children’s classic? you whisper disbelievingly. To which I answer… oh, come on, people. Children’s lit is especially replete with awful parents of both stripes. We have many, many classical children’s lit authors who evidently had major mommy or daddy issues.) Mr. Banks isn’t an intrinsically evil man… just profoundly ignorant and arrogant. Does he love his wife and children? Well… yes, I’d say so… with one big-ass caveat: he wants them all to Know and Keep their Proper (i.e. Subservient) Places. It isn’t until Mary Poppins dynamites his smugness --- and his life ---that he realizes what a jerk he's been.
King Claudius in Will’s Hamlet. Let’s see: he’s Hamlet’s uncle, secretly murdered Hamlet’s dad the king, usurped Hamlet’s rightful crown, married Hamlet’s mom (which means we’re now in the icky/awkward situation where he’s Uncle Dad --- and just to confirm, Virginia, the evil stepdad trope does exist alongside the evil stepmom one), and oh, yes, it isn’t too far into the play when he decides to murder Hamlet, too. Not exactly a candidate for the Best Dad Ever Award. I just love a good Shakespearean tragedy.
Look, nobody questions Arthur Weasley’s love or loyalty to his wife and children in the Harry Potter books. But I think we all have to objectively agree he’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. If we’re feeling particularly charitable, we could say he possesses a child-like wonder… but that may not be the best quality when you’re confronted with a bunch of murderous Death-Eaters. (If I was feeling less charitable, I’d look at Arthur and Ron, then observe the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree…)
Mr. Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is another loving father… but, confronted with a ditzy wife and a very large contingent of daughters who all need marrying off, he retreats into his study and really doesn’t take much of a leadership role with his family. Donald Sutherland again does a marvelous job portraying him in the 1995 film version.
Not sure what this says about Tolkien, but at least two of the leading dads in The Lord of the Rings --- Elrond and Denethor --- are cold, patronizing, and dismissive. Elrond’s problem is the lesser, traditional “I know what’s best for my daughter, you’re not marrying that bum, you’re taking the next flight outta here, and that’s final” kind of silliness. But Denethor is a whole ‘nother level of nastiness, blatantly favouring older son Boromir and mercilessly disparaging younger son Faramir until it’s too late to make amends. To be fair, Denethor’s mind is unhinged by the time of his death, but even so, dismissive dads going around saying the equivalent of things like “you’re useless” and “why can’t you be more like your sibling?” cause real, lasting damage.
Now… something more uplifting…
Bob Cratchit in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Poor Bob. He toils for Ebeneezer Scrooge, who wrote the book on nasty, skinflint, miserly characters, and is the employer from hell. The work is tedious and never-ending, the working conditions appalling, and Bob’s wages are a pittance, pathetically insufficient to house and maintain his wife and alarmingly large crowd of children, including the crippled Tiny Tim. And yet… despite all this, he remains hopeful, cheerful, and passionately in love with his family. His positivity stands in stark, ironic contrast to Scrooge’s negativity. And Tim’s death in the possible future shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come leaves Bob absolutely shattered. Note that while Bob is powerless to effect change for himself and his family, he certainly dotes on them.
These are the dads who are loving, effective, and smart. Not perfect, we’re not talking Superman here, because there ain’t no such animal in either the dad or mom departments --- we all have baggage of one kind or another --- but regardless of our age, they leave us with that warm, contented, secure feeling in the pit of our stomachs, because we know they’ve got this. Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird is one such example. He’s a man of principles, acts on them --- and is prepared to do the unpopular thing when it’s also the right thing. He’s largely unflappable in the face of his children’s antics, and loves them deeply.
So there we are. I’m sure there are more categories… those were just the ones I thought of during my initial ponderings. As I say, it’s dismaying that so many of them range from the merely incompetent to downright diabolical, but it is Character Failings, gentle reader and fellow writer, which drive so many of our stories forward.
After all, perfect people are… well… boring. So fail on, literary characters. Your failings are our bread and butter.