That's the old joke about family from my college days. I love my friends, they are like family to me--in fact, when confronted by a nightmarish boyfriend situation, I ran to my friends for help. The thing is, that family that some of us run from in our teenaged years is always with us, informing our friendships at school, at work, and finally in our own romantic relationships.
When a famous writer or critic suggested that all drama is simply family drama in disguise, it made sense to me. And not just Tennessee Williams plays, but pretty much any story ever written, from the Bible to Fifty Shades of Grey.
If your protagonist is working out their family issues (probably the author's family issues) in the subtext of his or her relationships with friends and enemies in the story, it makes sense that you won't always have room for the protagonist's literal family. That's the real reason Disney movies tend to kill off one or both parents--there's no room! Or, two living parents would make it too easy for the protagonist to solve their problems. Beware close reads of movie stories--there are usually too many people developing an American mainstream movie story for close reads to make much sense. But we were talking about crime fiction...
If the President of the United States is standing in for Mr. Protagonist's dad, his real dad isn't going to have much to do.
In addition to all that, much American detective fiction comes from a tradition of alienation, not integration, from Cornell Woolrich through Jim Thompson right up through Patricia Highsmith and Walter Mosley. I love that corner of the crime fiction world--but writing a female main character who is as alienated as, say, Sam Spade has a few pitfalls.
Many female detectives get "permission" to be detectives because of an important relationship with their father, a man in a similar line of work. You can see that "permission" at work in all manner of fiction, even Disney movies, where a woman's strength is explained by her father's occupation or influence. There's certainly less of that than there used to be--writers as diverse as Diana Gabaldon and Sophie Littlefield write strong women who are the authors of their own fates, fathers' careers unmentioned.
Nonetheless, due to the double-bind American culture often puts women in, female detectives are set up to be unempathetic--the one thing that will make an agent and editor drop a manuscript faster than adverbs and bad POV switches! Think about your favorite fictional male detective. Now, change his gender but not his behavior. Women without friends, women who sleep with people for sex more than romance, and especially women who kill, are judged very differently from men who do so in crime fiction. Less so now than a decade or two ago, but I still hear it whispered that a series character who is a woman just can't kill.
What's a writer to do with a cranky, middle-aged, alienated woman protagonist, to make her someone that the audience can empathize with yet still capable of battling killers?
My solution was completely accidental. Without realizing it, I dropped her in a story whose subtext was just like Hamlet--one "parent" is dead, and my heroine has to figure out if her other "parent" did it, though the reader doesn't realize this until the very end. And by the end, my woman is starting out again, wobbly as a teen mom, more alone than, I hope, every person who picks up the book, with the same fears and vulnerabilities we all share in our deepest hearts.
Grief and alienation are my writerly sweet spot, so I don't think there will be many happy families in my stories, despite the fact that I love my brothers and their wives and children truly, madly, deeply. Or, maybe it's just that I'm lazy and giving a lead character a loving family is like making them rich--it's that much harder to create obstacles for them.
What is your favorite fictional familial relationship? The mom/son pair from The Grifters? The odd metaphorical family in The Maltese Falcon? Or something a little healthier?