1. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    The Orphan Phenomenon

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by ChickenFreak, Jul 14, 2014.

    So, I noticed that two out of three of my novel ideas feature main characters who are/were raised by aunts. And that made me consider the old question of why so many protagonists, especially in children's stories, are alone-in-the-world orphans, or raised by non-parent relatives.

    Explanations tend to include the idea that orphanhood frees up the characters, that it gives them strong motivations to find love and acceptance, all that sort of thing. All the explanations seem to assume that if those characters had parents, they would of course be cared for and loved and not have those needs.

    Eh.

    My theory is that a whole lot of writers had dysfunctional parents, and therefore had trouble depicting or embracing the idea of the loving parent-protector, and in fact wanted to explore the theme of a child deprived of that loving protection. Society doesn't want the loving protector identity stripped from the fictional parent, so the author just eliminated the parent instead.

    The parent's role in the conflict is replaced with a non-parent--Cinderella's stepmother, Harry's Dursleys, Sara Crewe's Miss Minchin, Anne's Marilla, Dorothy's Auntie Em. With this replacement, the author can safely explore parent/child conflict without risking the backlash that's likely to ensue if they challenge the idol of the saintly parent--especially the saintly mother. Sometimes it all works out for the characters--as with Marilla and Auntie Em. Sometimes it really, really doesn't. But even when things end sweetly, just the possibility of deep parent/child conflict can lead to trouble. (As it did, for example, with Where the Wild Things Are; when it came out, Max's anger at his mother was seen as shocking.)

    Discuss?
     
  2. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    It will be the day when someone writes about a character who was raised by loving parents who are still alive, but they have forgotten that their child exists.

    Oh wait.
     
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2014
  3. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    That is an interesting hypothesis @ChickenFreak if only there was a way to do a research on this. I wonder whether having a bad experience with parents (just like any traumatic aspect of growing up) predisposes a person to increased dysphoria, introspection, sensitivity etc. later in life, which are also qualities a lot of writers tend to have.
     
  4. ToeKneeBlack
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    ToeKneeBlack Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm guilty of using this cliche.

    My main character was raised by an elderly man who went missing one day. After spending a few years in state care, she is adopted before the events of the he first story.

    During the third story, she meets her parents and finds out why she was apparently abandoned.

    The secondary protagonist has a slightly different background, as he mistakenly thinks his mother can't cope with him since his father went missing, so he runs away prior to the events of the story. He had a loving family to take care of him and he's trying to fix it.
     
  5. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's a western thing. Our parents get a phone call from us every Christmas and at some point a brochure to a retirement home. We didn't listen to them as kids, either, or we'd sue them, plus we got more parenting and life advice from the T.V. You don't need to explain the absence of your parents in a contemporary setting. It's obvious the folks are halfway across the country and have no say in the MC's life.

    However, in many medieval fantasy settings, it's assumed that, like in real medieval times, most normal characters die a couple of feet from where they were born. Since many MCs in fantasies start off normal, this applies to them, and if pesky Mom and Dad happen to be alive, not including them in the story can be problematic. The solution is death. No mom. No dad. No problem.

    Much like how vampires make the perfect boyfriend, and photo shopped girls the perfect girlfriend, dead parents you never got to meet make the perfect parents. Children with parents are also doubly screwed in comparison to their orphan peers. The parented child not only has to deal with the unpleasant reality of mom and dad, but he/she also has to deal with the negative stigma society has placed on wishing that one's parents didn't exist. This can result in immense feelings of guilt and lack of self worth. The orphan, on the other hand, never has to meet his parents. Even better, because he/she never had to meet them, the orphaned child wants to meet them. This makes the child look fundamentally good, as opposed to the disadvantaged, un-orphaned children who are often stigmatized as spoiled, ungrateful, and selfish. Think Harry Potter vs his fat, selfish cousin, or Cinderella vs her ugly stepsisters. Since fantasy is about escapism, an orphan MC allows the un-orphaned reader to escape from the discrimination he/she faces on a daily basis.

    Another example of orphan fantasy can be found in the character of Bruce Wayne from Batman. By killing off his parents early on, three primary problems of the modern day american young adult are solved. 1. Financial. Rather than holing up in Williamsburg Brooklyn until Mom and Dad have passed on their will, Bruce Wayne's inheritance is given to him at a young age. 2. Meaning of life. With the advent of atheism and instant gratification, one might find himself wondering "what's the point." For Batman, its revenge. That point never ends. 3. Unending thrills. The moms and dads of today want their kids to study 24/7, go off to college, then work at a bank. For most, that's probably not as cool as wearing bullet proof suits and driving cars up walls. With mom and dad gone, their money in Bruce's pocket, and their deaths the perfect excuse, Batman is all but a given.


    ***Do not take this post more 50% seriously.
     
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2014
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  6. TheBaconThief
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    TheBaconThief Member

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    I feel the orphan trope is an easy way to create conflict for the main character. It creates mystery on the disappearance on the circumstances of the main characters parents and possibly introduces an exploration of how one will act (namely the writer) if they were to cope with being an orphan stuck in certain situations. Orphan tropes may seem overused but it's one that can fuel character motivations and the journey they may take.

    I'm a gamer and often see this kind of trope in RPG games to motivate the player to learn more about the characters' reason on taking on a quest to save the world/land/kingdom and force them to take on the journey. (It pry's them out their comfort zone.) Another reason why I think this trope is used is so that the reader can feel some sort of emotional connection towards the character and hope to see a better life for him/her. Essentially, it's a gimmick to rope people to feel invested into the story. Batman (and Superman to some extent) has been successfully doing this for decades now so naturally people will want to create stories of the like.
     
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  7. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    I'm going to have to agree with @TheBaconThief . It's an easy way to get someone to feel sorry for the character right off the bat. If I showed you two characters, one with loving parents in a stable home, and another orphaned and on the streets, guess who you're going to feel more sorry for. We tend to gravitate toward people whom we feel were treated unjustly by society/fate.

    It's the same reason why orphaned protagonists almost always has an abusive caretaker. Not only are they without parents, but they have to put up with this dickhead. And it's all the more awesome when they finally stand up to said dickhead and tell him/her/them to shut up and sit down. This is also the case if they do have parents, but they're cruel. We want our character to snap at the people who pushed them around; and doing so to someone who treated them wrongly their whole lives, to someone who was supposed to be the caretaker, is seen as heroic, as it shows the orphaned character has finally gotten the courage to stand up for him/herself.

    Yet, as @123456789 put it, if you took a kid with loving parents and had him/her snap and yell at the parents, that kid might end up looking like an ungrateful, spoil little twerp. 'Cause, you know, kids with loving parents don't get frustrated with them a time or two.

    @ChickenFreak - It's interesting that you mentioned the 'saintly mother'. If the character actually has parents, it's almost always the father that's the issue. He's either cruel and abusive, an alcoholic, useless and deadbeat, or just gone all the time. Mother, on the other hand, is always there for the kid through thick and thin. Why is that?
     
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  8. KatieValino
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    KatieValino Member

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    Going by your idea I completely break the code. I was raised with a wonderful mother and a father who can best be described as a bag of dicks. In every story I write, the mother is either dead or absent and the father is the loving kind gentle one like my actual mother was.

    Maybe I do it this way out of a yearning for a nice genuine dad?
     
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  9. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    No one's saying there's one right way or another. I'm just noting that it's usually typical in media that the dad's absent from the kid's life.

    Also, sorry your dad was a complete, mega asshole. :(
     
  10. chicagoliz
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    In terms of stories like Cinderella and other fairy tales that are hundreds of years old, they described scenarios that weren't all that unusual. Children were not the center of the family but viewed as labor to contribute to the needs of the family. People also died at much higher rates -- many women died in or as a result of complications from childbirth, people died of infectious disease and general infections, etc. Many things that today would lay you up for a day or two would have killed you just 100 years ago. So there was a much higher risk of being an orphan who gets only the most basic care from whatever adult is available to provide for them.

    Also, as far as stories written for children and teens, parents can be a pesky plot issue. The first question one might ask when child protagonists decide to embark on some adventure or scheme is, "Whose parents would let them do that?" If the kid is an orphan or has guardians who don't care much for him (which is more easily explained/easier to accept if they're not the biological parents), or in some cases has bio parents who have issues (addiction, etc) who don't provide much oversight, that problem goes away.
     
  11. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Completely off topic, but you win the forum today for that image. ;)

    I had a pretty normal, if sheltered, childhood, so though I clearly see the orphan phenomenon happening in literature (and other media), it's a little baffling to me. Every single young main character, save for Asami, is an orphan in the new season of Korra. They just introed a new person two episodes ago, and yup, right on cue, sad orphan story. When you grow up military, you see the world through a distorted lens of order and regimentation that you either do or don't accept as a preferential state of being. I did accept it. I grew up thinking that 'civilian kids' were a different species. Not literally, but for all intents and purposes. Their angst, which they all seemed to share like some inner secret, was not something I understood.

    The angst and fantasy fulfillment provided by The Orphan Child costume just isn't one that resonates with me. It belongs to a whole set of foreign youthful behaviors that include the "I moved out of my house at (fill in the ridiculously young age) and never looked back" badge of honor that so many young people pin to narrow chests.

    I get it, in that I see it and recognize it, but I don't get it - get it. Also, I don't write YA, so parental issues don't often come to the page for me.
     
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  12. edamame
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    edamame Contributing Member Contributor

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    I always thought child characters were made orphans to give them more agency. An aunt or uncle can provide a home, love, but they're not seen as disciplinarians the way parents are. It also forces the character to mature beyond their years. I mean, do you want a YA fantasy about a child going on some life-threatening quest to avenge their parents or a slice-of-life novel about a kid being grounded in their room and not getting the same attention that their siblings are? They both have their places, but some authors want high stakes.
     
  13. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    *snerk*

    Your post reminds me of how in the 4th grade we had to read a whole biographical series on handicapped, injured, or sickly real kids who grew up to be strong, inventive, and famous adults. I ate them up, and for a long time I thought a physical handicap was necessary for success in life!
     
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  14. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    There's another thread currently running in the forum that intimates that some kind of recognizable eccentricity/obsession is a prerequisite for fame as a writer. Oh, the messages we do get fed. ;)
     
  15. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    @ChickenFreak , yeah, avoiding the Oedipus issue (or whatever the shrinks are calling it these days) is very likely one factor in the Orphan Phenomenon.

    But reading these stories, I've also observed that the kids in them seem to be a lot freer. Not always, but under less supervision somehow. So they can get up to more adventures. Whereas in a stable, loving, two-parent home they'd have their mom and dad on their case all the time, everything would stay orderly, and nothing would happen. Barring crime or tragedy, that is, and these books generally aren't tragedies.

    Going along with this is the sense that the maiden aunt's or the new guardian's home presents a whole new world to explore, which leads, again, to adventures. The child's environment is no longer just a given and his curiosity is piqued.

    Not to say there can't be secret rooms in Mom and Dad's house as well, but in somebody else's house a kid is less likely to take them for granted.

    The orphaned state is a way of disrupting the comfortable status quo. And without disrupting the status quo, there is no story.
     
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  16. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    We all write things that fascinate us or mirror some aspect of our own personality or something that fascinates and interests us.

    My sister writes stories and her protagonists always tend to be either kidnapped or held hostage as a main plot point - it's not a flaw it just is what it is.

    Personally, I always wonder why I as a male author ALWAYS have a female protagonist - populating my story with men is always hard but the women come easy. I think it's because I don't find the male mind all that interesting to study (I possess one, therefore I know how it works and it's not foreign to me). Plus I like the fact that by making my heroes petite women, I take all possible "brute force" solutions off the table and force the protag to overcome the conflict with just brains and charm (which is what I like to read).

    But we all have things like that.
     
  17. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    I can relate to that. Many of my early protagonists were either blind, legally blind, or were missing an eye. That stemmed from the fact that I myself am legally blind in my left eye, had a few blind friends growing up, and generally found writing about blind people to be easy (and cool.) Of course, I cut back on it because I felt like almost every other character had something wrong with their eyes.

    So I guess if you feel like you've got too many orphans, ChickenFreak, don't be afraid to cut back on them if you think you should. :)
     
  18. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    This ^.

    I, like @edamame, don't read any deep meaning between the orphan trope and the author's personal issues. Rather I see it as a means to an end, leaving the parental clutter out of the story because it serves to give the protagonist a freer hand.

    My novel includes generational conflict. Parents are a means of showing the society's norms and expectations that the young adults in the making are rejecting. I have three main characters and three main parents, each with different roles in telling the story.
     
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  19. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    "So I guess if you feel like you've got too many orphans, ChickenFreak, don't be afraid to cut back on them if you think you should."

    Or find different forms of "orphanhood" - detached parents, boarding schools, etc.

    Or better yet purposefully plant NON orphaned characters who can provide outsider commentary on the behaviors and neuroses of your orphans.

    All of my characters, purposefully, are an exploration of the American semi-privileged upper-middle-class - they are all either white or Asian, never knew poverty, come from stable intact families, and had no trouble going to college for their chosen fields. They are like that on purpose, because it contrasts with the world falling apart behind them and shows that the people making the decisions don't always have the same experiences as the people most at risk. However, I recently decided to throw in a character who comes from an impoverished minority group, grew up poor with a single mother, had serious substance abuse issues in her family, and only got to the top with all of my other characters by sheer force of will and luck. That has enriched the story a lot in my mind, because she is equipped to vocalize just how absurd the "first world problems" of the other characters are, while at the same time providing the other characters an up-close-and-personal look at someone who has the exact opposite set of experience-based-neuroses (she clearly has issues from a lack of a father figure in her life, often acts out recklessly, has a serious temper, etc.).
     
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  20. Charisma
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    Funny, I've hardly ever used orphans in my stories. I have inflicted all sorts of predicaments--abusive psychopathic parent, single distressed parent, polygamy, struggling couples, etc. But orphaning, at least in the traditional sense, has been maybe used once or twice; one time that I definitely recall using it, the protagonist was almost nine when he lost his parents, and they were eaten alive in front of him. In another, the protagonist lost his mother when she gave birth to his sister, and later the sister burned the father to death. Anyway. XD Point being I guess I don't find it a particularly attractive plot device. Part of the reason may be that coming from a collectivist culture, my characters, Eastern or Western, mirror how I construe my own identity. Like for me, parents are an integral part of my character's identity, meaning and storyline. Orphaning him/her is almost as if I've lost pieces of his/her overall image. Many of you (I may be wrong) seem to come from individualist cultures, where the tendency for a unique personal identity is more common, and so orphaning the child may make it easier to better develop the character. Of course, that's just my two cents.

    Nonetheless, I agree with many of the above reasons for resorting to using the orphan phenomenon in writing. Both psychological and utilitarian reasons make sense; orphaning the child means the character can be developed more freely (@GingerCoffee ) and any substitutes for parents aren't as integral to the storyline anyway, and their role is more of a facilitator than a disciplinarian (@edamame ). The protagonist is quickly seen is good for trying to find out about his real parents, or thinking about them anyhow, while the substitutes, especially if they're bitter and cold, become the bad guys (@Link the Writer ). As for the originally proposed hypothesis, that seems to be true too. Society does find it hard to shun parents as the antagonizing force; they are supposed to be the two people in the world who truly, unconditionally love you, who symbolize the good in a person's life. Making them faulty is quite common but maybe orphaning is easier, especially if you want to retain the symbolism of hope in a person's life. I myself am the youngest of a bitter, unhappy couple, but like I said I've hardly orphaned my characters.
     
  21. ToeKneeBlack
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    There are plenty of ways to lose parents, including:
    Parents killed by the antagonist / random bad guy / freak accident / illness, etc
    Baby kidnapped and raised by a non-parent
    Baby abandoned by parents, either because the parents are lazy or they feel the child would be better off with another family
    Parents raising their child and telling them they were adopted as part of a twisted social experiment
    Parents raise their child normally, not knowing their child was cloned and the clone raised in a lab, only to discover the truth and come looking for the biological parents of the original

    There are probably loads more, but these are either the most common or the least used ones I could think of. When portraying the protagonist as an orphan, it might be interesting to try a new spin on the idea.
     
  22. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    For example.
     
  23. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Of all the above reasons for why an author might write about an orphaned character, agency persuades me the most. When a young character goes on some adventure or faces some life or death challenge completely on his own, orphanhood avoids the dreaded "Where the hell are his parents?" question that breaks the suspension of disbelief. It makes the story easier to write.
     
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  24. SuperVenom
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    Some people like to root for the underdog. Its easy to go up from starting so low. Orphans embody in literature the ultimate low , an existance normally lacking in protection or love. To la less harsh look that they are a perfect idium to ask the question "who am I? Where do I come from? " perfect start points for adventure. Also in yonger books it allows the readers to empathise and be on the level but gives them the freedom to HAVE an unadulterated adventure.
     
  25. peachalulu
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    I was raised by loving parents who of course had their moments. If I want to orphan a character it's usually to free their situation and make them able to move without having to account their time to someone, but it's also because I knew a number of foster kids and their battles to find love and yet sabotage this quest at the same time. It's haunted me and my writing for years. Identity and self-sabotage are two themes I love.
    I think it's part this and part the how-to books pushing conflict!motivation!higherstakes! Writing has become less subtle over the years. A character can barely have a moment of peace without something happening. Which could also be a manifestation of our boredom driven society.
     

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