The Orphan in Fiction

Posted: October 30, 2013 in Reflections, Writing
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The other day I was reading a blog post by impossiblegirl123, author of Life and Other Diasters, that got me thinking. The post was about the author’s favorite books growing up, and I mentioned some of mine in the comment sections. It was then that I noticed something interesting about the books mentioned: several of them had orphans as main characters. From Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Eragon to The Thief Lord and The Bartimaues Trilogy, all these books had at least one parentless child as the protagonist.

Now here’s my question: why? Why are orphans so popular in fiction, especially fiction aimed at children and young adults? It’s not something I’ve considered before, though now that I look at it the orphan trope seems pretty popular. Heck, I use orphans in Reborn City: all the main characters are orphans in one sense or another! So in this post I’m going to try and figure out why orphans are so popular as protagonists, especially when in real life orphans aren’t that lucky to be in harrowing adventures involving magic, love, and mystery (how many series did I just pin down right there?).

1. We want to think good things will happen after horrible events occur. I think that’s the more emotional reason behind the orphan trope. Everybody hopes that after a disaster occurs, such as the loss of parents, we’ll be then blessed by something extraordinary. Having orphan characters, people who have no parents and are affected by their absence in some manner, allows for us to identify with the characters and what we hope would potentially happen to us should, God forbid, we tragically lose our parents before their time.

2. Who needs parents in the way? An orphan cahracter is a parentless character. And how many times would a parent get in the way of a character if they had to set out on a probably very dangerous journey? I’d say 100% of the time. Hence, having an orphan character means parents won’t get in the way of the plot development.

3. Great introspection. Parents help to shape our identities. Orphans are therefore somewhat lacking an identity. During the course of their journeys and adventures, there is plenty of room for an orphaned protagonist to wonder about the important questions, such as “Who am I? What’s my purpose in life? Why was I abandoned to the world? Will I ever find someone who will love me for who I am? Why do terrible monsters keep coming after me?” It’s perfect for authors who love to add a little grounding introspection and character development in the middle of a pulpy action-adventure plot.

4. A morality tale. As children we’re often taught the difference between right and wrong from our parents. When you have a lack of parents, whom do you learn right and wrong from? Do you even get a chance to learn or do you have to figure it out yourself? Do you ever figure it out at all? All of us want to believe that fi we were in horrible situations, like being orphaned at a young age, we’d be just as moral and virtuous as we are in reality (which might be a contributing factor in the continuing popularity of Oliver Twist and Harry Potter, two orphaned boys with incredibly kind dispostitions). Personally I find the story slightly more interesting when the orphan in question has to struggle to be the righteous and confident hero, which will forever put me at odds with the first couple chapters of Sorcerer’s Stone, but you still can’t deny that there’s something about characters who remain good in the face of adversity that just makes you want to love them, right?

From many Brothers Grimm protagonists, to Tom Sawyer and Oliver Twist, to Batman and Spider-Man, to Harry Potter and Eragon, we love orphans in fiction for any number of reasons. The reasons we may include them in our stories may be any of the ones listed above or perhaps an entirely different reason, but the reasons are why orphans are a continuously popular trope in fiction and while they’ll still play large parts in the stories we write for years to come.

Do you have a favorite orphan character? Have you ever written an orphan character? Why do you like the character or why did you use that sort of character archetype?

  1. I am glad you had the time to write the post 😀 it is really well thought through and I wondered whether I had a favourite orphan-character or not, but I can’t decide whom I like most. But I did once write a story where the protagonist was an orphan. In fact there were quite a few charactrrs that had lost one or both parents.

  2. Sean Lynch says:

    Interesting analysis Rami, you bring up some good points.

  3. Rami, you continue to do creative work. Please keep up the good work.

  4. Most interesting. I always like a thought piece, and this is something which I’ve rarely seen discussed. I guess its one of those issues few people like to think about, as its a really delicate matter and sure to inspire a ton of pathos.

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