Being a parent in fiction is a hazardous occupation.
According to the U.S. census (XLS), 70% of children in the United States live with both parents and a scant 4% live with neither; the proportion whose parents are actually dead must be even smaller than the latter. Nevertheless, a strong proportion–perhaps a majority–of fictional children and youth have no parents.
Hard luck on the parents, I say. Being a parent is a valuable role, but you’d never know it from books and movies, particularly those geared at children. And it isn’t as if killing off the parents is necessary to create a good story; indeed, dead parents represent a wide range of ways in which authors take the easy road at the expense of quality and creativity.
Orphaned characters are cliché. It’s practically a given that a young character will be missing one or both parents; families that fit the most common demographic are, in comparison, innovative and groundbreaking. Stories often seem shackled to orphaned protagonists even when it works against the overall narrative. A curious example shows up in the film Hugo (not having read the book, I can’t verify whether it’s there too): Isabelle specifically mentions that Georges Méliès isn’t her grandfather, but her godfather. But Isabelle’s real-life counterpart, Madeleine Malthête-Méliès, actually was Méliès’ granddaughter. Scorsese, at no benefit to the film, went out of his way to contradict history in order to fit Isabelle into the mold of the child with no living relatives*.
Orphans represent lazy writing. Parents and siblings immediately create a significant cast before the author has even introduced whatever best friends, girls next door, teachers, pets, evil stepmothers, or wise old people the story is actually going to focus on. All these characters will need names, roles, personalities, and relationships with the protagonist. They in turn influence the protagonist. A child with parents can’t strike off on a solo adventure without some kind of explanation of why the parents don’t stop him or her; if the parents are present for the adventure, the author will need to balance the story so that both the parents and the child have interesting and relevant parts. Making a child an orphan allows the author to skip all these challenges; a simple “I never knew my parents” and the child can be on his or her way unimpeded.
Orphans represent cheap emotional appeals. There’s an art to creating a sympathetic protagonist. You need to give him or her positive traits to that will appeal to the audience, but they must be balanced by flaws that keep the protagonist from looking too perfect. You need to use the character’s personality to build reader investment, so that we really want him or her to succeed.
Or you could just make the character an orphan. Poor little thing, facing such hardships, yet always persevering. Add a trinket from a dead mother and place him or her in the care of someone cruel, and voilà! Instant sympathy.
Orphans widen the rift between real people and fictional people. There are notable differences between real people and typical fictional characters. Most of these have good reasons behind them–nobody wants to read dialogue as dull as a real-life conversation–but some exist for no real reason at all. Orphans are the latter. Creating a distinction where real people have parents and siblings and children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and fictional characters have none of these undermines realism and makes characters more difficult to identify with. It helps bind fiction to needless, unrealistic conventions.
This blog is a rejection of meaningless conventions and a celebration of real creativity. The goal here is not to be caustic and snarky, though serious criticism needs to be harsh at times; the goal is to celebrate storytelling when it’s done well and condemn it when it’s done poorly, and to come out appreciating the medium a little bit better.
Note: This blog will, particularly at the beginning, be reprinting revised versions of posts from my other blog, Chimaera.
*I don’t know whether Madeleine was, in fact, an orphan. If you know, then enlighten me.
Image top row: Klaus, Sunny, and Violet Baudelaire; Harry Potter; Little Orphan Annie
Bottom row: Peter Pan, Madeline, Oliver Twist