So What’s The Deal With Those Orphans, Anyway?

Hello all, this week I’ll be doing something a little different from what I usually do and will be covering a topic that relates to novels in a more general sense.

We talk a lot about cliches around here, and I have made it a focus of my posts here at While We’re Paused to cover mainly those that pop up especially in science fiction. However, there are loads of cliches that appear in every genre, and those can be just as harmful to a good sci-fi story as any of the ones I’ve discussed in my Science Fiction Problems series. So, for today, I would like to talk about a particularly groan-worthy cliche, right next to the Farm-Boy-Chosen-by-Destiny and The Amazing Instantaneous Swordsmaster: the Tragic Orphan cliche.

A Brief History of the Rise of the Novel

Awful, isn't it?? Of course, back then they didn't have the benefit of models like Fabio, here.

Ha! Gotcha! History lesson! Actually, this is very relevant, you’ll see. I’m sure most people haven’t thought much about this (I certainly hadn’t before I covered it in an English class this year), but the novel as an art form has only existed since the 1800’s, owing its beginnings to the rise of the middle class in England. Basically, after the Bubonic Plague had come in and wiped out a lot of peasants, the ones left had the opportunity to pick up the pieces and make a better life for themselves. These wealthier-than-usual peasants were able to set up businesses for themselves and gained wealth and influence that quickly made some of them quite like the aristocracy, with the exception of fancy titles and government positions. Around this time, booksellers started up and began paying writers to shell out popular books, most of which were mostly garbage romances (similar to the sort of “Bare-Chested Man” Harlequin Romance novels Melissa hates).

No one wrote the sort of lengthy fictional stories with complex characters and plots that we see today; no one had invented the Novel yet. As the wealthy middle class started becoming educated, however, writers started coming on the scene wanting something more than bawdy, formulaic love stories with no depth or meaning. Just as these men and women were creating their own identity in society, they began writing stories about characters who did the same. Eventually, enough of these higher Romances of merit had been written that the Novel was no longer considered garbage, and finally had its place.

So, Getting Back to the Orphan Thing…

Tom Jones was an early novel written by aristocrat Henry Fielding, about a "foundling" (a child left by his mother). Close enough, I think.

Yes, all that was in fact necessary to my point, don’t worry. The kind of people who wrote the early novels were trying to express something unprecedented- the self-made individual. Before the rise of the middle class, your identity was based on your family. If you were a Squire’s son, you were an aristocrat. If you were an indentured farmer’s son, so were you.

Once it became possible to gain wealth even if you weren’t an aristocrat, now you had options. You could get educated, you could gain power and influence- you had social mobility. You had the ability to make your own identity, separate from your parents’. Now, if you had managed to do all that and wanted to write an inspirational story encouraging other people to do it too, what would you write about? Well, what could be more inspirational than someone who did all that when they didn’t even have parents?

And that’s where the idea came from. Orphans had no history to bind them to the traditional social classes. No one had any expectations for them because no one expected them to amount to anything according to the old system. It was a powerful, groundbreaking symbol of the rise of the individual itself.

Sounds cool, right? It was, but like any great idea, there are always people who will copy and copy and copy until what was at first amazing and original is then sadly old-hat. The Orphan has become exploited as a tired plot device, either as a convenient way to not have to develop a character’s history or family, or as a quick-and-dirty way to give him a traumatic childhood in order to justify all the angst and daddy/mommy issues the author wants to shoehorn into his persona. Alternately, the writer decides to make his plot do a M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist and have one or both of the parents dramatically reveal themselves at some point in the story. Ugh.

So how SHOULD we use Orphans?

Alright, enough harping. The issue here is not really the use of the Orphan as a plot device, but having no actual reason for doing so. It’s not something you can just shovel on top of a story- it defines the story on several levels, especially if your main character is an orphan.The point is, if you want your character to be an orphan, you need to have a reason for it. So, here are some things to think about before offing your character’s parents:

  • The parents don’t have to be dead for your character to have a tragic childhood. Even if you’d like to steer clear of particularly disturbing issues like child abuse, you could study up on some basic Developmental Psychology. There are a near-endless supply of textbook dysfunctional relationships that can occur with fully-alive parental figures. It’s a lot more work, but complex relationships with the character’s parents, even if they are no longer in the picture by the time of the story, can lend a great deal of believability to the character, and makes him/her relateable as a human being.
  • Your character could just have a normal childhood. There is no law anywhere that states that all protagonists (or antagonists, for that matter) MUST have a tragic childhood. As Melissa has discussed in her post here, both parents CAN be alive and your character can still be interesting. Even if one or both parents are dead, even traumatically so, the child could still have found a good home and people who love him/her and have had a happy life. There would still necessarily be issues to deal with regarding that kind of history, but don’t feel compelled to off both parents without really considering if it’s worth it to your story.
  • How would a normal person respond to this kind of event? Think about how you or someone else you know very well would have responded to their parents’ deaths. Did your character act similarly? If not, why not? If you can’t reconcile what your character is like by the time of the story with the tragic history you’ve given him/her, you need to either rethink the history or rethink the character. Something is broken there.
Well, I think that covers it pretty well. This was supposed to be a short post- alas. I hope you found it interesting and/or helpful! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, always think twice before reaching for that cliche shelf- Maybe Mister and Missus Hero don’t have to die horribly after all.
Next week I’ll have some more Sci-fi related stuff, but until then, whats the most groan-inducing orphan story you’ve come across? Anything’s game here: fantasy, science fiction, movies, video games, poorly-written pen-and-paper character backstories, you name it! Let me know in the comments below!
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About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on November 2, 2011, in Lantern Hollow Press Authors. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. This is a very Sci-Fi post if you think about it. One of the most famous Farm-boy-chosen-by-destiny/tragic-orphan/amazing-instantaneous-swordsmen is one of the most recognizable Sci-Fi figures in Sci-Fi moviedom. It just didn’t seem as cliche with its glossy, seventies, Sci-Fi exterior, or maybe it just fit better.

    And I just love that we owe our livlihoods as novelists, and pretty much all novels that we love (and the ones we don’t) to the Bubonic Plague.

    Thanks Plague for Tolkien!

    • Yup. It sounds terrible, but modern prosperity in the western modern world owes a lot to the deaths of that 1/3rd of the population of Europe. A lot of advances in society came from that horrific event.

  2. And if orphans had never become a cliche, we could not have had all the fun that Gilbert and Sullivan got out of it in Prates of Penzance!

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