Why Orphans Are So Important in Stories

Oliver TwistFrom Charles Dickens to countless modern works, including some of my own stories, orphans are among the most common characters in fiction. I find this especially true in fantasy – so much so that The Orphan might have its own place among the pantheon of other iconic fantasy figures such as The Soldier, The Peasant, The King. But at what point do these figures become bland labels that define the character more than his or her actual traits?

Fantasy, a genre that so often pulls characters from the grab bag of tropes on display in either The Lord of the Rings or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, has received countless literary complaints over its apparent lack of variety. When a book’s first act describes a backwoods young farmer – unwise to the ways of the world (and obviously having some convenient prior experience with weapons via hunting) – I automatically assume that said farmer will be sitting on a throne before the end.

That story’s been said, and there’s only so many ways he can skin the rabbit. But is The Orphan cut from the same reductive cloth as all the many “occupational-societal” token characters of literature? It needs to be said that any obvious trope can be molded into something new by an inventive author, and that’s just part of story-telling since all things have been told. It also helps that The Orphan immediately calls to mind more literary figures than fantasy’s peasant farmer or honest mercenary (I’m looking at you, Oliver).

But the orphan-figure also has something that other characters don’t as long as he/she isn’t a societal metaphor, in which case, not a character at all. First, the orphan is the perfect plot advancing character. Quite literally no strings attached. This sounds reductive also, but it leads to why the orphan is so important…

There is only one story that’s ever been told or ever will be told: “Who am I?” The desire in all of us to discover the answer to that is written into our souls, and the orphan is a pure representation of this. All other round characters ask the same based upon a range of plots that change their perspectives or assumptions. Only the orphan asks this question based upon nothing other than the fact that he or she exists.

This grants the writer quite a lot of freedom. The quest is unspoken but in place before the plot really even takes shape. This may sound lazy, but I’d argue otherwise. All of us are orphans in our own way; our desperate search for belonging is our most basic instinct, making it very difficult not to identify or at least sympathize with the orphan character. The Orphan has the capacity to hold our attention because of what he or she is, and that’s the purpose of story.

Of course, it’s the author’s job to make that orphan unique in some way, but the character is already prepped for a transformative journey. The worst, most two-dimensional stories are the one in which the protagonist comes out the same as he/she went in. This is an almost impossible mistake to make with orphan heroes. They either find out where they came from, and we learn how that affects them; or (and maybe more interesting) they don’t, and what do they do about or in spite of that?

Now, if we could all avoid the “Luke, I am your father,” plot twist, we’d all be happier people, and our orphans will be too. Do that, and readers will undoubtedly feel cheated.

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