Story Question: Why are there so many Protagonist orphans?

January 4th, 2012 by

I was browsing through a mental list of movies recently and it’s amazing how many of them feature orphaned children or young adults. Among the ones that sprang to mind: Harry Potter, Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz), Snow White, Heidi, David Copperfield, Cinderella, Bilbo Baggins, Little Orphan Annie.

Why do you think this is the case? What is it about an orphaned character that makes them appealing to write about? What particular psychological and story elements are unique to orphaned characters?

I have my own theories on the matter, but I’m curious to see what your thoughts are on the matter.

Some similar questions arose in my mind recently and I will post those over the next few days. From time to time, I think it’s helpful to step back and take a macro view of narrative elements. Perhaps some of you are writing stories featuring these dynamics. Maybe you can use them to brainstorm new story ideas. In any event, I look forward to reading your thoughts re orphans in Comments today and some of these other story areas the next few days.

32 thoughts on “Story Question: Why are there so many Protagonist orphans?

  1. Blue says:

    The Orphan character has an instant internal struggle: that of seeking ACCEPTANCE.

    The only people in the world that are pretty much required to love them have abandoned them, so we root for them as they seek out someone to love them unconditionally.

    We don’t always need to know why they were abandoned, but we do want to know if they’ll be able to resolve their anger/pain/frustration through Love/Revenge etc…

  2. Gabe says:

    I wonder if it engenders sympathy in the audience. For children’s fables I think it is a easy way for a lonely child to relate to a character.

    From a writing standpoint I sometimes think it makes it easier when brainstorming character bios. Feels like an orphan gives you a shortcut through lots of exposition – no need to explain why your character does something, just let it be known that he/she was an orphan.

    Plus, if you start giving your tough guy characters parents and the parents show up then you’ve got to find some reason for them to be there. Could be good conflict, I suppose, but I fear it might lead to “Stop, Or My Mom Will Shoot”. I don’t think we want that.

  3. Blue says:

    Also, they have to PROVE THEMSELVES.

    Most, if not all of those characters above have to prove not only to themselves, but to others around them, that they are even worthy of being alive. They must OVERCOME SELF-DOUBT and that is most definitely a universal them, orphan or not.

  4. John Arends says:

    Love this topic! I’m writing a major piece right now with this dynamic at the center. Above in the comments, all of which are great, Blue hits the nail on the head about the push-pull of proving themselves and overcoming self-doubt.

    I’d add that orphans as lead characters arrive with so much built-in subtext that every line and every action carries more meaning.

    Plus, so many stories have as their emotional connective tissue that basic human need to establish and explore relationships. For an orphan, that need is a ready-made high-wire act, where the stakes are enormous, right from “Hello…”

    Finally, orphans embody that most universal of universal questions that you, Scott, have illuminated and celebrated so helpfully in recent posts — “Who am I?”

    Hard to find a better place to start an epic journey in which “character is destiny” and “character is story”, all rolled up in one instantly relatable protagonist.

  5. churnage says:

    Echoing other comments…

    1) Creates instant audience sympathy

    2) Easier to write… no messy back story to deal with

    3) Emphasizes the human condition that “we are all alone in the world” (even us non-orphans)

  6. januaryfire says:

    It also provides mystery and a possible problem to solve. All of Harry Potter’s trouble (as far as I can remember since I’ve only seen the movies) seems to stem from his parents’ deaths and his search for the truth behind the tragedy.

  7. This was a very timely post for me.

    I’m currently developing a script and have been going back and forth about whether or not it’s time to move away from the expected orphan status and find another interesting angle or if it feels right, do I just go with it?

    This being a fantasy adventure piece, comparisons to Harry Potter would be inescapable in that regard. But maybe different *enough* is reasonable to bank on?

    More to think about.

  8. Scott says:

    More fodder from Twitter:

    @LALetts: the character needs motivation to get out of their circumstance and have nothing to lose, nothing holding them back.

    @L_321: in anime and video games, practically every story involves orphans. It seems a way to let young protags wander and adventure

    @jeffrichards: In addition to sympathy, etc., it removes a potential higher authority figure and forces active self-reliance.

    @Steve_Pryor: Connivence of not having to write about parents, and a lame sympathy card cop-out.

    @nate_winslow: Also usually means there’s some sort of built in want/need related to their orphan status–a universal one too: parents.

    @ScreenWritten: Instant likeability and empathy. Two things studio execs go nuts for.

  9. Scott says:

    Here’s an additional point from a psychological standpoint: With orphans, you have the advantage of having absent parents who can still be a presence. That is they can hover over the orphan like a shadow [per Jung]. Think of Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs,” who was orphaned at age 11. Every major aspect of who she was as an FBI agent-in-training was tied to the absence of her father and the presence of his shadow.

  10. I think it’s part of the mythic hero structure to be cut off, disconnected from stability. Being an orphan accomplishes that.

    An orphan character is ripe for a grand journey, as their sense of self and relationship to their ordinary world begs introspect at least, and more often action.

    Every protagonist I can think of is an orphan, not always literally, but in some way at the start of their story.

  11. Particularly with child protagonists, it’s so they don’t have a parent protecting them from the perils of the story. Harry couldn’t have gotten into so much trouble with James and Lilly over his shoulder. In The Hunger Games, Kat is effectively an orphan for the same reason. Her mother may be alive, but she’s so checked out from her role as parent-as-protector that Kat is unrestrained.

  12. There also seem to be two types of orphan origin stories:

    1 Parents have died before the story begins.

    2 Parents die on screen and the protag becomes an orphan (such as Conan the Barbarian)

    Would you say that one holds more power than the other? Does seeing the parents killed on screen usually lead to a revenge plot?

    Just throwing it out there.

    1. Atlanta says:

      Only example of “parents killed on screen” I can think of, Batman, so, yes, it does lead to revenge, against evil doers everywhere :-)

  13. Atlanta says:

    So many great observations. @L-321, “It seems a way to let young protags wander and adventure.” Totally. The absence of permission slips and any kind of safety net, left with a need to wander about, outcome of unpredictable scale and nature, now that is an exciting adventure.

    I keep coming back to guilt as a variable in this, not sure how directly ties in. Something about hating parents (they can’t be my real parents) and wanting to run away, being able to imagine them gone without guilt, providing alternate frame of reference, it’s the story, not you.

    Two more movies that feature orphans, Lost City of Children and Despicable Me.

  14. The reason for this is quite simple. The orphaned character most closely represents the profound truth about our individual lives – the fact that we are born and die alone. Even someone from a large and loving family will at some point realize they are actually alone in the world and they must steer their own fate. It narrows the protagonist down to the single most common emotion (loneliness) while at the same time opening a door to unlimited potential for the character’s journey in the story. You could just call it a blank slate that allows all sorts of story telling gimmicks to flourish – but the movies you listed stay the course of being true to human nature and how we react to temptation, power, greed, gluttony, and on and on. Tolkien said (paraphrasing here) that people were strangely moved by his work because he was writing about Christian truths and and even if they don’t believe in their heads they cannot escape the hardwired reaction this truth about human nature. In order to show that you must establish the character as a lost new born child, so to speak.

  15. CrashDaily says:

    Because it’s easy.

    One of the few true cliches that are still acceptable. Go ahead and lump in the protag that lost their husband, wife, daughter, son, etc… Needs no explanation. Creates a spiritual hole that needs to be filled. Trying a fresh take on this hole requires a lot of work, and we’re too lazy, and more interested in focusing on the actual story that is going to change this character and fill the void.

    And just because I’m clearly jaded…doesn’t mean this isn’t true.

  16. Earl says:

    Not to get all Freudian but childhood is essentially where a person’s entire personality is formed. Thus a child who has severe hardships during this time make for a richer and more complex person with secrets, fears and desires…

  17. Debbie Moon says:

    A lot of stories are about constructing surrogate families – father or mother figures, groups of friends, colleagues, criminal gangs or fellow social outcasts. People thrown together who evolve into a family of a kind.

    The protagonist who has no family, and particularly no parents, is particularly susceptible to this. This can be a good thing for them, or a bad one. For example, a lot of undercover cop movies feature a protagonist tempted to throw in with the criminals, despite not sharing most of their values, because they offer the one thing he’s susceptible to – the family he’s never had.

  18. Scott says:

    Some excellent conjecture and analysis, thanks for all your comments. In my view, most mainstream and even indie movies have a metamorphosis dynamic at play, primarily focused on the Protagonist. And the articulation of that arc I’ve been using for over a decade is this: From Disunity to Unity. Obviously there are a zillion variations, but in general if the story has a ‘happy’ ending, this is a lens through which we can look at most movies and accurately assess what’s going on with a Protagonist and their metamorphosis.

    In that regard, there may not be a more powerful starting Disunity point than that of an orphan, most fundamentally because they are a parent-less child. As some have noted, it creates a void within the character that somehow needs to be filled. And as I said, the absence of the parents acts as a presence, at least emotionally and psychologically, as a ‘shadow,’ generally tied to dark impulses, feelings, memories, associations. And all of that represents rich territory to explore when developing the character.

    Of course their Disunity state also indicates what their Unity destination is, generally in the form of resolution of whatever happened to their parents and/or the creation of a surrogate family [as some have noted in this discussion].

    Again thanks. I’ll post a related macro narrative question later today.

  19. TripDreamer says:

    Someone made this comment:

    “a lame sympathy card cop-out”

    I recently saw Hugo (another orphan) and was mesmerized by the story even though, for all intents and purposes, it’s totally “cliche.” I take issue to people denouncing the work of others simply because it may be pedestrian or familiar. Hugo was extremely dynamic, compelling and beautiful. Imagine someone having told Selznik to quit writing it because it’s a “lame sympathy card cop-out.”

    Now THAT’S lame.

  20. Nick West says:


    That will answer this question.

  21. Nick West says:

    Dude, twenty comments and no one’s mentioned Campbell or myth.

    What’s the deal?

    1. Scott says:

      Nick, having studied Campbell since I was in college and before he was well-known in Hollywood circles, here is a larger mythological frame: The Hero’s Journey can be seen as having three parts:

      Separation. Initiation. Return.

      Orphan is perhaps the paradigmatic example of separation, specifically from their parents. But symbolically when the hero responds to the call to adventure and separates from the Old World / Ordinary World, they became in a way an orphan, at least in terms of their psychological experience, removed from their old habits and their ordinary way of being.

      The metamorphosis from Disunity to Unity is on one level about the hero shearing away behaviors and beliefs they have grown to rely on, but only to create an inauthentic life. Their initiation experience in the New World / Extraordinary World challenges those ways of being, even assaults them which in turn allows the stuff of the hero’s authentic self to emerge from within. Hence their move toward Unity in which they claim that authentic way of being which becomes the basis for their ability to defeat the Nemesis / Forces Of Opposition.

      They return home a transformed individual, no longer an orphan, independent of relationships with others because they have found his/her True Self / Core Essence,

      In the language of Carl Jung, this process can be described as “individuation” and is at the core of our lifetime’s psychological journey.

      Symbolically being an orphan means separation from parents in the External World, but in the Internal World it means separation from one’s Self. The Hero’s Journey is fundamentally about the Hero getting in touch with and claiming their Authentic Self.

      1. Nick West says:

        And that’s why I read Go into the Story. Thanks, Scott!

      2. Nick West says:

        And, may I also say:

        Even though Scott said this in more scholarly way (as a true student of theology and story): SEPARATION, INITIATION, AND RETURN are the perfect examples of a three act play.

        In myth the hero is lowly farm-boy or such. He is called to adventure in ACT I. He represents an orphan whether figuratively or literally or both.

        Myth resonates with the soul of man. Thus, stories that work mimic myth.

  22. Sojourner says:

    Scott & Nick: awesome. But Nick, no more answering questions with, “Read the bible – the answer’s there,” or whatever book.

    Archetypes are useful: they’re shortcuts and they’re universal.

    Remember when it seemed like every other woman in a movie was a “hooker with a heart of gold?” That by no means represented the population, but it got a (lazy?) story element across quickly for those stories.

    How far have we come? When’s the last time you heard someone use the word hooker?

    1. Nick West says:

      I see your point. However, I do suggest everyone read Campbell. Or at least be familiar with his ideas.

      For that matter, I’d also suggest reading The Bible, The Qu’ran, and any other religious or mythological text. They are full of archetypes, resonating themes, and great story ideas.

      But yeah, what I said was an honest answer, but also a cop out for this type of forum.

      Interesting thing about the “hooker” deal: You could still argue that the orphan idea is present in those stories as well!

      1. TripDreamer says:

        Killer Films producer David Kaplan made a comment on twitter denouncing Campbell. I asked him why and he told me that 90% of the scripts he reads follow the same formula and this, he insinuated, made them flat and, well, formulaic. These books can only give you so much guidance, it’s up to us to inject soul, heart, voice, and identity into a story.

        1. Scott says:

          TripDreamer, the problem isn’t Campbell, the problem is what writers do with Campbell. And frankly, I doubt if very many screenwriters actually read Campbell, rather relying on secondary interpretations of what Campbell has written. So I would take Kaplan’s comment to be more aptly aimed at writers, not one of the 20th century’s great thinkers.

          The other big problem, apart from not actually reading Campbell, is the way teachers, gurus, and writers reduce what is essentially Campbell’s organic and vital view of story as myth, and turn it into a mere structure. And not even a good structure at that because the focus in Hollywood circles is almost entirely on plot, not character and plot… which really speaks to the heart of Kaplan’s complaint: stories that have all their plot points in order and hit all of Campbell’s supposed 12 ‘stages’ [he actually elucidated 17 of them in “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”], but lay flat on the page. Indeed the whole idea of them as stages is itself reductionist and in effect falsifies what Campbell was saying. Rather they should be looked at as dynamics, not some programatic set of plot events. Frankly beyond the three movements of Separation, Initiation and Return, I don’t advocate fixing any of Campbell’s so-called ‘stages’ into any sort of paradigm.

          This is one of the big reasons I have been re-reading Campbell [I first studied him in college] and especially Carl Jung, who influenced Campbell hugely, the last several years. I believe we need a correction in the way we think about a screenplay. We have strayed way too far toward plot, thinking that constitutes a story’s structure, when that only represents the External World. In fact there is a whole other realm in a story universe: The Internal World. And that is where a story’s vitality, energy, emotion, and soul live. In my view, stories should start with and arise from that realm, from characters. In my view, what Jung and Campbell after him articulated – insofar as their ideas have a bearing on story – is precisely that: To discover the essence, direction and meaning of a story, we must go into the characters.

          That is not only a necessary corrective in bringing balance to the story-crafting process, putting both character and plot on an equal footing, it also should – in theory at least – help writers avoid crafting lifeless, formulaic scripts. It no longer becomes about trying to fit events to hit these page marks, our focus is about working with our characters so that they guide us into and through the story-crafting process. And their emotions, their needs, their hearts, their souls enliven what we write.

          So while in one respect I agree with Kaplan — I read far too many lifeless, formulaic scripts, too — as I said, the problem is not Joseph Campbell, the problem is how people are interpreting him, or more precisely how people are interpreting other people who are interpreting Campbell.

          To associate the words “formulaic” and “lifeless” with Joseph Campbell is almost blasphemous. All of us would do well to watch the magical 6-part series “The Power of Myth” with Bill Moyers and Campbell. Even five minutes with Campbell in that series shows one of the most vibrant, vital, active and remarkable minds in recent history.

          1. Nick West says:

            Campbell is anything but lifeless.

            And you might as well disagree with Aristotle. Good luck to those who do.

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