All the Orphans

One of the things that most concerns me when I read Fantasy literature is the dreadful spread and contagiousness of Orphanus Maincharacterus. I have been half-tempted at certain points to look and see if there are fundraisers to prevent the tragic removal of every parental or family figure of a person who is about to star in a Fantasy series.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a tragic backstory. Often these stories use these backstories as a way to explain the shaping of the main character’s goals and dreams.

The problem is that often this feels like an emotional shortcut rather than a fully-fleshed characterization decision.

If these characters had adopted families or circles of family-like friends, then the character development would seem more well-rounded.

Unfortunately, this trope is often paired with a hermetic seal around close personal connections and the main character will start the story without any deep family connections at all.

This puzzles me because familial interaction is one of the richest, most diverse sources of plot inspiration and interaction.

We love our families and sometimes we hate them too (and no, our father doesn’t have to be Darth Vader for this to be true). They shape us and we shape them in a way that is difficult for others to approach, because for most of us, we’re connected to them for the rest of our lives.

We can grow closer and we can drift apart, but they are part of a bond that is hard to forget and almost impossible to completely break.

What I see in the abundance of orphans that I read (and yes, other genres do this too, but Fantasy seems to do this so much more), is the desire to have a main character with a completely blank slate.

No previous ties, no complicating connections, no inconvenient character-shaping except from loss and grief.

I like complications.

I like characters who didn’t spring, fully-formed, from a dark void somewhere in the Land Before the Story Started.

I like characters that walk into the story full of love and frustration and terrible conversations that only other family members understand.

There is a purity to the Hero’s Journey that erases everything except the Hero’s motivation and talents and ability to pull themselves up completely by their own bootstraps without any pesky past connections aiding or blocking them.

But there is something lovely and messy and real about characters that are part of a larger social and familial web that shows its influences in the path the story takes.

There is no need to eliminate the Tragic Backstory entirely from works of fiction.

But if all the fantasy cities are full of orphans and only children, perhaps it is time to investigate whether this a kingdom not of magic, but of cliches.

IMG_0813Let a thousand orphans bloom! Just be wary of creative rot.

I am fascinated by how we do and do not write write about our families.


Family, in its various blood and not-blood forms is a large part of my story-telling. If you would like to see how I handle it in my own writing, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

I was also alerted to a lovely little review of “The Guests of Honor” available over here. One of the things that makes me happiest as a writer is when people have fun with my story. If you are someone who is interested in a thoughtful discussion of what worked and didn’t work for a reader of my story, please check out My Little Book Blog’s review.


4 thoughts on “All the Orphans

  1. I’m completely with you on the overused trope issue, except . . . every story I come up with seems to have an orphaned MC! Some still have family history and back story, but they always start the story alone! I think there might actually be a disease, but it’s in the brain of we writers! 😉

    • Hee. It is an incredibly seductive trope and I’m certainly not exempt from its temptations myself. What I’ve found myself doing when my ideas center around a Lone Orphan is asking myself:

      “Why are they orphaned?”

      “What purpose does it serve?”

      If the answer is any variation of, “They are the only remaining-” or “They are the last-“, I shake a finger at myself and go back to the drawing board.

      Even without the power fantasies though, it is such a tempting way to allow them to be fully shaped by the people they meet in the story without any prior complications. Maybe we do all need treatment. 🙂

  2. It’s the characters interaction with family that brings out the little nuances and history that makes a character full and rich. The does seem to be a glut of only child families in current fiction. i agree with you bring back the family.

    • I think that having some kind of personal connections as a starting point is a really important piece of character development. I also think that characters can be special without being “the last of their kind”, but the orphan trope seems to be very seductive.

      I agree that that family interactions have the potential for a lot of nuance and fine character details. I can only hope that I get to see a lot more of them!

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