Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O is for Orphans

This is the 7th post in my Building a Better Hero thread of A to Z with Character

On this day, I feel obliged to opine, and so, I offer up the following:

What the heck is it with authors making their heroes orphans!? From comics, to books, to movies, to players in tabletop roleplaying games, it seems like a disproportionate number of protagonists come from broken families. Let’s do the list:

  • Batman - parents murdered
  • Superman - parents went down with the planet
  • Spider-man - raised by aunt and uncle, uncle gets murdered
  • Luke Skywalker - also raised by aunt and uncle, both get murdered
  • Harry Potter - parents murdered
  • Katniss Everdeen - Father killed and mother becomes a deadbeat
  • Tarzan - raised by gorillas
  • Rand al’ Thor - Foundling, has a relatively normal father figure
  • Kvothe - entire extended family murdered by supernatural boogiemen
  • Garion - Raised by wizards masquerading as his aunt and uncle
  • Lyra Belacqua - Are her parents even mentioned?
  • Momotaro - born out of a peach to an elderly, infertile couple
  • Just about any Disney hero has something unusual about their parental situation

I could go on, ad nauseum. 

It seems like the majority of heroes, especially in fantasy literature, have at least one parent missing, and if they don’t at first, they lose them in the course of the story. Even among my game group, my players’ characters exhibit incredibly dysfunctional childhoods. The PCs in my game include 

  • a parentless street rat 
  • a sorceress driven from her home at a young age because of her powers 
  • a woman whose parents were murdered by zombies 
  • a monk who was born of a rape, and whose only connection to his father is part of a demon’s soul that has possessed both of them

past characters have included two children born of illicit trysts by their mothers. The remainder have no backstory at all. The propensity for creating heroes with messed up childhoods actually prompted me to create a character in the last D&D game I played who had been raised by two loving parents before going off to wizard school. Guess what? The GM killed his father in a horrible way.

Terri Windling has a three-part post that explores the archetype of the abandoned child hero in great detail. She posits several different reasons for this common thread, based largely on the form of the story. In myths, an abandoned child is often of noble or supernatural birth. Raised in meager settings by foster parents, their true greatness manifests as they come of age and go on to become truly powerful leaders. By contrast, in folktales, the abandonment of a child sparks an act of forced maturation. As the child is abandoned in the woods, or persecuted by their ubiquitous evil step-mother, they are forced to overcome their situation through their own wit. Folktales differ from myths in that the abandoned child is not necessarily of noble birth.

Anyway, it’s an excellent and enlightening read. I highly recommend you check it out. Fellow authors and game players, do you find yourselves creating orphaned protagonists?


  1. It's for the drama!! Haha...yes, it's true. My character lost her mother at ten. Doesn't that make her tragic and sympathetic? :)

  2. Someone should write a high adventure that is all about a child trying to keep his loving parents alive. I'm sure it's already happened.

  3. We have a player in our group who noticed this trend and has decided that every character he makes will have living parents who he makes sure to keep in touch with.

    In a world of orphans, a guy leaving for holidays to visit his fam is odd!


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