Sometimes it seems all fictional characters are orphans. Think about it. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, James Bond, Star-Lord, Batman. The list goes on and on. So what’s the appeal?
Writers consider themselves visionaries and when they have a vision, they don’t want to change it. That vision is their baby and no one wants to kill their baby. But family changes a man. Would James Bond get with so many women if his parents educated him on STDs? No. But his proclivity towards beautiful women is a key part of the James Bond story. It’s part of the vision.
So why go through the trouble of adding parents? Maybe you could keep the vision and the parents, but then you’d need to alter the story. You’d have to add more writing to explain why the main character did something stupid despite his parents’ lectures and nagging. It’s just too much effort. Instead writers just get rid of the family. Way easier.
2. Emotional Gut PunchThe vast majority of us grew up with a loving family that cared about us and supported us through everything. As a result, anything else seems unnatural. Where would we be without our father, our mother, our siblings? I know I’d be an emotional wreck, poor and alone somewhere. We shudder to think what our lives would be like without our loved ones. The thought alone drives us to tears.
Writers can amp up the drama, too, by showing us how the character got orphaned. That might mean we get to witness a murder or a slow, painful death by cancer or some other sickness. And again, we attach the story to our own lives and imagine how we would feel watching our parents die. It’s a clever trick to create an emotional reaction.
3. The Quest
Each individual has a different method of finding meaning in their life. One common source of purpose is family. As I said, family is a dominant factor to the majority of our lives and to be without it is seemingly unnatural. Without family, an orphan often feels empty. To fill the void they must go on a quest. Save a princess. Kill the Dark Lord. Return peace to the world. By serving a purpose higher than themselves, orphans find fulfillment where once they had none.
The quest is such a great story by the way. It’s a classic story on which many of our favorites are based such as Lord of the Rings or The Odyssey. In search of an important prize or location, the main characters faces several obstacles along the way. Along the way, the character grows into a glorious hero capable of surpassing the final and toughest ordeal that will lead him to the prize or location. Some might consider the quest a cliche, but I think it is a classic form for success. Anyways…
4. The Big Reveal
When a story tells you a character is an orphan, you see the character as an orphan. You believe the story. You have no reason not to. Do you see a parent? No. So there probably isn’t a parent. You run through the entire story seeing the main character as a sad, lonely orphan…
But then, suddenly, Darth Vader is standing over your favorite orphan Luke Skywalker and he says, “No. I am your father.” Your mind melts. You scream at the TV. Luke screams too. “THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE!”
The drama is intense. You were looking at the story all wrong. At first, you Darth Vader as a one-dimensional, evil character, but now he is a parent. It’s not a battle of good vs. evil. It’s a battle of son vs. father. With just one line, Star Wars blew its viewers’ minds and added a layer of depth to the story. You can’t have a big reveal if the character already has parents. You need an orphan.