The Tale of the Orphan Trope: How Writers Revitalize a Common Story

When authors choose to use familiar character tropes, they either employ the trope with care, ensuring that the orphaned character’s loss serves a narrative purpose, or they introduce fresh approaches to the trope’s characterization and problems.

Among the common character types that exist in fiction, the orphaned protagonist[*] is one that readily elicits sympathy from readers. Regardless of material circumstances, both the real and perceived disadvantages of parental loss[†] make for excellent storytelling. As author Liz Moore observes, the orphaned character has a “built-in problem, which leads to built-in conflict”. Since her works feature orphans, she worries “whether it is facile to rely on this trope”. The answer to this conundrum lies in how the story is written. When authors choose to use familiar character tropes, they either employ the trope with care, ensuring that the orphaned character’s loss serves a narrative purpose, or they introduce fresh approaches to the trope’s characterization and problems. In the following, I discuss some common features of the orphan trope and provided examples that illustrate how writers make the orphan trope meaningful.

Trope Expectations and Succinct Storytelling

Creating a character that comes with a problem needing resolution, one that readily generates sympathy, also allows writers to streamline their storytelling. As John Mullan explains, “The orphan is above all a character out of place, forced to make his or her own home in the world…set loose from established conventions to face a world of endless possibilities (and dangers).” Since the orphan trope includes these expectations, we don’t need the author to explain why their orphans beg or steal (Ren from the The Good Thief, the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist); we already know they must fend for themselves and possess few options for doing so. Childhood (mis)adventures, too, are more readily undertaken without parental objection, giving writers incentive to remove parents from the plot.[‡] However, such reasons alone are insufficient for orphaning a character. Julie Just points to the recent trend of young adult fiction replacing dead parents with absentee, inattentive, or incompetent parents,[§] a move that still affords young characters both opportunity and reason to adventure or “act out”. Similarly, characters can experience social isolation or loneliness without being orphaned. Therefore, employing the orphan trope must serve a greater narrative purpose than mere convenience.

  • All the Living

In All the Living, C. E. Morgan’s thoughtful approach to the orphan trope lets the story focus on her young lovers and quietly makes Aloma’s orphaning central to the novel’s conflict as it explores how varied the experience of loss can be. As an orphan (now grown), Aloma can more readily ignore social convention when she moves in with boyfriend Orren to help him run his family’s farm following the sudden deaths of his brother and widowed mother.[**] While Aloma’s childhood loss avoids uninteresting complications parents would add to the plot, it also leaves her unprepared for Orren’s grief and how it alters him. Unlike Orren, she cannot recall her parents and experiences their deaths as an absence. Because Aloma never had a home, she cannot empathize with Orren when he refuses to either reside in or rent the house he once shared with his deceased loved ones and they quarrel. Orren also misunderstands her behavior, finding her tendency to “look outward” infuriating because he forgets or fails to see that her actions reveal an orphan’s need for connection. In Morgan’s hands, sharing a history of loss prevents these lovers from finding common ground. Thus, their losses generate more misunderstanding than they provide comfort.

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Advert for the National Children’s Home and Orphanage. Ephemera Collection National Children’s Home and Orphanage (Great Britain). Published: circa 1920. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. http://wellcomeimages.org. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Unhappy Upbringings

Of course, literary orphans lose more than family when their parents die. For many orphans, parental loss also affects their material, emotional, and social support. However, their new “homes” rarely offer respite or welcome orphaned children—even when they are kin.[††] The orphan’s quest to find acceptance arises in response to this rejection. The trope’s difficulty here lies with the reasons the child isn’t wanted. Literature happens to be littered with cruel, prejudiced or indifferent guardians that range from rotten relations (stepparents, aunts and/or uncles) to unkind orphanage staff. Failing this (or even in conjunction with it), the other common difficulty that necessitates the child’s quest for belonging involves the guardian’s financial distress (Aloma, Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables). Of note, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, and Aloma all lived with aunts and/or uncles before departing to a boarding school. And Jane and Harry both lived with guardian(s) who begrudged them their upkeep, even though they could readily afford their expenses. While some literary orphans manage to find acceptance through self-improvement and changing the status quo (Mary Lennox, The Secret Garden), most do not. Therefore, inventive approaches to writing these characters’ unhappy circumstances is critical when using these common themes.

  • The Harry Potter series

In the Harry Potter’s series, Vernon and Petunia Dursley’s have few qualms about expressing their displeasure with Harry’s presence in their lives. Rowling, however, complicates their distaste for Harry by rooting it in intolerance and jealousy. Vernon Dursley rather straightforwardly dislikes people unlike himself and wants to curb any magical ability Harry displays, prompting him to take extraordinary measures to prevent Harry from learning he’s a wizard. Petunia Dursley’s motivations, however, are more nuanced. Her sister, Lily Potter, is regularly described in glowing terms (beautiful, smart, kind, etc.), making Petunia one of her rare detractors. She denounces Lily as a freak but in the same scene indicates that their parents admired Lily’s magical ability, exposing her envy. Petunia obviously feels overlooked because her young sister managed to be remarkable in yet another way. She transfers her resentment to Harry, spoiling her son while denying Harry material comforts to ensure Dudley never feels as she did. Regardless of how much trouble Harry causes her, she begrudgingly allows him to stay, suggesting that some lingering duty or love for her sister remains.

Ambiguous Identity and Transformation

Mullan’s observation that orphans are “out of place” gives them the freedom to reinvent themselves and discard their old lives. Although their unfixed social status allows them to transcend their social circumstances, this ambiguity also makes maligning them easy. The same orphan can be classified as both dangerous or brave—incidentally, terms used to describe both Harry Potter and archvillain Lord Voldemort. The orphan’s ambiguous status also provides ample opportunity to create and resolve conflicts in the narrative (a boon for developing story arcs), but such volatility should have a goal (eg, revealing character). Conferring wealth as a reward to the orphaned protagonist, for example, ensures a happy ending but feels unearned when a previously unknown relation exists solely to enrich said orphan by dying.[‡‡]

After Jane Eyre endures a punishment that causes her to faint, the kind apothecary caring for her learns that her aunt’s mistreatment caused her collapse. He offers Jane an opportunity to attend Lowood Institution, a school that educates poor girls. The promise of a fresh start, however, soon sours when her Aunt Reed unjustly characterizes her as a liar to the school director. Accepting Aunt Reed’s word without question, he assures them that the staff will be told about Jane’s wicked behavior. Beyond creating conflict and generating future difficulties for Jane, Brontë’s goal here is to provide Jane with a defining moment. With this latest bit of malice, Aunt Reed finally pushes Jane into finally speaking up for herself, an ability she needs to develop since she has no one else to defend her. Jane grows as a character, no longer willing to suffer slights.

Summary

While the orphan trope has its stock characters, genre expectations, and standard plot lines, writers who make these moments purposeful transform an old story into a meaningful discussion about belonging and identity, something every young protagonist (parents or not) considers as they age into adulthood. And that conversation is an interesting one, however many times we have it, when more considered approaches make the story feel new again.

NOTES:

[*] Most orphans (by definition) are children. Adults usually do not identify as orphans unless they lost their parents during childhood.

[†] Contrary to expectation, some orphans prosper without at least one of their parents (eg, Huckleberry Finn). Being spared parental mistreatment, however, neither offsets nor lessens the child’s experience of loss.

[‡] For much the same reason, most orphan characters are only children.

[§] The trend here is also somewhat practical given that pandemics are less common than they once were.

[**] Of note, Aloma lives in a prevalently conservative area of rural Kentucky during the 1980s, where couples were discouraged from living together before marriage.

[††] Rose from Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins is a notable exception where guardian and extended family alike welcome her.

[‡‡] While one can argue that Jane needs to become wealthy to attain equal footing with Mr. Rochester, he already had no objections to marrying her without money and his injuries better serve this purpose.

Closing with Character

The New Year and Reviewing Character

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Defining character means many thing for writers. (“Character” by NY is licensed under CC by 3.0. )

The closing of the year is a jumbled-up affair: The summing up of another year juxtaposed with setting up the next year. It’s not dissimilar to beginning a revision, which I’m (finally) undertaking for a short story I recently wrote. Both processes involve reviewing what you did, what you wish you did differently, and what you will do going forward. And, in both cases, it’s a good time to think about character. Writers use numerous techniques to make their fictional persons feel alive, something that greatly interests me as I edit that first draft where the protagonist feels a bit lacking in, well, character.[*] I recently read two books, one a novel and the other a short story collection, that approach the idea of character in compelling if divergent ways that illustrate what we as writers can really do to with our characters.

Unknowable Versus Lacking Character

A clear sense of character or even lack of character, for example, isn’t necessarily a handicap to tale well told. In The Vegetarian,[†] Yeong-he rarely speaks throughout the haunting tale that chronicles the manifestation and evolution of her madness. With the exception of an unsettling dream sequence she recounts (presumably to Mr. Cheong), her story, her words, and her life’s details are told through the perspectives of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister. She is in essence a negative presence, and each narrator can only react to her mysteriously changed behavior and/or guess at her actions. We, as readers, experience their bewilderment in tandem. The result is remarkable: Yeong-he, much like roots of her madness (and seemingly, all madness) remain unknowable.

In contrast to her absent presence, Mr. Cheong (Yeong-he’s husband) defines a lack of character in an altogether different and entirely unpleasant manner. The Vegetarian is not a story for the fainthearted, and Mr. Cheong is clearly the most reprehensible of its denizens—chiefly because he lacks empathy and compassion. The marriage between the two is not a love match: Mr. Cheong aspires to the “middle course”[‡] and finds it “only natural that [he] would marry the most run-of-the mill woman” available (12). Clearly, he represents a certain patriarchal extreme, where marriage means about his needs are being met and indifference to his wife’s interior life, interests, and even mental health. Or, as he puts it, “The strange situation had nothing to do with me” (26). Eventually, her decline, undoubtedly worsened by his neglect and mistreatment, cannot be ignored. Of course, he abandons her; after all:

her expression, which made it seem as though she were a woman of bitter experience, who had suffered many hardships, niggled at my conscience. (38)

Characters at Crossroads

Where loss seems to shatter and/or disrupt the characters of The Vegetarian, characters in the collected stories of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This frequently find themselves at crossroads in their lives where they struggle to cope with their losses.[§] “Pine”, an exemplary story of the collection, features the widowed Claire who marvels at the choices Heidi made with her kitchen: Claire decides that, were she in Heidi’s shoes,[**] she would have chosen a smaller, easier to navigate kitchen with a pine floor to deaden the clumping gait of the prosthetic leg (155). Claire’s choices unsurprisingly are for muting: when her daughter questions her about her “friendship” with Kevin, she “think[s] about reassuring that no one could ever replace her father for me. I’m sure that is what she’s really asking” (164). It’s not. Alyssa suspects that Kevin has feelings for her mother and, in insisting Kevin is welcome to attend her soccer game, is assuring her mother that she’s okay with Claire moving forward. Claire instead focuses on how soon she will be losing her daughter to adulthood (165) and keeping Kevin as her “yes-man”—or more accurately, her emotional crutch that prevents her from moving past her widowhood (158-9, 172-3). Both Heidi and Claire have suffered terrible losses due to cancer. Their approach to these losses comes down to character: Heidi eventually found within herself the grit to get on with her life, while Claire (for now) remains exactly where she stood when Joe died.

Defining Character

Character, as Merriam-Webster has kindly reminded me, is complex word that refers to  more than persons of fictional works. It ranges from alphabetic markings to reputation. It suggests moral make-up of individual as well as the identity of groups.[††] It is word that encompasses much, and you need context to understand which character you happen to be dealing with, whether they lack, morals, or strength. Characters of fiction, too, need that complexity or even that mystery to make them real. As I go forward into the New Year, editing away, I’ll be sure to keep my character’s character and this complexity in mind. And, perhaps, mine as well.

Happy New Year!

Which characters caught your attention in 2016? Tell us about whom and why in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to the Sequences’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] New Year’s resolution #1: take it easy on puns.

[†] Kang, Han. Vegetarian: A Novel; Trans. by Deborah Smith. New York: Hogarth, 2015. Print.

[‡] I’m uncomfortably reminded of the advice that Robinson Crusoe’s father gave him about choosing the “middle state” of life at this moment. (Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: Bantam, 1991.)

[§] Black Robin. If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. New York, Random House, 2011.

[**] And resolution broken! Amusingly, Claire also considers whether Heidi is “more in denial” about her circumstances (155).
[††] “Character.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.