Anne Shirley, Harry Potter, The Boxcar Children, the cast of Party of Five. They are our childhood heroes, braved but flawed: Anne has a bad temper, Harry has an arrogant streak, The Boxcar Children color code their clothes. They're each in possession of strange and challenging traits. At the same time, the one thing these heroes never seem to have are two living parents. From Oliver Twist through the Stark kids in A Song of Ice and Fire, the orphan trope is so prevalent, it seems apparent that there is a long-held belief among authors that the death of a parent — or better yet both — is the magic ingredient that makes a good story a great one.
As Dr. Evelyn Rogers, a literature professor and associate editor of the Missouri Review explains to me, this plot device often comes down to authorial convenience in both character development and plot structure, “An orphan character is automatically vulnerable, so there’s an almost automatic hook, and a strong conflict.”
Rogers explains that the orphan trope also simplifies things in terms of having to write out a bunch of secondary characters in the family: “The child protagonist is front and center, and unencumbered.”
A series of unfortunate events where the parents are just as helpless as their children would be sad and scary in a much less entertaining way.
The practical concerns eliminated by having an orphan protagonist makes sense in a wider literary context, for when it comes to an exciting plot involving children, parents tend to slow down the pace. The Pevensie children from The Chronicles of Narnia are not orphans, but their parents are placed out of sight, so that conveniently, they are also out of mind. Parents watching the adventures of Max and Ruby with their children often become distracted by the unexplained absence of the rabbit siblings’ parents, but, creator Rosemary Wells told Nick Jr., “We don't see Max and Ruby's parents because I believe that kids resolve their issues and conflicts differently when they're on their own. The television series gives kids a sense about how these two siblings resolve their conflicts in a humorous and entertaining way," as Buzzfeed reported. In other words, present and engaged parents would get in the way of a good story.
Convenient plot device aside, in terms of character development, Rogers points out that orphaning the main character of a children’s story simultaneously makes a character self-reliant while also raising “appealing and sometimes scary” stakes for young readers by “asking the hypothetical question, ‘What if my parents died and it was just me?’”
Rogers used the Baudelaire siblings from A Series of Unfortunate Events as a contemporary example. Without parents to protect and guide the children, and a supporting cast of ineffectual or outright wicked adult characters, there is the sense that these children are at the mercy of fate and they only have each other. This creates an exciting world where anything could potentially happen. A series of unfortunate events where the parents are just as helpless as their children would be sad and scary in a much less entertaining way.
In a world of make-believe, dead parents can be as simple as a plot device, but as we know in real life, growing up without parents is hardly the thrilling personality attribute we see so often in children’s literature. To really lose one’s parents is a tragedy at any age, and when it happens to a child, it creates a host of practical concerns as well.
Feeling like I was dying, it was hard to watch those stories just drop the death of the parents, and the moms, especially, and move on.
“I believe that so many stories include a protagonist that is an orphan because of the emotional control we feel that we have on this child, given their circumstances. We want to be the saviors of children who have been orphaned, so what better way for them to win than as the heroes of our bestselling children's books?” says Elizabeth Evans Hagan, age 38, from Washington D.C. Hagan is the executive director of the orphan care organization Our Courageous Kids, she believes there are darker motivations at play in Western literature's frequent use of the orphan trope.
Perhaps there are such cultural implications at play in our collective fantasies, but as Rogers points out, beyond an adult’s savior complex, the trope also provides children with aspirations of resourcefulness.
Britianny Kalvalchev, a 35-year-old from O’Fallon, Missouri, remembers playing a recurring game of pretend where she and her siblings imagined they were the members of a community of orphans. Looking back, she recognizes that “it had less to do with dead parents and more to do with fantasizing about the independence we could have in a parentless world.”
The fantasy can look very different to adults than it looks to children. Dona Bumgarner, a 46-year-old mother and breast cancer survivor from Santa Cruz, California, remembers her daughter watching Disney movies while she was going through chemotherapy. "Feeling like I was dying, it was hard to watch those stories just drop the death of the parents, and the moms, especially, and move on. No grief, no trauma for the children. The story seemed to be ‘Mom dies, and then you have an adventure.’”
To watch her daughter enjoy these stories, unaware of how close the reality of losing her mother actually was for her, made Bumgarner feel “erased and inconsequential.”
Most people aren’t entirely alone in the world, but it sometimes feels like we are.
For Keema Waterfield, a 38-year-old mother from Missoula, Montana, who describes herself as “an older postpartum woman struggling with anxiety over being alive long enough to raise my kids” the trope is equally personal, but as a YA writer, she understands the temptation to employ the shortcut, “to create the kind of tension that drives a story, there has to be a conflict that immobilizes a child’s inborn support system in order to give them the space to grow without explicit parental intervention.”
To a child’s mind, the orphan narrative may be an exciting version of what life would be like if they had the autonomy of an adult, and to a parent’s mind, it may be a romanticized version of their worst-case scenario.
As Rogers points out, the real power of the orphan hero is its accessibility. She explains, “Most people aren’t entirely alone in the world, but it sometimes feels like we are, so we can sympathize easily with an orphan character.”
Rogers is right, the popularity of Anne and Heidi, Harry and Sara Crewe, is not limited to children, although they are each characters in children’s literature.
Perhaps the true appeal of the orphan protagonist is not in the erasure of their parents, or the tragedy of their origins. Maybe it is in the ability for readers of all ages to imagine a world where they are more than alone, they are a hero.