Orphan; The Great Hero Archetype

Orphans Title.jpg

I’ve always loved my heroes. Batman. Luke Skywalker. Conan. James Bond. These guys were my idols, my role models. I looked up to them like they were my big brothers, and tried desperately as a child to emulate them.

They seemed attainable, as if somehow my circumstances were part of a grand design that would lead me towards their fate. The reason for my thoughts? They were orphans, just like me. Only orphans were special enough to be heroes. And I was an orphan. Vis a vie, I’d be a hero. Well… not quite…

So, orphans. Yeah, those guys. Well, I should say us guys I guess. We all know the definition; someone who has lost their parents. I don’t mean lost like “Sheila, I’ve lost my car keys.” I mean, well, you get the point. For one reason or another, an orphan has no mother or father.

And it’s a really common part of storytelling. In fact, it’s such a common part of storytelling that it should be considered an archetype; a regular part of the story telling realm since the time of the ancients. Throughout the history of stories, from spoken to written, orphans raise their sad little faces and lead a story from beginning to end.

From the foundlings of Tom Jones and A Winter’s Tale to the old wives tales of children stolen away by fairies and goblins, orphans are woven deep into the fabric of storytelling.

But why so?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Let’s take an IQ stroll into the world of the orphan as a hero archetype…



“Here we go!”


They’re Convenient

Now now, I am not for a second saying that writers are so callous that they drop the emotional and complex elements of an orphan character into the story just because it is convenient but… wait, what was my point again?

Writing the complicated dynamics of family can be long winded and boring, but missing it out can leave plot holes that gape like a Sarlacc at the dentist.

However, a hero with little or no family removes this concern completely! Compare the two scenes:

John, enraged by his mothers tenacious demands for cleanliness, was desperate to abandon the stale and suffocating existence of 16 Albert Road. He pushed past his father and brother, and ran up to his room. Tears were streaming. Life was hard.


John knew it was him against the world. If he didn’t tidy his room, nobody would. This thought made him sad, but he pushed the sadness deep inside himself and puffed out his chest. He was alone in this world, but he could do whatever he wanted. “Screw tidying,” he thought (probably).

Ok, so these are hardly the best examples, but they make a point. If your hero has a family, that potentially creates extra characters you’ll need to consider writing in to your story, and this can complicate things when you try to justify things like motive, history, character, personality and desire.

Look at Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings. Do you think if he had had parents they would have let him wander off on a deadly journey into the land of Mordor to destroy a ring pent on obliterating his way of life? It would have meant Tolkien having to write in emotional goodbyes, worries, drama and tears that could have taken away from the story. It was just easier, in hindsight, to have his character be an orphan (not that Tolkien ever cared about keeping things snappy; 20 page elf song anyone?)

Are orphan characters just less complicated?


Serge Bertasius Photography

“That’s easy for you to say”


They’re Underdogs

Indeed, we are  drawn to help those we feel are at a disadvantage. I am reluctant to call this human nature (as I definitely know a healthy crop of humans who care very little about their fellow earthlings), but I think it is a common enough trait through people that if you can harness this emotional response, you can make your character much more likeable. Readers, I believe, will warm to them much quicker.

As we saw in the above examples, the first one made the character seem a little spoilt, but the second one made the character seem much more in need of our sympathy and help. This of course is as much about the way a writer chooses to write a character, but I also think that ‘the orphan’ has potential to frame things much more sympathetically in their favour when utilised correctly.

Think about Annie. We are all familiar with this orphan’s story leading from a hard knock life into the much safer and better world of tomorrow. Why do we side with her? Well, she’s a young girl, like anybody else. She dreams of having a better life, and of escaping the ‘small town’ (orphanage) where she lives as a young lady. Yet, though she has all these and other similar desires as your average eleven year old, she is also an orphan. Life will be even harder for her than it is for other girls her age.

You see a part of yourself in this character, but you also see that they (potentially) don’t have the same advantages you might have, and this makes you side with them and want them to succeed against the odds, like a puppy in an avalanche…



or a grandpa in a …boxing match?


And As a Result, They Can Bend the Rules to Get Things Done

Yeah, so sometimes a hero needs to be a little naughty, and maybe do things that fall outside of ‘accepted practice’. You cannot expect your classic ‘pure’ heroes to do this, as to behave in any way that falls outside of the realms of fair or just would be to betray their righteousness, and undermine their authority and authenticity as ‘pure’ characters.

In times like this, send in the orphan.

Tom Sawyer, like most boys his age, likes to get into a bit of trouble. He’s mischievous, loves a tall tale, and prides himself on his confidence and boisterous behaviour. We like him, and we let him get away with a lot of behaviour that is unsavoury. Maybe this is because we know, somewhere in our minds, that an orphan doesn’t have anyone there to guide them emotionally, or behaviourally. He must find his way in the world alone. He impresses us because even without a parent to lend him moral guidance, he is still able to keep his heart in the right place, and ultimately act as a leader amongst his school friends.

The same goes for Harry Potter. He sometimes breaks rules and does things that are naughty or wrong, but ultimately he is a good boy who is just trying to find out who he is, and avenge the death of his parents (specifically his mother, the ultimate Oedipal vendetta). The writer is able to have him get into trouble and win dirty fights, because the reader will justify his behaviour by allowing him a little more of a learning curve.



“Leave him alone mate, he’s an orphan”


It’s a Ready Made Story

Yes, it is. Really. If you find yourself struggling for inspiration, you could do a lot worse than writing an orphan story.

The plot is kind of already there; the search for parents/the truth/identity. That third part, the ‘who am I?’ element of being an orphan, is something writers have played with a lot.

As changingminds.org pus it so perfectly:

“The Orphan, fearing exploitation, seeks to regain the comfort of the womb and neonatal safety in the arms of loving parents. To fulfil their quest they must go through the agonies of the developmental stages they have missed.”

Take Batman from the recent relaunch of the franchise starring Christian Bale, as an example.

He must learn to ‘grow up’ out of his immature playboy ways and become an adult. This leads him into the pitfalls of wanting to protect everyone, but he also faces some tough decisions that force him to become a ‘parent’ of the people of Gotham.

Ultimately, his story stemmed from a desire to right the wrongs of his parents’ death. He nearly fell into the trappings of ‘playing the victim ‘but was able to pull himself out using his own personal strength, and realised the right thing to do (the ultimate sign of maturity being the difficult decision done for the greater good).

We’ve also got Daenerys Targaryen from the Game of Thrones TV show and SOIaF books. When we first meet her at the start of the stories she is but a young lady who follows the guidance of her male ‘protectors’ (her brother Viserys, and the elegant Illyrio), but eventually out grows them and makes her way to firstly discovering her sexuality (her puberty) with Khal Drogo initially but then others, before moving into her own teenage years of rebellion and ideas of change (battles and freeing slaves – all with a taste for bloodshed) before reaching maturity and becoming the guardian of her own people.

She is trying to realise her destiny as a Queen, because she knows from stories she hears as she grows that she comes from royal blood, and somehow by reclaiming that throne in the name of her family, she will somehow reconnect with the parents and by extension the identity, she has lost.



Unfortunately we don’t have the budget for HBO photos. So, instead of the Queen of Dragons, we give you… the Prince of Cow nosed Tadpole Lizards (with wings)!


They’re Mysterious

What’s more mysterious than hiding the history of a character? Without knowing the origin of someone, we are without a key tool in trying to figure out that person’s motivations. It also creates an element of intrigue, which drives our reading as we want to find out answers to the many questions we may have.

Take Superman for example. His origins were not really touched on in his early comics until #53. Even then, the full extent of his initial story is not made clear until #146 (scifi.atackexchange.com). The reason? It’s just easier to explain a character’s story later on and deal with the s**t kicking first. Superman being an orphan removes a whole myriad of complications from his story, but the mystery of his past, at least initially, creates more hype, and leaves us asking more questions. We find out information in dribs and drabs, and piecing together this enigma becomes a garnish to the meat of the plot.





Life Imitates Art (And Vice Versa)

What do J. R. R. Tolkien, Joseph Conrad, Louis Armstrong, Malcolm X and Babe Ruth all have in common? That’s right, they’re all orphans.

In fact, google ‘famous orphans’ and you’ll be surprised how many orphans there have been in the world who’ve made it into the big time.

So already we can see, well established in the real world, is this idea of rags to riches, or of orphans being able to achieve great success even while being at the seeming disadvantage of having no parents.

There is no shortage of writers in this realm. Andy McNab was found on the steps of a hospital as a baby. Wordsworth was orphaned aged 12, Tolstoy aged 9 and Edgar Allen Poe aged 2.

So, potentially we may see writers using orphans just because it’s all they know.

Hell, I do this too. As I don’t really know what a ‘normal’ family would look like, I just write what I do know; the life of an orphan. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve not grown up in some horrible orphanage, but I can harness the inner ‘orphan complex’ that drives a lot of previously mentioned orphan characters. As stated on charactertherapist.blogspot.tw they often desire:

  • to feel accepted
  • to feel safe (and make others feel safe)
  • to connect with others

These could reflect the desires of the writer too, and how that drive manifests in the characters and stories they choose to create. Afterall, we write what we know.


stockimages 3

“So I’ve got this idea right. It’s a story about a… a… doctor. And he likes… red. Yeah, red things. And he’s really handsome and cool and stuff, and everybody loves him”


Religion (Which Came First?)

Finally, we have our oldest examples; religious figures. There is no shortage of great prophets or leaders being abandoned at an early age. Take Moses for example, and how he washed up on a reed bed after being floated down a river.

The chances of such a thing actually happening are high enough that it’s plausible, and yet it somehow leads to this wonderful enigma. Like somehow, by being washed up in such a manner, we can see that person as more than just a being, like they are somehow extra special. By having no parents, they can give themselves wholly to god as a surrogate father or mother.

Muhammad, of the faith of Islam, would be another example. He was orphaned aged six.

Even St Nicholas, and by extension Santa Claus, was an orphan. His desire to give and to spread joy acting as a foil to his own memories of isolation, sadness, and not feeling familial warmth.


stockimages 2

“Ho Ho… Huh?”


In closing, there are many, many examples of orphans in literature and stories. From Mowgli to Tarzan, Wolverine to Princess Leia (or most of the characters from Star Wars, including Darth Vader and Han Solo for that matter), they are part of an archetype so entrenched that I don’t see it going anywhere any time soon.

I leave it for you to think about. Let me know about your theories, or if you think I’m missing the point completely. Maybe you agree with some of what I’ve said, or think I’m just talking an absolute bucket of rubbish. I’d be interested to hear your ideas in the comments section below!

I’ll leave you with the biggest lesson I learned from all those orphan stories:



Disclaimer: I am not here to judge, condone, nor side with any of the above representations of orphans, or of tragedy. I am merely commenting on representations of these things in certain stories, and trying to decode why they exist, and how they are used, in a way that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. As I have said, I myself am an orphan, and I don’t look to be offended by the archetypes and stereotypes associated with orphandom. I have only ever seen them as positive, and as one of many tools in writing.

Special thanks to Ambro, artur84, holoholoholand, photostock, Serge Bertasius Photography, stockimages & vectorolie @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015

One thought on “Orphan; The Great Hero Archetype

  1. There’s really an incredibly large number of these orphan stories/heroes… I wonder if it appeals to something primitive in us. There’s a whole book’s worth on this topic…
    My new novel has a sort of orphany hero… I don’t believe I made it that way to gain any sympathy for him, it just sort of went that way…..

    Liked by 1 person

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