Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Orphan Train - Family Estrangement

One of my favorite writing themes is when my hero, or heroine, is orphaned literally or figuratively. They feel the oppression of being alone and cut off from aid knowing they must rely on themselves and their own abilities. In some cases, they are strong and aggressive, but in others they are withdrawn and shy.

This concept is a characterization gold mine for a writer and I find it recurring often in my writing. I don't intend my characters to be alone, but when they begin to tell me their life story (and boy can they talk) they are often at odds with one or both parents making them virtual orphans.

What is a virtual orphan? Their parents are alive but they are estranged from them in some way. Either their parents doubted them at a critical time so trust is gone, they are too much like the parent so they are at odds, or they suffered abuse at the hand of the parent.

These virtual orphans I create have two choices: they can seek to heal the wound and thus reconcile with family or they can choose to remain apart, casting aside their family ties.

Both options are excellent fodder for character building as well as plot construction. The character who seeks reconciliation is an entirely different person than one who decides to go it on their own.

In order to reconcile with the family, a hero/heroine has to be able to forgive.

Forgiveness is critical. If you have a rigid character who lives life in black and white, this isn't going to work. So your character must be one who lives in grayscale or technicolor. Another major factor for me is that the family member(s) have not done something which I as a reader/writer find unforgivable. I've read books I've loved except the family estrangement is healed almost miraculously and in spite of unforgivable deceptions or actions. For me those are wallbangers.

Forgiving the unforgivable can be done, but to force your character to reconcile with the unforgivable takes a delicate hand. George Lucas managed it in the Star Wars tale, perhaps because Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker didn't commit his most heinous crimes against the son who ultimately forgives him. It never would have worked for Leia to forgive because of the rather nasty mindprobe thing in the first movie. I mean who liked the needle? Not me.

So if your hero or heroine can forgive, what then? They must grow. Yes, this is part of your plot but it is part of characterization too. Most of us look for a character arc when we're writing. Character arcs are those odd writing devices that are both plot and characterization.

In order to win through at the end of the book your character must grow in strength or soften enough to forgive. This is a classic character arc but it must be inherent in your character before a single letter finds its way onto the page. One of my favorite movies which shows this radical character change is in the great Bette Davis film Now, Voyager based on the book by Olive Higgens Prouty.

Charlotte Vale starts out as a frumpy, nervous, cowed woman whose mother has emotionally abused and controlled her for years. She suffers a breakdown and in healing transforms into a woman as formidable as her mother. In spite of the abuse, Charlotte is able to come to a truce with her mother. This is a strong character arc and truly brilliant character building.

I find it really satisfying if I can add estrangement and reconciliation to one of my stories because it parallels and underscores the romantic relationship between the hero and heroine in a romance. The tough part is making my characters earn the reconcilation and making sure it doesn't seem contrived.

When the reconciliation flows out of the character and plot, it not only makes your characters whole, it makes your readers love your hero/heroine more. That's why I write romance, after all. I love a happy ending!

What are your favorite reconciliation stories? Do you enjoy this type of character arc? Why or Why not? Share your viewpoints by leaving a comment!


  1. You are so right about our tendancy as writers to orphan one or both of our main characters. I do find in most cases authors tend to orphan the heroine more often than the hero. I think this is because we expect the hero to be strong by himself and sometimes the loner aspect adds to his appeal. However, by orphaning the heroine, she is often forced to depend on the hero more than she would if she had strong family ties to fall back on, especially in historicals. Strand her, and she'll grab onto the closest piece of driftwood she can find floating by--oh, surprise, it's the hero! I'm using this tactic in my latest book, stranding my heroine big time--800 years in the past smack dab during the middle ages. But you'll find out all about her on Monday when she stops by for an interview. When you hear Keri talk about the hunky dragon-knight who comes to her rescue, you may discover being orphaned isn't always such a bad thing. *G*

  2. So true...we do tend to do this as writers quite often, for the reasons both you and Lori state. And in some of my favorite books, the heroine may have a family, but she's emotionally orphaned for one reason or another (indifference, a stepparent married to a weak biological parent who refuses to step in, etc.). That does the trick too, and I think adds to the heroine that element of having a sense of true completion to search for. DEFINITELY a major element in historicals, which are my comfort food, book-wise. GREAT post!

  3. Fantastic post Francesca! I can't wait to explore "The Orphan Train Part Two."

    Great examples and very true that forgiveness is a key component with character growth.


  4. Oh, I love this type of character arc. Sometimes it can be just as satisfying as a romantic resolution!

    Jody W.

  5. Thanks everyone. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Talia, I look forward to reading your post on Tuesday!

  6. I think feeling alone/orphaned is something we all go through as people and that's why it appears in our stories. One of my favorite stories of reconciliation is Field of Dreams.