Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Orphan Train - Part Two

Oliver Twist. Cinderella. Harry Potter. Each is a compelling character captured in print and movies and each shares the unfortunate title of orphan. Unlike the Francesca's post about being an emotional orphan, characters without parents tap into a deeper, universal fears: fear of death, fear of abandoment, and fear of change.

1. Fear of death

You don't have to go too far into the human psyche to come up with this one. Death is the great unknown and in general people fear what they don't understand. Good fathers sometimes die in senseless deaths. Tragic circumstances can shape the mindscape of a character, coloring the GMC of their story. Think of Peter Parker, Spiderman. His uncle's death, and Peter's guilt about allowing it to happen, propel Peter into using his Spidey powers for good to even the karmic scales. (And yeah, I know it was his uncle and not his father, but it was a father-figure, right?)

2. Fear of Abandonment

I admit this is one of my personal bugaboos. Think of a small urchin in Dickens' London being left alone at the mercy of a big, bad world. That is scary to me. Nobody at your back and lots of unknowns in front of you. Bill Sikes is on the premises. EEEEK!!! However, if a character can beat back this fear, the opportunity for growth is amazing. You learn self-reliance and are rewarded with a new family and the opportunity to never be hungry again.

3. Fear of Change/ Fear of Stagnation

The death of a parent has changed you. Your life takes on a different tint. Everything changes, so you fight that change, determined to save the ranch/the whales/your sibling from whatever threatens, creating an overprotective heroine who can't balance risk and safety or differeniate existing from living.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, a parent's death has changed you and you refuse to become grounded. You refuse to take responsibility for anything because tomorrow it may all be gone. Think of Mickey Mantle. The men in his family had a history of dying young from Hodgkins' disease. Did that influence Mickey's behavior off the field? Heck, yeah.

Age doesn't matter when you're an orphan because whether you're 15, 30, or 90 losing a parent rips a gaping hole in the fabric of your soul. The worst element of death is that it is irrevocable. Unless you write time travel or vampire stories, your characters won't get the answers to their burning questions or the resolutions to their problems unless they look to themselves. Even then, they may not get a true answer...but they may learn to live with the silence.

And that, too, is a story.



  1. Learning to live with the silence...I like that. Great overview, Talia. I hadn't really considered the root fears associated with our characters' abandonment before, and I think you really hit the nail on the head. Writing characters who are so dramatically illustrative of these fears can be pretty theraputic, too, considering that whether you're actually orphaned or not, this stuff is basic human baggage we're all saddled with to some degree. Great post!

  2. Ah, fear. It can orphan us all, even the strongest. Great post!

  3. Certainly overcoming some of these great and deep fears makes for a wonderful character arc. Very observant!

    Jody W.

  4. Very thought provoking!