Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Orphan Protagonist Cliche - Why Is It Still Used?

Have you ever noticed that, in a lot of children's and YA fantasy/adventure/action/sci-fi novels, the main character is an orphan? This is so common that the orphan main character has become cliche. Maybe you're sick of it and really wish a biological parent would show up every now and then. However . . . have you ever considered why the orphan MC is so common?

Photo not mine - found over here. I don't know who to credit.

Think about it. All children's and YA protagonists are the same ages as their target audiences - under aged. They're not adults yet, and that means that they are subject to a legal authority. Parents. What do you think most parents' reactions to their teenager/child going off on a probably dangerous adventure would be?
This sounds quite callous, but one of the easiest and most convenient ways to get rid of that authority which would otherwise prevent the children/teen MCs from going on their perilous adventures is to kill the parents before the book even starts. This leaves the main character in one of three positions: (1) he's on the streets, free to do whatever he wants including running into characters involved in the adventure (Mistborn trilogy); (2) he's in an orphan home which obviously will be very careless and not bother to go looking for the MC once he's gone, or will send him away with a man of dubious motives who will inevitably get the MC involved in the adventure in the first place (hello The Ascendance Trilogy and The Ranger's Apprentice); or living with his last remaining distant relatives who either don't care enough about him to bother if he dies -
- or will soon die to provide the MC with a motive for his quest and conveniently free him of remaining parental authority at the same time.
Obviously, this whole removal of authority thing is getting somewhat predictable. But, then again, I suppose that is sort of the point of cliches.
Now the question is, what to do about it? If we leave the parents in the story, we're still going to have that irritating parental protectiveness to deal with, which means we won't be able to really torture the MC as much as we need to. 
Or does it? Here are ten ideas of ways to avoid the orphan protagonist cliche.
  1. Make the parent(s) part of the adventure. Mother gets kidnapped and the child has to set out on a quest to save her (Michael Vey). The dad is an adrenaline junkie and wouldn't pass up the excitement for anything. The mother goes along to try to mother-hen the protagonist on his journey, but believes in good enough to let her child be brave. 
    Sorry. I couldn't resist throwing that in.
  2. The parent(s) are absent so much that it is easy for the protagonist to run away/get taken away and have some time before anyone notices he's gone. A more extreme version of this happened in Nobody by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, when the female protagonist was actually incapable of being remembered by her parents after she'd left.
  3. The parent(s) are part of the adventure before the protagonist is, on either the side of good or evil (Elemental trilogy by Antony John, The Compound by S.A. Bodeen). 
  4. The protagonist is abducted away from his parents and forced into his adventure (Legend trilogy by Marie Lu, The School of Good and Evil by Soman Chainani, Girl, Stolen by April Henry).
  5. The protagonist has no idea who his parents are or if they're alive (this is beginning to be used more often, so be wary). Maybe he is reunited with one or both of them at some point in the plot, complicating things.
  6. The adventures happen at a boarding school or summer camp which the parents/parental figures sent the child to (Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, anyone?). 
  7. The law interferes with parental authority over the children - this happened in the Black City trilogy by Elizabeth Richards because of Ash's half Darkling status. His father couldn't control all the events in Ash's life because the government was running control measures on Darklings. Other examples of lawful interference take place in Divergent, The Hunger Games, Uninvited, Half Bad, The Darkest Minds, and plenty of other dystopic novels.
  8. The parent/s (long shot if there are two parents) are mentally ill, and due to extenuating circumstances (like the end of the world and psychoactive medications) can't take authority over their child. Take a look at the Penryn and the End of Days trilogy by Susan Ee to see this very unique set up. 
  9. The adventure does not require any long-distance travel, and so the MC manages to have his adventure right under his parents' noses. (V is for Villain by Peter Moore, Slated trilogy by Teri Terry).
  10. The age of majority (legal adulthood) is younger than it is in this world, so that the MC that we would consider a teen or child is actually considered an adult (Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown)
There are a few ways to spice things up, but sometimes . . . there is no other option. Your plot requires the parents to be dead, and there's no way around it. Don't be scared that you're being cliche, if this is the case. Just make sure you didn't automatically make the MC an orphan because that was the first idea that came into your head. Think about other options. Family is a big deal, and sometimes, it is nice to see some familial relationships in a book. 
Or maybe you have to do the opposite. You've got the parents, but they're proving pesky. In that case:
Kill those darlings.

So what about you? Do you agree that the orphan protagonist is getting cliche? Have you ever used it, or one of the twists I listed? 

Want more posts on cliches and how to put a twist on them? Click here for all my posts on cliches, or click the label in the sidebar.


  1. Hey Annika,
    Great post! The Orphan cliche is everywhere but I like that cliche better than the Stupid/Oblivious Parents Cliche. I like all the options you listed about getting parents involved in the story. A lot of them reminded me ot "The Pretender" TV series. The MC was taken from his parents and experimented on. Now he's a genius and he's trying to find his family. He runs across his mother, father, brother, sister, half-brother.....his family becomes hugely involved in the plot! At one point I was like "Who /isn't/ related to this guy!?" If you get the chance I'd reccoment the series. It's a great example of a Orphan cliche that involves family in the adventure. Great post!

    1. Yes, same. At least with an orphan you don't end up pulling your hair because the parents are just so dumb. That sounds like a really awesome tv show . . .I'll have to look it up. Thanks so much for the comment!

  2. This post exists. My life is now complete.
    The orphan protagonist cliche has bothered me for a long time, especially with characters that brood on their parents' deaths for the remainder of their lives and never move on. Revenge is lovely, you want to avenge people, you do that, but who would honestly want to live their entire life like that? Come on guys, is there seriously no other way? Granted, several of my own protagonists are orphans, it really is a lot easier that way, but not every character can (or should) be Batman.
    So thank you for posting this, because it is perfect.
    (AND YOUR PUN AT THE END. Your pun is the best.)

    1. Haha, it has been a privilege to make your life complete then. *bows* I have a few characters who are orphans as well, but I tend to explain it away with the fact that between Plagues and Wars and Shipwrecks and Medieval Medicine, not many people survived. XD And yes, especially if he never knew his parents. I get longing for family but you can't feel that strongly about specific people you've never met.
      THANK YOU FOR LIKING THE PUN. My night has been made. XD

  3. I love this. :) Especially the brainstorm of ideas. These are very helpful! The parents being part of the adventure always makes me think of Spy Kids. I have no idea why.

    Ah! When you mentioned the protagonist being left in an orphan home, I was thinking, "The Ascendance Trilogy! Ascendance Trilogy! Please mention the- Yay! She mentioned it." :)

    Also, I think in some ways, the parents are also absent by the nature of the world the protagonist may live in. If they live in a dangerous world, sometimes it's not surprising to wind up as an orphan. Also some plots require the protagonist to be an orphan. Like the Ascendance Trilogy is about a prince becoming the king. Obviously, this is not always the situation though.

    What I don't like, is when there are parents, but the protagonist might as well be an orphan, because the parents just aren't there being parents in an shape at all. This especially annoys me in contemporary books, which is where I see it most often.

    1. The Ascendance Trilogy is what I was thinking of when I thought of that idea. XD
      Also, yes, that's why I included the thing at the end. Sometimes it IS necessary. My own project Taken has three major characters who are orphans because there'd been plagues and wars and shipwrecks, plus medieval style medicine reduced the chances of surviving childbirth and sickness.
      I don't read a lot of contemporary but I know what you mean. That makes me mad. >:(
      Thanks for the comment! I'm glad you liked the post.

  4. I write it without thinking about. My mother died when I was 14 and my father and step monster could not hate me anymore than they do. My sister and I entered out teen years with one parent and left with none. I simply don't know what it is like to have parents that care since I was the one that cared for my sister. I imagine what it is like: steamed from love and whatnot.

    1. I'm sorry to hear about that. I'm sure your experiences lend your writing with a lot more realism even though it is horrible that you had to go through that.

  5. My book involves a lot of late teens and the parents aren't around for almost any of them. Ozzy has his Mom but no dad; Matt's dad is dead and his mom is mentally unstable; Charlie never knew her dad and her mom abandoned her when she was young; Hayden's parent's are both dead so her brother takes care of her, but he has to work so much that she kind of just does her own thing; and Alice has run away from home so often that her parents told her to just leave a note to let them know she's ok. They all end up being taken in by an academy.

  6. I don't mind the orphan cliche and use it myself often (I write in the past or in fantasy worlds that align our past so it's reasonable).A story I'm writing at the moment has a protagonists (Jacob) who's, sort of, an orphan at the start. The novel opens with a scene where his mother and half sister are killed (his father died a number of years ago) but his step father is still alive. He kills someone (whom he suspects of being a perpetrator of his mother and sister's murder) and so is taken away from his father (step-father) by law makers. Later in the book he finds his step-father again who's dying (from injuries and fever). When writing an orphan I think showing trauma is important (even if that trauma presents itself in a prankster that can't deal with emotion). More commonly, I write about people that have strained relationships with their parents or their parents are the antagonists (as is the case in the above mentioned story for another protagonist) and maybe it takes them a while to realise what their parents are asking them to do, or even just what their parents do themselves, is not okay. I also think it adds something to write step-parents (and just parents for that matter) that aren't amazingly loving and wonderful but they're also not assholes. Reflective of the world-setting of my story Jacob's step-father tries to maintain boundaries in his emotional connection to Jacob but he still has Jacob's best interests at heart and when his wife and daughter die (Jacob's mum and sis) he focuses his attention on Jacob and doesn't disregard Jacob's grief or take anything out on him- as story step-parents so often seem to. Perhaps because why own parents aren't great- my dad is shit and my mum is far from maternal- when I write shitty parents I make it honest. I read abusive parents that are basically psychopaths but that's not what abusers are really like. Some are like children who don't see their wrongs- emotional abusers are very much like this, some try to make up for their mistakes but do it again and again- substance triggered violent abusers often, and some fit the mold of manipulative but they will ALWAYS have attractive qualities (that's how they lock you in), these just get soured over time, as you realise who they are. Rambling now, but yeah, just remember it's not only the protagonist and the antagonist who should be multi-faceted.

    1. True, very true. A lot of writers do get parents of all kinds wrong, and I think it's a shame. For myself, I have one story where the protagonist is an orphan, and then another story where my two sibling protagonists have parents, but the protagonists are old enough that they aren't quite as subject to their parent's plans any more. It's certainly a tricky area to balance, both in how it affects the protagonist and how to portray the parents themselves.

  7. I think sometimes writers use the orphan cliché so they don't have to contend with realistic but oh so uncool parenting where the hero who is supposed to go and save the world is instead asked to respect his 11pm curfew, do his homework, and help with the dishes. Those normal parents would doom the world LOL

    1. Haha exactly, exactly. The parents and normal life would just get in the way of saving everyone's lives. XD

  8. I'm currently writing a children's/YA adventure quest story and battling with this very debate as to the origins of my MC. It was very easy to kill off the parents but I still wanted my MC to have a nurturing family connection so enter the lovable grandmother. Perhaps this is also a cliché - the parental figure who's attitude to their authorial duties is somewhat more relaxed than actual parents and are more likely to root for the MC than stand in the way. I also added a side-note that the grandmother is sick and the MC is unaware of this, thus giving the grandmother a real reason for wanting the MC to become more independent. My MC joins a crew who become his surrogate family - family doesn't always mean blood.

    1. While it is possible that that would sound cliche on the surface, I think that the fact that your MC's grandmother is dying is a very useful detail to include which brings it a little bit out of the "cliche" zone. It gives the grandmother's actions a better motive than just the author trying to give their MC plenty of liberty.

  9. One of my recent books is an adventure that manages to avoid the orphan cliche. The main character, Vidaya, has parents who are very busy and has been pretty much raised by her older sister who is going off to college. The other main character, Fay's father is the missing person, so they are going on an adventure to rescue him. And Fay's mom simply isn't mentioned.

    I did plan to have someone die originally, but I threw all that out the window and managed to make an adventure story where no one dies (or is dead before the story starts, such as in some Disney movies.)

  10. So in a book I'm writing, there are several main characters with unique parental relationships. My personal favorite, Bailey, was abused by her father and her mother was an alcoholic, she joins the military and then the events of the book start. Bailey has a sister, Jody, who is still in that abusive relationship with the father. Austin has parents that he can only see from afar seeing the story takes place in the afterlife for everyone but Jody. Anabiel and Haniel's parents were kidnapped by Amelia after Anabiel killed Amelia's husband and children mistaking Amelia for a captive. Amelia herself has loving parents who she is constantly trying to shield from the horrible acts she has committed. Gabby was adopted and dies of cancer. Her parents grieve her. Moloch is Gabby's uncle and committed suicide after his wife and child were killed. Moloch and Gabby's father have good relationships with their parents but rarely see them because the brothers live(d) in America and their parents live in Mexico. Are these cliché?

  11. Hi, Thank you so much for this post! I've noticed this cliché in many of my favorite books. I've always wondered how books and movies would be different if they had parents. I especially like the brainstorm of ideas at the end. They were really helpful.

  12. The only problem with this is that being an orphan isn't a cliché, it's a trope. A trope is just a generalized pattern in stories, where as a cliché is a trope where no new ideas or creativity can be drawn. Orphans actually exist, millions of them in fact. Saying that being an orphan is a cliche is like saying white people are a cliché in stories. You see them all the time, so it must be a cliche, right? No. From what I've read here, the issue comes from people not using the trope creatively. The orphan trope can do more than just free the character from parental control. Here's an idea I came up with just from reading this post. Feel free to use it if you want.

    A character in the story reads a lot of YA novels. Their pulled in by the stories, fascinated. They notice the orphan trope, and they think that it's the key to going on awesome adventures. So, they have their parents killed and try to make it look like an accident or that someone else did it. They find out that orphan life isn't all that it's made out to be. They actually find a nice new family. And even worse, the police figure out that the kid killed their parents. Now they have to deal with the legal repercussions.

    The character doesn't even have to kill their parents. There can just be a horrible accident or something. And instead of being upset like a normal person, the character is thrilled. This would throw off any reader expecting the "orphan cliché." There are other ways you can use this trope. When you see something that people say is a cliché, just ask yourself if you can use it differently, and if you can, then do it.

  13. Uh...you are missing the archetypal stages that ALL protagonists move through in the course of a story.
    Orphan --> Wanderer --> Warrior --> Martyr
    These coincide with Act changes.

    So even if a character isn't a literal orphan, they are a figurative orphan, so this isn't some sort of overused trope or cliche that you can avoid. It's simply part of structure. When you lose your primary world, you're an orphan. You can dress it up anyway you like but it doesn't change the structural necessity underneath. Sorry.

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