by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Certain archetypal characters seem to appear again and again throughout storytelling history. Many early narratives told tales of youngsters without one or both parents. From Moses to Little Orphan Annie, orphans have served as heroines and heroes in countless stories, even when the plot does not specifically revolve around their abandonment. There’s a moment in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom when Suzie states that she wishes she were an orphan because most of her favorite fictional characters are. “Their lives are more special,” she states.
Psychologists have suggested that stories about orphans help us deal with the natural maturing process we all experience where we must come to terms with our own individuality and separate from our parents. Regardless of why, these characters have been some of the most beloved throughout history. Here’s a list of beloved fictional orphans and what we can learn from them when creating our own characters, whether parented or not.
Daenerys Targaryen – The Orphan as Parent
A number of the characters in Game of Thrones are orphans, including Jon Snow and Ayra Stark. However, it is Daenerys Targaryen that transcends her loss to become a powerful “parent” of her own as the mother of dragons. Professor X, in the X-Men series, an orphan as well, uses his pain to become a “parent” to others who have struggled with feeling like they don’t belong when he forms an academy for those with similar experiences. Wolverine, also an orphan, fills a comparable parental role in Logan.
James Bond – The Orphan as Savior
Many fictional orphans are handed a significant destiny as a savior of others. James Bond builds a career doing just that. Harry Potter shares a similar destiny while Lord Voldemort channels his orphanhood in the opposite direction. Frodo Baggins is called to be a savior in a realm beyond his humble life. Luke Skywalker is called to save the entire galaxy. Rey and Finn pick up this mantle in later episodes of Star Wars.
Cinderella – The Orphan as Outcast
It’s not surprising that many orphans are presented as outcasts in the narratives where they appear. While sometimes the banishment is from a systematic society, other times it is from those tasked with caring for them after the death of their parents. Cinderella is treated poorly by her stepmother and stepsisters. Snow White, also an orphan, suffers in a similar fashion. Dorothy feels outcast from the uncles and aunts caring for her, propelling her into her search for belonging in The Wizard of Oz. The ostracism is not always as dramatic as in the above examples. Clarice Starling has suffered as a subtler outcast – the rare woman in an organization almost exclusively comprised of men — in The Silence of the Lambs.
Jessica Jones – The Orphan with a Gift
A number of orphans in the story world have been given gifts beyond the natural abilities of human beings. While sometimes this may be an exceptional talent, such as in the case of Will Hunting, many other times, the gift defies the natural laws of our universe. Superman has been gifted with abilities common to his home of Krypton, but uncommon on our planet. While Captain America and Spider-Man, both orphans as well, were technically born on Earth, their gifts stretch beyond the natural world. Orphan Jessica Jones has a complex relationship with her own gifts and is called upon to investigate others with extraordinary gifts.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.