March 17, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue
In writing my first book, I was faced with a decision about the background of my main character. I wanted her to be adopted because I am an adoptee and felt it would be a way to communicate to the world what it’s like to have been given up at birth and how that affects the personal development of the adoptee. Of course, for an urban fantasy novel, it’s also a convenient plot device to set up an origination story and set my character on a journey of self discovery.
It’s so convenient, in fact, that it is a common theme in fantasy. Common enough that I feared using it because I didn’t want to fall into a cliché or trope. So, my question is: Is it cliché to have the main character of a novel be orphaned or adopted? Especially in the fantasy and urban fantasy genres?
My own reading experience says that, yes, it is so common of a plot device as to be overused. I’m sure you can think of many such characters on your own to back up my assertion. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Cinderella, Superman, and Bruce Wayne are just a few that come immediately to my mind. However, is it a true cliché? I think the answer to that question is more complex.
Being orphaned or adopted is a life-defining event. As such, using it as a plot device creates fundamental assumptions about the background of the character. There are most common of these assumptions are that the character has been scarred by the event and that she lacks knowledge about her heritage. I think these are the two areas we have to look at most closely to determine whether or not this device is a cliché or trope.
Let’s start with the character having been scarred by the event of being orphaned or adopted. Within a story, it is important for the protagonist to have internal as well as external problems to solve or obstacles to overcome. In other words, no one wants to read about the well-adjusted guy from an upper middle-class family who had a perfect childhood, graduated high school and college with honors, secured his dream job, married his dream woman, volunteers at the local soup kitchen, donates to charities, never experiences any moral or ethical conflict, and then saves the world on the side. Yay, good for him, he has a perfect life. I don’t care. Bor-ing.
We, as readers (or movie watchers), can’t identify with a ‘perfect’ protagonist. We need to see someone who is flawed or scarred because we are flawed and scarred. A perfect protagonist is inaccessible and doesn’t allow us to entertain the fantasy that we could be heroes, too. This is the reason I’m not a fan of Superman. He’s just too much the boy scout, too perfect. I won’t ever have as much moral fiber as the Man of Steel just as I won’t ever be born on Krypton and have god-like powers. I won’t ever have the powers of any of the fantasy characters I love reading about, so I need them to be accessible in how human they are in other ways.
I want to see characters who have true human emotions and conflicts and I believe most readers feel the same way. Having a protagonist who has lost their parents or been abandoned by them creates a fundamental vacuum in the protagonist’s life. The protagonist will lack the support and stability of a traditional loving family. She will feel alone, cut off from society, an outcast or misfit, which is something we can all identify with at certain levels. It allows the protagonist to be searching for their niche in life, their purpose.
It is also common for protagonists in such scenarios to have difficulty in cultivating relationships with others. They fear getting too close to anyone else for fear of being abandoned, betrayed, or losing them to tragedy. This allows the author to put the protagonist in situations where she has to learn to risk herself by opening up to others, learning to trust, and learning to allow herself to love and be loved in return.
In other words, having the protagonist be orphaned or adopted is an effective plot device. However, we could just as easily create a character who has to learn the same life lessons through other means. The life event that could have made our character unable to connect with others could be a physical deformity, having been cheated on and abandoned by a spouse, having been abused or mistreated as a child by someone in a position of authority other than the parents, being far more or far less intelligent than their contemporaries, or simply having interests or hobbies that are so different from their peers as to have made the protagonist an outsider at a young age.
Just as there are many ways to create a scarred character beyond having them be orphaned or adopted, there are practically infinite ways to make her flawed. She could lack empathy for other humans, be driven by greed or ruthlessness, be narcissistic as the result of being raised as an only child in a well-to-do family who doted on her, be driven to succeed to prove herself because her parents wanted a boy and got a girl, she could have a drug problem,and the list goes on.
Based on this piece alone, I could conclude that having an adopted or orphaned protagonist is cliché because it is almost too easy of a shortcut to creating a scarred and flawed character. I don’t even need detailed explanations of why this makes the character scarred and flawed because it’s so ingrained in my psyche.
But, it also works simply because it’s so common. The adopted or orphaned character is almost well-known enough to be an archetype on it’s own. Or maybe it’s just a shortcut to understanding the potential motivations behind a character. Interestingly enough, both heroes and villains can be orphans or adoptees. Loki, adopted by Odin, is a villain in both Norse mythology and comics. Luke Skywalker, a hero, was adopted by his aunt and uncle.
So, in just setting up a flawed or scarred character, I have a tendency to lean towards an orphan or adoptee as being a trope. We’ve seen it used so many times that I want to challenge writers to come up with something new, something different. Give me something I haven’t seen before.
The second piece of the equation, the protagonist lacking knowledge of her heritage, is a little more difficult to dismiss as cliché or trope. One reason for this is that the protagonist’s search for answers about her family becomes a metaphor for self-discovery and finding one’s place in the world. Granted, since we’re all struggling to find our places in this world, a writer hardly has to create an orphaned or adoptive character to create that need. However, in the fantasy or urban fantasy genres, having the protagonist be orphaned or adopted may be the only way to explain why the protagonist knows nothing of the powers she possesses.
In fantasy, magical abilities are inherited more often than not. So, if the character was raised by her birth parents, one would assume she was trained from a young age in her abilities and would know quite a bit about her abilities and her place in the world. You could still create an interesting story with the scenario, but it will most likely revolve around the character wanting to be something other than what’s expected of her by her parents or society. For example, she could have been born with the healing abilities all her family possesses and is expected to join the prestigious Arcane Medical College and serve the public, but what she wants to do with her life is become a famous trapeze artist in the travelling circus because she simply loves the thrill of flying through the air without a net and loves performing. This scenario, while it could be a journey of self-discovery, does not require the character to be orphaned or adopted.
One of the parts I enjoy best about reading fantasy is learning about the cosmology and system of magic being used. I think it’s especially fascinating when presented from the perspective of a character who is learning about it for the first time. There is a sort of mystery and wonder to be riding along with the protagonist as they discover their abilities and all the amazing and terrifying magic and magical beings that surround them.
But, if the character had grown up knowing she was special or different this type of journey could not be possible. The writer could thrust a normal human being into a mystical and magical world and still create the sense of discovery, mystery, and enchantment as the protagonist learns more, but as a normal human they would not have to learn to develop and deal with their own gifts.
As such, the orphaned or adopted fantasy protagonist provides the author with a way to have both. Well, actually, it allows the author to have everything we’ve discussed, actually. With a single declaration, “This character is adopted/orphaned,” the writer creates a scarred and flawed character who has to seek their heritage and discover their place in the world. It’s the perfect set-up for a complex story and journey of discovery.
Still, I must confess that maybe it is a trope, just one I, personally, happen to favor. My husband is fond of saying, “God, how many origination stories can you possibly read? They’re all the same, aren’t they?”
Yes and no.
As the old saying goes, there aren’t any new stories, just different ways of telling them. Based on my own reading experience, I think it’s true. I also think it doesn’t matter. Just because the base idea of a story or character concept has been done before, doesn’t mean a different telling won’t be interesting or entertaining. I’ve read dozens, maybe hundreds, of vampire stories and many of them have the same basic premise, but if they’re well-written I don’t necessarily care. The archetypal hero story has been done thousands of different ways, but people still keep writing hero stories and people still keep reading and watching them.
So, maybe the orphan/adoptee plot device is a trope or cliché, but I don’t think that requires abandoning it. As a personal note, of all of the stories I have read that contains the adoptee device, only one has truly captured the depth of pain and need to discover oneself that adoptees tend to experience. I give that honor to Karen Marie Moning in her Fever series.
My choice to make my protagonist an adoptee has as much to do with needing to create a character I can relate to as it does needing to set up an origination story where my character has much to learn and explore. It was not an easy decision, since I do fear I am merely falling into a trope. On the other hand, I think my personal experience will lend depth to a character and her personal foibles.
Writing is, or can be, a very personal experience. The choice to make my protagonist an adoptee is because I need an outlet to explore what it means to be adopted and how that can shape a person’s life. It is a convenient short-cut, yes, but it is also very personal for me. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think I was more entitled to use the short-cut than others, but I don’t begrudge anyone for using it. Why? Because it works as a metaphor for self-discovery and personal growth.
What do you think? Trope or useful plot device? Please share your opinions in the comments section.