What is it about orphans? (Brenda Hiatt)

 As others have pointed out this month, there’s a reason parents are so often missing in young adult fiction. Teen protagonists are a lot less likely to need to solve their own problems if there’s an engaged mom or dad they can go to for help and advice. Removing that potential resource is a great help to weaving a compelling hero’s journey for a young character. 

Taking parents out of the picture, physically or emotionally, is much more than a handy plotting tool for authors, though. Stories about orphans have always tended to resonate with readers, from the very dawn of storytelling, all the way back to Moses and Romulus and Remus, and probably before. Think Cinderella, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Heidi, Bambi, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. 

Heroes with missing, dysfunctional or downright cruel parents is a theme that’s woven itself through story after story for millenia…because it works. A character who finds him or herself in such a seeming hopeless situation is almost automatically sympathetic to the reader. And there’s absolutely something compelling about an abandoned or downtrodden youngster who draws on inner resources to overcome the worst of adversity to achieve greatness (or at least happiness).

I suspect another appeal of this theme is the character’s search for and ultimate triumph in finding their true family. Who among us has never felt misunderstood or out of place, longing for a place, a tribe, where we can truly belong? There’s a catharsis in reading about someone discovering exactly that, after growing up without it. 

Yes, there are a lot of wonderful books out there featuring perfectly healthy family dynamics with loving, supportive parents. But I’m sure I won’t be the only one going back to the well of the abandoned protagonist. That well is deep, and doesn’t seem likely to run dry anytime soon. 

Brenda Hiatt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the award-winning
Starstruck series which, yes, centers around an orphaned, misunderstood heroine who goes on to achieve greatness...AND happiness! 


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