"I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess." -Martin Luther

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Protagonists Have No Parents

This is a subject with lots of potential (mwahaha). Dad pointed it out to me, which is ironic. You see, the great majority of protagonists (hero/heroine of the story) in children's literature especially, have no parents, or just one parent, or manage to get their parents out of the picture early on.
Let's start with recent hits in moviedom, primarily those drawing from books. Though I have not read or seen the story, I am under the impression that Harry Potter certainly has no contact with his parents, or has no parents at all. Frodo's parents are dead at the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring, despite the fact that he is still considered an adolescent. Anakin Skywalker never had a father, and his mother, while playing a part in the story, is not a parental influence after the Phantom Menace. Luke Skywalker never knew his mother, and is functionally without a father. And let's not forget the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or any of Lewis' Chronicles. The examples of children without present parents make that of Digory's mother (weakened to the point of ineffectiveness) a contrast. Cheaper by the Dozen has parents, but at least in the fictionalized movies the relationship is primarily antagonistic. And then there were a Series of Unfortunate Events...
Other children's books: Treasure Island spends its first few chapters getting away from the mother. The evil stepmother is not very motherly. Otto, of Otto of the Silver Hand, never knew his mother, and his father sends him away. The Accidental Detectives series is a marked exception, with two Christian parents at times figuring prominently in the stories. Most of the books, however, separate the characters from their parents. Frank Perretti's Cooper Kids series prominently features the strong, meek father, but the mother is dead. Little Men is about a boys' school -- no parents are present. The girl in Swan House has only one parent. There's Heidi, Naruto, the orphans in At the Back of the North Wind, the Boxcar Kids, Pollyanna, Rose in Eight Cousins, Sarah and Nellie in Little Princess, Oliver Twist, that girl in the Secret Garden, and Cosette in Les Miserables.
Now, it is reasonable and realistic for some children in stories to be orphans, as it is for some children in stories to be away from their parents. But it seems that a vast majority of children's stories include either no parents or little interaction between the parents and the children (please, correct me with examples if I am wrong). This is just a little odd!
There are several reasons I can think of for why this situation makes for a better, or easier to write story. First, the hero seems more heroic in most reader's eyes if he or she must overcome obstacles without someone else outside doing the majority of the protecting, saving, thinking, advising -- in effect, hero-ing! In addition, accurately portraying a healthy relationship (in human terms) between parents and child is difficult. A lot of people never had that relationship, so cannot write from experience. It is tempting to turn the parents into the antagonists, or into distant advisors, more the founts of wisdom than active participants in the story.
It is sad that this relationship is lacking. One might note that the father-son/daughter relationship between God and His children is also sorely lacking, even in "Christian" books. The prayer, the occasional apology, the spiritual lesson learned, is often all that can be found. What of the constant dependence, prayer and, repentance, love -- the personal relationship?
All the characters I have written into being so far are orphans, or, for the majority of the story, separated from their parents. That is not inherently wrong, but completely neglecting to write about this aspect of life can reflect a general lack of skillfulness in the author, and, more importantly, a lack of respect for the relationship between parents and children.


  1. I'm sorry...did you just cite *Naruto*, of all characters, as an influential childrens'-story protagonist?
    Somehow, of the two, I'd rather see an orphaned protagonist than one with a dysfuntional, antagonistic with both parents intact...in the same way that I'd rather see someone widowed(/widowered?) than divorced. That is, there's an irreversable quality to death that makes it worse, but at the same time an orphan and his parents or a widow/widower are completely innocent in their respective situations.

  2. Um, dysfunctional, antagonistic relationship. Not just a dysfunctional antagonistic. I hate that comments are uneditable on here.

  3. That is really weird, Joben, because I was just thinking about that myself. It's very true. I find myself doing much the same thing when I think up stories.
    Who's Naruto?

  4. An anime' character and an orphan. I was citing everyone I could think of, with no regard for how much influence they have had.
    Your point is a good one. Dealing with conflict between parents and children is not a subject we enjoy. Impoverished innocence is, indeed, better than abundant bad experience.
    But note the drift of what you are saying, and what I agree with -- we would rather have no parents at all than have an imperfect relationship with them.
    In some sense that is a good sentiment -- it would be better to cut off our arm than to sin because of it, etc.
    But I think part of the reason we think this way is because we undervalue a healthy relationship (in human terms, obviously Earthly relationships will never be without sin) with our parents. We should be willing to dig in and battle (not with our parents, but with our sins) to maintain a right, Biblical, loving relationship.

  5. The orphan protagonist is a common plot device in Anime as well. Along with Naruto-baka (off the top of my head) is Tohru from Fruits Basket, Ed and Al from Fullmetal Alchemist, Chihiro/Sen from Spirited Away, and Sheeta from Castle in the Sky (I think?).
    I've found an exception to the theory: Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching series. Tiffany's parents are both alive, and she has three siblings (two older sisters and a toddler brother). Of course, this could be because Master Pratchett likes to defy or poke fun at any and every writing cliche imaginable. I don't know.
    Maybe I've grown up with too much Disney to be properly against the norm of orphan protagonists. I understand that such a view could, if taken to heart, allow one to think "If I just didn't have parents, I could have adventures like that!". It seems like a cop-out plot device, I admit, but perhaps the rationalization is that parents would worry about their child(ren) going into certain danger on the plot's adventure. It's easier if there are no ties to bind the protagonist to their pre-adventure life.

  6. Oh, yes, I'm all for stories without parents. Indeed, there are some things that the hero probably could not do with parents. I think the other side of the coin is true also -- a story with parents, while perhaps causing the hero to be a little less heroic (in our sense of the word), if well written, can go good places and do good things that a story without parents cannot.
    How many negatives in a row was that?

  7. Just finished reading Five Children and It by E Nesbit with my children and noticed the conspicuous absence of parents for most of the story. I think that if their mother was home and not nursing her mother far away the adventure would never have happened because mom would make them do their chores. Interesting observation.


A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
The tongue of the wise commends knowledge,
but the mouths of fools pour out folly.