Orphans and the family in fantasy

It is the holidays and family is on my mind. My brother and sister are far away and I miss them.

One of the truly brilliant aspects of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is the use of family. Mr Martin creates sprawling, complex familial relationships that spur the story into a forward motion that few books can match. He captures the dynastic, incestuous aspects of aristocratic families in a feudal society particularly well. It is one of the reasons why I love the first three books of his series like few others; that rich tapestry of what power, blood-ties, and betrayal can do to a nation is so vivid in my mind.

But this is not the norm in Fantasy. Most modern fantasies start with a protagonist who has no family, quickly loses their family, or whose family is never mentionned. The orphan is quite common in fantasy works, both intentionally as a device being used by an author and or through omission in some cases. Writing a character without having to detail their family can narrow the scope of a work to a more manageable level. In some cases, like Tolkien, family is implied or never really discussed. Frodo’s parents drowned in a boating accident which is pretty disturbing when you consider that the ring was in the shire at that point, and the parallels to Smeagol and his brother discovering the ring, but family does not really play into the story that much, although one could argue that the positive aspects family in Lord of the Rings is represented by the Shire and the four hobbits as a whole while the more complicated and darker relationships appear with Theoden/Denathor and their children. It bears closer scrutiny, but I won’t get into it here. (If you want to see some really dark aspects of Family in Middle-Earth the story of Hurin and his Children is very GRRM)

True orphans, who have lost their parents in tragic accidents, are so common as characters in fiction that it boggles my mind now that I consider it. From Batman and King Arthur to Superman and Kvothe, it is one of the tropes that everyone uses. Here are some of the advantages, aside from narrower scope, of the Orphan protagonist.

1) Built in Tragedy. Most Orphan protagonists lose their parents in horrible ways. Avenging their family often provides the main impetus of their lives in this case. A young prince who survives a royal massacre has a ready built tale to tell, and a motivation that is crystal clear and compelling to almost every reader. Batman is a great example of this, and it shows up in quite a few Fantasy characters as well.

2) Isolation. Not having a family can reinforce the sense of isolation in any narrative. People often take having familial support for granted, but those who do not have it or can’t rely on it suffer a tremendous disadvantage. This can be used effectively for heroes who need stand apart from society for dramatic purposes, like Superman. Gavin falls into this category, as Gladiators in the Domains are separated from their parents at birth, for obvious reasons. It helps me invoke some sympathy for his circumstance and reinforce the idea that the Gladiators are cut off from the rest of the world.

3. Demonstration of independence. An author can also use the lack of familial support to reinforce the character’s ability to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

4) Freedom of action. And here we come to what I feel is the real reason most authors employ an orphan protagonist. In gritty literature/movies it is common to use threaten to hurt an character’s loved ones as a form of leverage. Families are an easy target in such cases (often leading back to #1), and a portagonist with less attachments is immune to this kind of threat. It forces his or her enemies to act against them in a more direct fashion. Even in brighter, happier stories, having fewer relationships allows a character far greater freedom to wander and do what they wish. It is an intoxicating kind of escapism to follow the adventures of a person who does not have a tangled, complex personal life with far fewer responsibilities than our own.

However, when I think of Game of Thrones and other forms of literature, where the family is often front and centre I can see how authors might be losing out by relying on the orphan protagonist. Here are a few points in favour of family in Fantasy, and more complex webs of relationships and responsibilities.

1) Brutal Antagonists: Take any of your favourite, nasty villains. Imagine them as the protagonist’s father, mother, brother, or sister. That makes great fodder for a story.

2) Broken Background: A suffering or broken family can easily be fodder for a more complex tragedy. In this case it is more of an ongoing, messy part of the narrative, but provides quite the hook if pulled off well.

3) Allies and Rivals: family creates bonds between characters. It comes with a set of implied responsibilities that are immediatly accessible to all readers. It can thus be used to create interesting rivals and allies for the protagonist.

4) Worth Defending: Families provide a character with vulnerabilities as well. A lone-wolf who takes on an assassins guild pales in comparison to a protagonist who takes on the same guild while having to keep his family safe, in my mind.

It can go either way, but the orphan is very common in the books I am reading. It reminds me of my early days as a game-master, and how every game started with a burning village.Perhaps Game of Thrones has to be credited for showing us a different path in regards to the role of the family in Fantasy fiction. I shall have to mull over it and get back to you. Have a great Christmas/Happy Holidays!

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5 comments on “Orphans and the family in fantasy

  1. judaidan says:

    You forgot Harry Potter. 😉

  2. grimkrieg says:

    Not really. I just thought she used all facets of family so I had trouble placing her. Harry has the orphan story, of course, as the boy who survived. He also has the extended Family who raised him, who are his foils for most of the series. Finally he has the family he is adopted by, Ron and Ginny, who are his greatest allies and the real reason he is willing to face Voldemort in the end.

    • judaidan says:

      Yeah, I guess Harry Potter doesn’t technically fit. It’s funny because I was thinking about this the other day, have you noticed that in tales which the mother is killed (Bambi) the story is about the child’s survival and when it’s the father killed (Lion King) it’s a revenge story? Interestingly, Harry Potter seems to be a bit of both. (Please don’t mind the Disney movie references, my brain has been corrupted by my line of work).

  3. judaidan says:

    I also love all the family drama in GRRM’s series not only because it’s interesting and seriously warped (in a it’s hard not to look kind of way) but also because it suggests a critical understanding about history. Stories about aristocratic families are teeming with ruthless ambition, incest, murder (Borgias)- and I’m sure certain that in a feudal environment it would be difficult not to turn into a Cersei and think “It’s either us or them”. Makes for an interesting tale and breaks that truly shudder inducing “Candyland” fantasy thing.

  4. grimkrieg says:

    Great points!

    These are all true, but all of the overly murderous, backstabbing families, are eventually squashed by more trustworthy dynasties. Honour and ruthlessness on the field are not incompatible, and aristocratic families who favoured an unbalanced approach may stand out for brief periods but were replaced by more stolid, trustworthy dynasties. We may remember Caligula, but Marcus Aurelius ruled better and longer ;;)

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