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Why Don’t Most of My Favorite Characters Have Parents?

October 30, 2010

The phenomenon of orphanhood in children’s literature has been explored numerous times, but I can’t have a site about children’s books without giving my take on why most of my favorite books have characters who are missing one or both of their parents. 

Some people speculate that authors choose this route because it is much easier to write a story about a child without the parents getting in the way; i.e. there a fewer characters to develop and fewer detractions from the main character’s plight.[i]  Others argue that dead parents are used as a literary device in order to elicit sympathy for the main character and to make the child more interesting; i.e. there is an immediate feeling of serious emotional intensity.[ii]

Most of the articles that focus on this issue will also point out that the children in our favorite books often go on wild adventures that they would not have had if there were parents around to watch out for them.  All of these arguments are understandable given that so many of our favorite books do have characters with missing parents…

  • Harry Potter
  • Dorothy Gale
  • Anne Shirley from the Anne of Avonlea books
  • Mary Lennox from A Secret Garden
  • The Boxcar Children
  • Peter Rabbit
  • Frodo Baggins
  • The Little Princess
  • Heidi
  • Huckleberry Finn
  • Most of the kids in the Shoes books by Noel Streatfeild
  • Crispin from Crispin: Cross of Lead
  • Oliver Twist
  • Karana from The Island of the Blue Dolphins
  • Johnny Tremain
  • Cinderella and Snow White
  • Katherine from The Witch of Blackbird Pond
  • James from James and the Giant Peach
  • Tree-ear from A Single Shard

And the list goes on… However, I’ll bet that if you ask any of the authors of these books why their main character is an orphan, they wouldn’t say it was a literary device or that it was just easier to write the story without parents.  Authors who choose to take the “easy” way wouldn’t end up writing some of the greatest books of all time. 

A writer writes because there is a story that needs to be told.  A story needs to be told because there is a conflict that needs to be resolved.  Conflict.  We all have conflict.  That is why we read; that is why we write; that is why we create.  For many of us, our conflict is a resolvable matter.  For others, the conflict is a terrible truth that will never go away, like going through life without a parent’s love.  This is the kind of conflict that hovers over each of our heads: the fear of loss and the painful knowledge that it is inevitable.  A story that contains this kind of conflict is the story that speaks the loudest in an author’s head, and that is why the author must write it out.  And that is why so many of the greatest stories have children without parents.

But by no means am I saying that wholesome parents make for uneventful books.  The factor that makes literature great is not whether or not the main characters have parents—that may make the character more interesting, but it’s not what makes the book great.  Our favorite books are the perfect combination of a great story and great writing.  Characters can be well-developed and interesting without severe emotional trauma.  Characters like…

  • Ramona Quimby
  • Laura Ingalls
  • Matilda
  • Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time (though her father is missing)
  • Judy Blume’s characters
  • The March sisters from Little Women
  • Fern from Charlotte’s Web
  • Stanley Yelnats from Holes

For these characters, the conflict in their story comes from somewhere else: they don’t fit in; they are poor; the world is unjust; they are in unfamiliar territory or are experiencing strange new feelings.  They aren’t orphans, but there is conflict; there has to be, otherwise there is no reason for the author to write.  A story is only good if it comes naturally, not if the author deploys devices to lull the reader; you can spot inauthentic stories within the first few lines.  Authors don’t choose for their characters not to have parents; it’s just that those are the stories that are asking to be told. 

[i]The Ol’ Dead Dad Syndrome.” Leila Sales. 09-20-10.

[ii]Orphans in Children’s Literature.” Sarah Tennet. 03-03-09.

From → On Writing

  1. Lucy Kulbago permalink

    We have often noted this trend – orphaned main characters. I love your explanation and list of characters.

    • It’s so strange that all of these books have such a glaring commonality and yet are all so different and still so wonderful!

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