Oops! All Orphans! Or why you should let your protagonist have families.

#1
So I was re-reading Will Wight's Cradle series recently (incidentally, go read Cradle) when I came to some scenes in book 9 that really captivated me where the hero, Lindon, reunites with his family after having spent nine books as the protagonist of a progression fantasy series, and it was utterly fascinating watching him grapple with the complicated emotions of seeing them again, which in so many ways echoed my own feelings of going home to visit my family. That mix of being happy to see them, to know they're safe and healthy, and yet feel trapped, like nothing has changed, and they still treat you how they did before.

It was such a deep, insightful moment into the characters. And then came another scene where Lindon's love interest meets his family, and there's this moment where his mom and sister realized this beautiful young woman following him around isn't just his friend and they "smell blood in the water" and start hounding her with questions, and it's hilarious.

I loved both these scenes, and like any scene I read and like, I immediately thought, "Man, I want to write something like that."

At which point I mentally turned to Outsiders of Xykesh, the fantasy web serial I created specifically so I could fill it with all the stuff I really wanted to write but couldn't fit into my traditional novels. And I realized a problem.

None of the Outsiders have parents that could facilitate these kinds of scenes. 

I won't go into specifics to avoid major spoilers, but going down a mental checklist, I realized that, without me even thinking about it, I'd created a cast consisting entirely of people who lacked the familial relationships necessary to have these kinds of scenes.

Now, I only accept partial blame for this, since Outsiders is based on a D&D campaign played by a bunch of 19 year-olds, so of course all the characters were orphans or practically orphans, but I already made a ton of other changes to the "source material." I could have given some of these people parents.

The more situations a character can be put in, the more you and your audience can learn about them. The more distinct actions, reactions, and feelings they have, the stronger the characterization. And now, because I wasn't thinking, I've closed of a massive well of potential character exploration. What kind of relationship do any of the Outsiders have with their mother? Well, they all either miss them or wish they existed, and that's about it. 

That's boring. Specifically, it's boring because it tells us so very little about them. (Almost) Everyone with a dead mom wishes their mom wasn't dead. That doesn't establish their identity at all.

The utility of families extends beyond character exploration, of course. Famously, storytellers can't threaten someone who's already dead (unless your name is Drew Hayes. Go read Swords, Spells, and Stealth by the way). In a D&D game, players feel like they're being punished for not making their character an orphan when you threaten their families. But in stories, that shit makes for good drama!

You know what else families are good for? Advice. Do you want to deliver the moral thesis of the story without it seeming like heavy handed preaching? Have a parental figure deliver it to their child in a soft spoken, wise voice while making reassuring physical contact. People will be quoting it in the comments for the rest of your work's cultural relevance. I can think of a lot of examples from Marvel projects, but my personal favorite version of this scene is Heden and his father talking about whether Heden should start being an adventurer again in Book 2 of Ratcatchers by Matt Colville (go read Ratcatchers by the way.)

I'm legitimately kicking myself over this, so to anyone who hasn't yet set in stone the status of your characters' families, consider not putting them six feet under.

Re: Oops! All Orphans! Or why you should let your protagonist have families.

#2
One of my characters has strong family ties and well the other is over 500 years old and will never die (unless the spell is broken).

Been in a D&D campaign now for more than 6 months and I have to say most of us have a family. Although the DM has just made my character witness her parents dying through a portal window - so yeah family can be a pain in D&D lol 

Re: Oops! All Orphans! Or why you should let your protagonist have families.

#5
It was one thing I wanted. For the MC to have a family. Well, it ended up with her making a wrong decision to go look for a different one because they lied to her but, well she will learn from that mistake as will her mothers. Meanwhile, she gets to have even more mothers because that does not get confusing.

But seriously, I do understand that involving families in fantasy can be hard. They are easily leveraged for drama when they die or to make things grim or to take away what holds the hero back. Even more so when the heroes are still quite young and should be home by 9.

Re: Oops! All Orphans! Or why you should let your protagonist have families.

#6
KittraMcBriar Wrote: Families and family dynamics can be a lot of fun to write. I’m just a little worried about when and if my mom ever decides to read my books, because I’ve made mother figures into villains more than once and I don’t want her to think I hate her lol
I once had a character tell a friend that they had a baby, and when my mother read that chaoter she legit called me to ask if this was my way of telling her my wife and I had one.

Re: Oops! All Orphans! Or why you should let your protagonist have families.

#7
Elijah Wrote:
KittraMcBriar Wrote: Families and family dynamics can be a lot of fun to write. I’m just a little worried about when and if my mom ever decides to read my books, because I’ve made mother figures into villains more than once and I don’t want her to think I hate her lol
I once had a character tell a friend that they had a baby, and when my mother read that chaoter she legit called me to ask if this was my way of telling her my wife and I had one.

Oh my gosh. Yeah, some family members just have to read waaaay too much into things. 

Re: Oops! All Orphans! Or why you should let your protagonist have families.

#8
Robert Jordan, author of (most of) the bestselling fantasy series "The Wheel of Time," did something odd with a major character's family when he wanted to have a sad homecoming scene.

Near the beginning of Book 3: Perrin Aybara tells his friend Min that he never had any sisters, but he thinks of her as a sister. 

Middle of Book 4: For the first time since the early chapters of Book 1, Perrin makes it back to his native village of Emond's Field and learns that, during his lengthy absence, his immediate family -- including his two sisters -- has been slaughtered by monsters called Trollocs. He takes this news very hard. 

In other words: Some fans noticed that poor Perrin was heartbroken at the loss of the sisters whom he supposedly didn't have in the first place!

Apparently, Robert Jordan had completely lost track of whether or not Perrin had any female siblings. While writing Book 4, he seems to have decided it would be interesting to shake things up for Perrin by having him grieve at the loss of his parents and sisters -- and he didn't bother to check to see if he'd previously gone on record with the statement that there weren't any sisters?

Note: Later editions of Book 3 belatedly corrected this problem by rewriting the relevant conversation so that now it had Perrin assuring Min that he felt the same way about her as he did about his real sisters. But it might have been better for Jordan to have planned it out in advance and made sure he stayed self-consistent on the subject of Perrin's family members. 

Re: Oops! All Orphans! Or why you should let your protagonist have families.

#9
Elijah Wrote: None of the Outsiders have parents that could facilitate these kinds of scenes. 

I won't go into specifics to avoid major spoilers, but going down a mental checklist, I realized that, without me even thinking about it, I'd created a cast consisting entirely of people who lacked the familial relationships necessary to have these kinds of scenes.

It sounds like this is less about having a blood family tie per se and more about having some kind of family-type relationships. I don't disagree with this root idea, but you can definitely still work these in with orphans. Did they have a childhood friend that they relied on through thick and thin as street rats? Someone they trust more than anything else? Perhaps a parental figure or guardian who stepped in when the biological parents were lost?

I think the key to this is to build up this important character over time. Have character A mention character B off-handedly, or tell fond stories around the campfire. Excitement builds as they near the town, and character A tells the party that character B is awesome, and there will be a party, except...

Well, they can have a happy reunion, I guess. Or an unhappy one, too. 

Losing someone like that could hit pretty hard, I'd say. For older characters, I think memories of loss could work well, too, especially if the loss was their own fault--hubris, greed, pride--pick your poison. 

Perhaps not as impactful for the reader as blood-ties, since I think blood-family ties are something more readers can empathize with than non-blood-family ties, but I don't think having orphans for characters cuts this route off entirely. 

I think this could actually set up some pretty juicy conflict, too. Have a father or mother figure that the character is desperate to please due to fears of abandonment, only to have said mother or father figure be up to no good. Now there's a meaty moral dilemma! 

Quote:You know what else families are good for? Advice. Do you want to deliver the moral thesis of the story without it seeming like heavy handed preaching? Have a parental figure deliver it to their child in a soft spoken, wise voice while making reassuring physical contact. People will be quoting it in the comments for the rest of your work's cultural relevance. I can think of a lot of examples from Marvel projects, but my personal favorite version of this scene is Heden and his father talking about whether Heden should start being an adventurer again in Book 2 of Ratcatchers by Matt Colville (go read Ratcatchers by the way.)

True, though you could also just not state the thesis and let the readers argue with each other in the comment section forever, lol. That's fun, too. 

Alternatively, the absence of a parental figure for the MC, juxtaposed against healthy parent-child relationships, can make for some hefty drama as well. 

Quote:I'm legitimately kicking myself over this, so to anyone who hasn't yet set in stone the status of your characters' families, consider not putting them six feet under.

Good advice, overall, though. There's certainly a time and place for orphan MCs, and a time and place for non-orphan MCs. Lots of fun to be had, either way! =)

Re: Oops! All Orphans! Or why you should let your protagonist have families.

#10
Elijah Wrote: The more situations a character can be put in, the more you and your audience can learn about them. The more distinct actions, reactions, and feelings they have, the stronger the characterization. And now, because I wasn't thinking, I've closed of a massive well of potential character exploration. What kind of relationship do any of the Outsiders have with their mother? Well, they all either miss them or wish they existed, and that's about it. 

That's boring. Specifically, it's boring because it tells us so very little about them. (Almost) Everyone with a dead mom wishes their mom wasn't dead. That doesn't establish their identity at all.

Oh, forgot to respond to this part. This could certainly be one way to spin it, but I think it really does depend on when the character lost their parents. You can build some pretty crippling pathologies into the characters depending on how/when/why they lost their parents. In fact, this can happen even if they still have parents. 

Pretty much all of my main characters for The Stormcrow Cycle have lost at least one parent, though the leads are both (at this point) orphans. It's not something they get over, and even when the narrative isn't pointing this out overtly, it's implied in what the characters have become as adults. (Hopefully, there will be a lightbulb moment--or several lightbulb moments--as their character histories are revealed). 

(And without getting too spoilery, the F!Lead thinks about her dead parental figure all the time, and always feels the weight of her expectations. And the M!Lead? That boy is all daddy problems and mommy problems, lol. He has ALL the problems.)

Re: Oops! All Orphans! Or why you should let your protagonist have families.

#11
My Dwarven Paladin reunited with his parents... who had been amalgamated into a Frankenstein-esque abomination by a mad scientist, driven mad by the constant pain of existing, and attacked on sight.

Most emotional Smite Evil I've ever executed... the scientist didn't last long after that, either.

What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that *making* your characters orphans some ways into the book can be just as effective an emotional turning point as a reunion.

Re: Oops! All Orphans! Or why you should let your protagonist have families.

#12
no.

a portal fantasy is not about returning to your old family, its about building a new one in a new world.
its about losing everything you had and having a fresh start in somewhere new and exciting and and full of opportunities.
why you think all the isekai's having the protagonist DIE?

its literally the fantasy version of the American dream.
you may bring your family with you on the journey, but everything that you left behind, stay behind.



Re: Oops! All Orphans! Or why you should let your protagonist have families.

#13
My story doesn't really work if MC isn't an orphan.  (What, his parents just decided to stop feeding him one day and everyone was cool with that?)  Other characters... He had just his mother until he was ten, his adoptive brother's mother is still alive for now but he's never met her, their unrelated aunt was taken away from her mother at a young age and is centuries old by now.  One of their unrelated uncles was from a batch of clones but his husband had a fairly standard childhood even though his parents died of old age.  I haven't decided if his unrelated cousin has living parents but she's a bastard and neither wants anything to do with her.

I once watched a video about playing orphan characters or giving them a tragic backstory in D&D.  My character's tragic backstory is that they had dyscalculia and ran away because their father couldn't accept that they'd never take over the family accounting business.  They lied about the parents being dead, and if I ever get the chance to play them, the DM might have a funny seed for the adventuring party to run into my character's parents in some random town.