I’ve been reading Ready Player One lately. In it, a friendless orphan boy named Wade Watts makes some friends and saves the day. (That’s my prediction, at least. I haven’t finished yet. No spoilers!)
I’ve also read the Harry Potter series, where a friendless orphan boy makes some friends and saves the day.
And then there’s the Percy Jackson series, where a friendless boy separated from his parents makes some friends and saves the day.
Or the Artemis Fowl series, where a friendless boy distant from his parents makes some friends and saves the day.
Okay. Enough. You get it.
The conclusion here is obvious: if you want to make friends/save the day/be a hero, you must…. Sever ties with your parents and friends (or have them killed).
But really, there are at least four practical story-telling reasons why our heroes often share these traits.
It makes the hero sympathetic and excusable.
You know what gets our sympathy? Pathetic things, like kids without support from friends and family. Having no friends or family is an easy way to create an underdog protagonist, and it also excuses them for being messed-up weirdos. And we want them to be a bit messed up or quirky. And if they make mistakes–which, hopefully, they do–then we can forgive them easily. After all, they’re losers/orphans! (Cue Aladdin: “I’d blame parents except he hasn’t got ’em!”)
It gives them plenty of room for growth.
With no friends or family, there’s usually lots of room for growth: personal, social, and financial. Saving the world often involves financial growth for the hero, but it’s the personal and social growth that we really love as readers. Both of those are brought about by the hero’s friends. These friends are often totally awesome people–characters we might like even more than the protagonist. Why? They accept our sympathetic protagonist in spite of his or her faults, and then help the protagonist become a better person. They’re exactly the kinds of people we would want to be friends with! Plus, they’ll usually save our protagonist’s life a few times, or solve important riddles, or other such things.
It (sometimes) motivates our hero.
This isn’t always the case. However, sometimes the villain just happened to have killed the hero’s family and friends (Harry Potter). Or, perhaps, you need to find your missing parents (Artemis Fowl). Or maybe, you’re just trying to connect with your dad (Percy Jackson). You could even be trying to prove something to your new friends (Wade Watts). At any rate, being a friendless orphan can often help give the hero some extra drive.
- It simplifies the story.
Yes, ’tis true. Reason number four is woefully practical, but incredibly important from a story-telling perspective. Indulge me as I elaborate.
You see, characters add complexity to a story. The more characters, the more relationships and subplots the writer, reader, and protagonist must juggle around. Here are some lovely illustrations to…illustrate…my point.
If you have your hero and one friend, there’s only one relationship to manage. Too easy, perhaps. You’re more likely to see this kind of setup in a story that isn’t about relationships as much. Take high-octane action movies, for instance. They’re not as much about characters, be it their growth or relationships. They’re more about how many bullets and explosions a single character can survive. The hero will have one friend, usually for banter and eye candy.
Here’s one of the most common setups. Our hero has two buddies, making three relationships. It’s enough characters for them to play off each other a bit, or have a love triangle, or for one to die, or whatever. Plus, people just like the number three, and triangles make for good art.
Once you have four characters, it jumps to six relationships, and you start to see where some of the complication comes into play. See, each of the characters needs to have relationships with one another. Our hero knows and interacts with pink, brown, and green, but pink also interacts with brown and green, and so on along all the characters. Four is still manageable, but eventually things get out of hand.
Five characters, and you have ten relationships. You can see that the number of interconnecting relationships increases greatly from four to five.
At six characters, there are fifteen relationships, and it’s starting to become a mess. I won’t go on, but hopefully it’s clear that the number of characters increases the number of relationships greatly–even if you’re only adding one more character.
Of course, you can have minor characters that are tied to only one or perhaps two other characters, but you can’t maintain a great number of interconnected main characters. Making your hero a friendless orphan allows them to make new connections (which we as readers love to see) without things getting too entangled.
So, who cares?
Well, I do, as both a writer and a reader. If you’re a writer, you should care, too. If you’re a reader, you might find this interesting.
But as human beings, perhaps we should all be interested. Because the sad fact is, in the real world most orphaned and friendless people don’t become world-saving heroes. They struggle, and they often struggle more than the rest of us. The world-saving friendless-orphan stories we love are all works of fiction. The true stories of the orphaned and friendless are tragic and lonesome, more often than not.
But there’s something that we can do.
We can be those awesome sidekick and support characters–the ones that befriend, accept, and love the friendless orphan, help them solve their problems, and maybe even save their lives a few times.
So try and reach out to one of those friendless and family-support-lacking types. Try and be the awesome sidekick character for them. They might reject your kindness or mistreat you. Just try to remember that they are sympathetic characters in a sympathetic struggle with lots of room for growth.
And if you’re having a hard time, consider that you’re the sympathetic hero of your own story, with lots of room to grow. Then find your friends, and start growing.
Thanks for reading some of my thoughts today. In other news, I launched an ARC copy of Cleaving Souls on Smashwords today. You can pick it up for free right now from there. I also made the preorder page for it on Amazon, with the ebook and paperback launch date set for October 10. Anyone who reads and reviews it is officially awesome. Those who do that and buy a copy are awesome+!
And the other bit of my writing news is that I got another review for Home To Roost. My dad told a lady about it, and she bought a copy and read it on vacation. Liked it so much that it dominated the vacation conversations, apparently. Then she was talking to a complete stranger about it, and ended up giving the stranger her copy, she wanted her to read it so bad. Imagine that!