Monday, August 18, 2008

Fictional Families

posted by Aunty Cindy

Not long ago, I was working on the back stories for the main characters in my latest proposal. I decided my hero’s father had recently passed away and his mother died a long time ago. That’s when I realized how many fictional characters are orphans or have at least one deceased family member, usually a parent.

The hero of my Golden Heart final was an orphan, and both the hero and heroine of my debut novel The Wild Sight have lost their mothers. In yet another of my unpublished tomes, the heroine lost both parents in a car accident. SHEESH! Did I have a freakish propensity for killing off family?

But then I started looking at some other books I’ve read… I hope it’s not too much for a spoiler to reveal that Donna’s Mrs. Brimley is an orphan, as are Christine’s heroine Gemma in Scandal’s Daughter and Anna C.’s Verity in Claiming the Courtesan. Poor Gemma and Mrs. Brimley don’t even have siblings! At least Verity and my heroes and heroines also have a sibling or two, though usually in my stories the sib turns out to be a bossy older sister. (Can’t imagine where I came up with such a character!)

Nor is this a recent phenomenon. Remember Dickens’ penchant for orphans – Oliver Twist, Pip in Great Expectations? Can't forget Cosette in Hugo's Les Misérables. Or Bronte’s poor, plain Jane Eyre? Clearly authors have been killing off family members for quite some time. Oedipus Rex anyone?

Could it be that characters who have a “normal” family (whatever that is!) are just not good fodder for stories? Must a character be orphaned or suffer the loss of a family member to be interesting?

What do you think? Have you read, or written any books lately where the main character was not an orphan, but had a full family complement intact?


Pat Cochran said...


Anyone home? Oh, well!

See you all tomorrow!!

Pat Cochran

jo robertson said...

Wow, Cindy, great unique topic.

Dang, Pat, I think I missed the rooster by nanoseconds! Congrats.

I think you're right, Cindy. Normal families just don't make interesting copy, sort of like the horrific, sensational stories we hear on the news. We seldom hear the stories of plain, ordinary, good people doing plain, ordinary good things.

Kestrel said...

Oh my goodness, I can't say that I have read a book lately where at least ONE parent wasn't missing from somewhere, if not both.

I started looking at my own work too, and I do have a couple heroes that come from a "normal" family, but they are far far away, and not really central to the story. I only have one heroine who has a complete family, and same goes for her, circumstances have her cut off from them at the moment. Some of the 'orphans' do have siblings, though, that they are quite close to.

I think making a character an orphan is just an instant way of creating drama, it heightens the experience, but that's just MHO.

Anna Campbell said...

Hey, Pat! Congratulations on the chook. Sounds like you're taking him to bed with you (ooh!).

Cindy, what a thought-provoking post. Actually I seem to specialize in orphans - as you say, Verity was one and given what his mother is like, I bet Kylemore WISHES he was one. Grace is estranged from her family and Matthew is definitely an orphan. Both hero and heroine in TEMPT THE DEVIL are orphans. Both hero and heroine are in the new one.

Kestrel, I think you've got a point - it just automatically heightens the stakes when the characters have nobody they can call on to save them. The other comment I'll make is that we like to see our hero and heroine demonstrating character against adversity and being an orphan puts them up against it right from the start. I suspect that's why Dickens is littered with orphans too!

Pat Cochran said...

Thanks, Jo!It was totally unplanned,
I swung by before heading for bed
and today's post was up. Seeing the no response message, I decided to
try my luck. It worked! See you
all in the AM!

Pat Cochran

Donna MacMeans said...

I think killing off the family is part of the undeserved misfortune that we like to impose on our heros and heroines. I was just patting myself on the back for having a heroine in my current WIP with two living parents, when I realized my hero is now an orphan.

But I agree with Anna. We like to pull those lifelines so the characters have to figure things out themselves. It's all part of the drama. In historicals, it's probably not that far from reality.

Pat - congrats on nabbing the GR!

Helen said...

Well done Pat have a nice rest catch you tomorrow

Great post Aunty Cindy and very thought provoking I agree most of the books I have read tend to be along those lines although I have read a few that have had both parents and normal sibling rivalry Victoria Alexander's Effington series has a lot of "normal" families in them and they are fantastic books and I have just started The Mistress Diaries by julianne Maclean and the hero has both mother and father although the father is having "mental" issues I haven't got to know the heroine very well yet as I am only in the first chapter so maybe she is orphaned.

Have Fun

Minna said...

Nora Roberts' Time and Again. No dead parents there.

I can't believe how sore I still am after planting those pine trees on saturday. At least I'm not the only one...

Jane said...

Hey AC,
Don't get me started on Sophocles. I just read "Tribute" by Nora Roberts. The heroine isn't an orphan, but her family isn't exactly together. Her parents have been divorced for a long time. Her father remarried and had another daughter. The heroine seems to feel quite alone.

Margay said...

I don't think I've ever written about an orphan. I come from a pretty big family myself so, as a result, so do my characters. And let me tell you, there's nothing like family to provide conflicts for characters!

PJ said...

Congrats Pat! After spending Sunday afternoon cleaning the garage I was already happily snoozing when the GR made his appearance. Enjoy your day with him!

Tawny said...

Wow... that made me have to think hard LOL. But yes! My second book, DOES SHE DARE? both teh hero and heroine had two living (and meddling, in the hero's case) parents!

I had to laugh at this post, though. My daugther has a yardstick for remembering movies. If one of the parents is dead, she's sure its a Disney cartoon. we've come up with one or two, I think, that break this tradition, but for the most part, she's right. I tried explaining the complexities of building empathy for characters to her, but she's just not buying it LOL.

Its a little depressing, when you think about it. To live a heroic life like a fictional character, we have to mentally off one of our parents.

PJ said...

It's true, most of the books (especially historicals) do seem to have the hero/heroine missing one or both parents and I agree with the reasons given so far of heightening the tension and undeserved misfortune. It automatically raises the stakes.

I just finished Susan Andersen's latest release, CUTTING LOOSE, a contemporary where the hero is part of a large, Irish family in Seattle - five siblings, two parents and even a couple odd aunts. The family dynamics added a lovely richness to the story, and more than a few frustrations for the hero but I loved the hero even more because of them.

Another beloved series, Christina Dodd's Darkness Chosen, is all about family. This one is paranormal.

It seems that the orphans mostly show up in historicals though there are some wonderful families with both parents in historicals too, like the Effingtons that Helen mentioned.

Great blog, AC! I'm counting the days until the release of WILD SIGHT!

Christine Wells said...

AC, great post! Actually, Gemma's father died and her mother abandoned her for most of her life, so I was close!

I think there's all the stuff about struggling against adversity and self-reliance as you've all said, and there's also the fact that if a hero and heroine have full sets of parents that makes for a LOT of characters who might be extraneous to the plot but still need to be dealt with! Kill a couple of the parentals off and you're dandy. Joking!...sort of. My hero and heroine in the current wip have full sets, although one is a step-father. It's hard to deal with them all.

Tawny, I so agree with your daughter about Disney movies. Bambi!!! I suppose Harry Potter is a classic example of the orphan, too.

Congrats Pat!

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

I thought the lack of parents was to create situations where the heroine had to be "saved" by the hero. In the historicals if the heroine had both parents it was hard for the hero to get to her. His lack of parents was to create something he had to overcome such as a dislike of women in general or and overbearing, controlling father that warped him as he was growing up.
Congrats Pat, did the GR just come in and then go to bed? Make sure he wasn't planting electronic bugs and cameras while you were sleeping.

Joanne Lockyer said...

Hello all - thank you for the welcome on yesterday's post (Jeanne and Nancy, if you are in to fantasy, the Kushiel’s series is really brilliant. Each book gets more brilliant - Wurts too!).

As for the orphans, yep, definitely got a pair in the current WIP! I managed to retain one mother in my first ms, but she wasn't particularly nice.

Yep, they are historicals!

Deb Marlowe said...

Great post, AC! I've had this same conversation with my writing friends.

I've done several orphans, but parents in the picture can be a great source of conflict. I 've written meddling parents, cold and distant parents, even abusive parents.

It makes me stop and think about how my own kids will view me!


Louisa Cornell said...

Just waltz in, snatch the bird, and off to bed. I like that, Pat!

Great topic, Aunty! I have to laugh because after a critique I got of my half finished book DREAMS OF ANGELS I killed of an entire branch of the family because there were "too many people" in the first chapter. The heroine has an evil stepfather, no mother and the hero's parents are dead, but his grandfather is so bad when he is murdered the question isn't who wanted to murder him, but who didn't!

Now in LOST IN LOVE, the hero's mother is alive and the heroine has both parents very much alive and a real trip!

But I think it is true that most of the heroes/heroines in historicals are orphans. It makes the necessity of the couple coming together to form a new family more prominent.

Anonymous said...

AC, this got me thinking about the Hero's Journey--if you find a mentor in a book, don't get attached to him, because there's a good chance he's going to get killed off before the final scene! Seems to me there's a good reason for all these orphans -- before our books are done we have to 1) send our characters to the "all hope is lost" stage and then 2) force them to make their way out all by themselves.

How can all hope truly be lost if your loving parents are still around? Intact family? Ha! No way. If you really had a loving mom and dad around, why wouldn't you turn to them when all hope was lost? And then, if you had a loving mom and dad to turn to, would all hope really be lost?

(okay, those are my deep thoughts for the day! off to work!)

terrio said...

In my WIP (which is contemporary) the hero's father was never in the picture and my heroine's father walked out when she was four. Lots of her baggage stems from that.

I agree that in Historicals it probably closer to the norm as life expectancy wasn't all that great. But losing a parent seems to change a person in a way that makes them an interesting character to write. For today, look at Madonna or Rosie O'Donnell who lost their moms when they were young and have talked about how it messed them up. My best friend lost her mom when she was 25 and hasn't been the same since.

Esri Rose said...

So it's not just me?

Family's are just too dang supportive, especially when you're writing romantic suspense. You need your character to be isolated and without resources. I don't want any family around, giving good advice, offering a place to stay, or loaning them big wads of money.

Here's another one I recently noticed -- how many rom-suspenses feature abductions or kidnappings. I almost hesitate to point it out, for fear it will start to but people.

Nancy said...

Pat, congrats on the rooster!

Interesting question, AC. I started thinking about it and had a hard time coming up with anyone. As you know, I read in a lot of different categories.

Will Stanton in the YA series The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper, has two parents and siblings (I forget how many). Becca Rosselin in Debra Doyle and James D. McDonald's SF series (first book: The Price of the Stars), has parents and a brother. Miles Vorkosigan in Lois McMaster Bujold's award-winning Vorkosigan saga has two parents and a brother--though the brother's a clone.

Hmm, those are all SFF.

In Cathy PIckens' wonderful Avery Andrews southern mysteries, Avery has parents and a sister and a number of aunts. The hero in Kathleen Gilles Seidel's Again (set in the world of soap operas) has a family, but they're off-screen.

I wonder whether families get shelved or pruned in romance to allow the focus to be on the h/h relationship.

Nancy said...

Joanne, I've seen Janny Wurts on con panels, and she's always very insightful. If she has an ego, she keeps it to herself, unlike some of the authors I see sitting up there. I have a cool poster ("The Casement") by her husband, Don Maitz, hanging on the wall. They're frequent guests at DragonCon. (

I've never tried Kushiel because it seemed kind of dark for me, but I may have to reconsider. You're one of many people I know who rave about that series.

Pat Cochran said...

Thanks for all the congratulations!
I decided to make it easier on myself
today by just opening the cabinet
where I keep my chocolate stash! The
Golden One seems to have directional
x-ray vision when it comes to what
a household holds dear! Why fight
it? Although he did shy away when
my two y/o grandson "pitched a fit!"

Pat Cochran

Cassondra said...

Oh, the parents in my books are either always dead or a source of trouble--

I think having a hero or heroine with parents dead gives us empathy for the main character. It's hard to go through the loss of a parent, and then you have to deal with the issues surrounding that loss and/or the issues that parent caused if they weren't good people ya know? Using parents to create massive undeserved guilt, shame, barriers against intimacy--parents are just ripe for being used in those ways.

And the thing is--it's true. We don't know how to shove food in our faces to keep ourselves alive without parents (or someone) to show us how. Parents can make us wonderful people--or they can SERIOUSLY mess us up.

And how many people do you know who aren't at least a little bit messed up by their parents?

So we relate to characters who have "parental issues"--especially if those parents are gone, cuz then there's no real way to achieve closure. It makes it a harder road to healing, and that's the ride we want to take--down the road to healing and love for our characters, right?

Right? (crickets chirping)


Keira Soleore said...

Hey Pat. Good catch.

AC, I had never noticed. What a thought-provoking post. Is that being "unfortunate" means that the reader is naturally predisposed to care for the protagonist(s) from the outset? Now, I have a confession. My current heroine has both parents and two younger siblings, and the hero has a mother and a cousin.

Claudia Dain said...

Has this been said? I'm skimming so please forgive me if it has.

Good ole Harry Potter, perhaps the most famous orphan in literature today. It makes a character, particularly a youngster, instantly sympathetic. The audience melts and wants to sweep the orphan--even if he's a 20-something male--into their arms and comfort him.

Plus all the conflict stuff that comes from having a central character be alone in the world.

Plus the pain that comes from the deepest levels when we contemplate the deaths of our own parents.

All ingredients for a compelling and instantly sympathetic character.

p226 said...

The main characters in my book (protagonists) have families that factor in heavily. So far I haven't had to write about them [i]too[/i] much. But I've had to fit some backstory in on at least one of the character's mom and dad. It was part of a big flashback. I haven't had to do anything like that for the other protagonist yet. I kind of doubt I will. And killing off the parents/family whatever doesn't really fit with the story line. In fact, they may turn out to be of more use to me alive.

Andy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beth said...

Great post, AC!

In my opinion, a character who has a supportive family around can still be very interesting. In Not Without Her Family, Jack has parents and siblings but his issues still remain. Heck, I have what is considered normal parents/family and I still have a few issues *g*

In my second Supers, the heroine has both parents and siblings but her issues are still definitely real and even though her family supports her, she must face and deal with her flaws herself.

I love stories that have family as supporting characters. I just really enjoy the dynamics family members bring to a story and how they bring out the best and worst in a character ;-)

jo robertson said...

I've been thinking all day about the kinds of books that DON'T leave the main characters orphans or widows.

Of course, there's Janet Evanovich's wonderful Stephanie Plum series, in which Steph would probably love a little LESS family. In Deanna Raybourn's SILENT series, Lady Julia Grey has more siblings that are whacked than she can sount. Of course, she's a widow, but still.

Cassondra said...

WonderBeth said:

I love stories that have family as supporting characters. I just really enjoy the dynamics family members bring to a story and how they bring out the best and worst in a character ;-)

I agree WB, and the thing is, and this is meant as a compliment to you--I think it's more difficult to write a sympathetic character if they have supportive family surrounding them. It takes more skill, and probably, a more interesting character all the way around. It's easier, for me, to make them sympathetic by killing off a parent.
Whoever mentioned the Disney films was dead-on. Look at Nemo. The whole relationship dynamic between him and his dad (and it's really his dad's story, right?) is set up because that big bad eel kills the mom and the entire rest of the family right at the beginning of the film...leaving poor Nemo (a handicapped fish) and his soul-scarred dad to work out their issues and "find" one another, both physically and metaphorically.

In NWHF, Beth you did a great job of using the families as supporting characters--and using them to cause conflict as well. For me, when I put family in there, it just gets overwhelming. :0/ Ah, yet another skill to build. *sigh*

Suzanne Welsh said...

Hey Pat, congrats on grabbing that sneaky bird!

Wow,'re right. Lots of characters have either both or one dead parents.

Could it be because those characters are hard to write about? Or having to survive the loss makes the character have ...character?

I'm reading Acheron right now...and boy did poor Ash have a messed up family/childhood...enough said as I won't give any spoilers away.

And yes I've killed off pretty much all the parents of my characters...except that really nice family of the nurse who gets KIDNAPPED...but they don't come into play until the second story...where the heroine is HUNTED and the hero, (first heroine's brother) helps save her.

Maybe we kill off these parents because we want our characters to deal with the here and now, and parents have a tendency to try to "help"?

Esri Rose said...

I agree with Cassondra. It's harder to include family, but makes a more three-dimensional character, if you can keep the parents in and still give your character a hard time. In my second elfy book (waiting for the galleys), I gave the hero a big family in another state -- it was part of the draw for my orphaned elven heroine. I figure that's a start.

Darcy Burke said...

In my GH final ms, only the heroine's mother is dead. Her dad is a good dad and has two really great scenes: one with the heroine and villain, and one with the hero. The hero's parents play a rather pivotal role in his journey and are an integral part of the story.

I think the question for me is siblings. When I write siblings I invariably think future books, LOL. I'm currently writing book 2 of a trilogy featuring a sister and her two older brothers. Very Hilton-esque, entitled snobs...and the ordinary people who are doomed to fall in love with them. All of their romantic foils are orphans, however. But when you get to know the arrogant parents of the sibs, you just might think the others got a better deal...

Great topic!

Pat Cochran said...

Just thought I would report that the GR seems somewhat subdued today! It
seem that he and two y/o grandson,
Tristan, are not the best of pals.
Each does not appreciate any attentions paid to the other. Oh,
well, Tristan has gone home now so
it should be a better evening!

Pat Cochran

Joan said...

Wow, great post Aunty!

I think "killing off" or otherwise absenting the H/H from their parents/families gives them the opportunity to show what they came away with to help them deal with the current conflict etc. The strengths, the insights and resolve to NOT be like a non-nurturing parent.

Damon in THE PATRICIAN'S FORTUNE had a lot of baggage. His father SOLD him to pay a debt.

Suffice to say there aren't too many Father's Day cards sent to 'ole Felix

Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

AC, this is a great topic! I had noticed the trend, and I concur with what everyone's said about it making the character more sympathetic from the get-go. However, those stories with big meddling, goofy or strange families appeal to me greatly too. I love the sibling rivaly/dynamic that can pull your emotions this way and that based on your OWN relationship with your sibs. :> Then again, I adore quirky characters in all thier conjurations. Ha!

That being said, I've killed off a parent or two as well as orphaning several characters. :> Goes with the RSuspense territory, I guess.

Hey Tawny, that propensity for Disney to knock off a parent or two really irritates the heck out of me. My oldest son has this worry that one of us are going to die because all the movies he likes (barring High School Musical) feature a one-parent household or an orphan. Grrrr.

Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Joanie, Don't you think Damon would like to send him something POINTY and sharp for Father's day? Snork!!

Joan said...

Joanie, Don't you think Damon would like to send him something POINTY and sharp for Father's day? Snork!!

LOL, like a sharp stick????

Jennifer said...

I generally read books where one character has a "normal" family - but that's generally just a foil, to contrast with the other main character not having one. There is one author whose books I really enjoy, but all her characters come from beyond dysfunctional families, and I'm just hoping at some point, her characters will have had a "normal" past.

Beth said...

Cassondra said:

In NWHF, Beth you did a great job of using the families as supporting characters--and using them to cause conflict as well.

Aww...thanks so much, Cassondra! I do love writing about big families. I wrote a story (still unpubbed) a few years back about a heroine from a big Italian family -she has 3 older brothers, a father and a grandfather (her mother did pass away) I love that story and how she acts and interacts with her brothers.

Maybe I'll try and get back to that book before the end of the year :-)

Pat Cochran said...

Good night to all!

Pat Cochran