Orphans in Fiction

Too often, the reasons for and functions of an orphaned character in fiction can be traced back to laziness or lack of capability. Especially in YA fiction, where the writer might think that parents are too hard to write, or that including them would mean having too many characters. Sometimes it’s like having a bully or pack of bullies–a quick way to make a grab for the reader’s sympathy without really doing a lot of work. Many combine these two things. Orphans with bullying guardians.

That isn’t always laziness, either because the intention is different or because the tactic is actually successful (see Harry Potter and the Dursleys). But it’s still overdone, and that’s the closest I can come to really ascertaining a reason.

Today I was watching Stargate, because Owen likes to have the television on while he eats, and I found myself paying particular attention to the character of Daniel Jackson. He’s an orphan, but he doesn’t seem to have been written as such for the same kinds of reasons as characters like Luke Skywalker.

That is to say, there is no mystical reason for his being an orphan. His parents were not killed by the writers (as Pierre Bayard might put it) to hide royal lineage, genetic magical or mutant powers, to garner sympathy for him, or because they’d be boring or get in the way. There is a reason, but it’s none of those.

Daniel Jackson is an orphan for meta-reasons, that’s certain. His status technically doesn’t have an in-universe purpose. Taking the movie as reality, it’s just a simple fact about him. Looking at it as what it is, a film written by people, there is a purpose. One is isolation. He needs to be completely alone and friendless in the beginning. Desperation has to drive him, at least in part. There is some sympathy-grab here, but it’s hardly overt. Another reason for it is a bit like isolation. He needs to have no ties to the world he is from, so that when he travels to another, he can find his place there, and it’s a happy thing.

He doesn’t fixate on anyone as a mother or father figure. He doesn’t mope about being an orphan. These are advantages of writing/reading an orphaned character who is an adult. Their reasons and functions are very different from an orphaned minor.

Owen just woke up. I think I managed to say everything or most of what I wanted to.

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