Monday, April 18, 2011

O is for Orphan


I shouldn't have prided myself on being relatively unique in my choices for the Mythopoeic Abecediary of April, knowing that I was setting myself up for a Fall of the Ninja Kind.  Blast you, Archmage!  Well, the train is too far down the track to call it back now, so I'm sticking to it like gruel to a spoon.  His post, after all, takes the subject both coming from and heading in a rather different direction.  He also focuses on the orphan in role-play gaming, while my reflection only starts with role-playing.

"Please, sir, I want some more." Illustration by George Cruikshank

There was a period of time where I was getting to do a lot of one-on-one gaming with my daughter, and our gaming circle couldn't keep up with our schedule in group play.  The result was that she made many characters during this time, and got to explore lots of class, racial, and gender options in mechanical terms, as well as in story potential.  All this character generation can be rather time consuming, especially when you want to get down to the actual play, so I fell into a habit when she was working on back story.  "You're an orphan," I apparently said one too many times, from the heights of Mount Game Master Dad.  She finally complained.  "Da-a-ad...all my characters are orphans, except one.  And she was a foster child who didn't know her parents."  "Oh," I responded, I am sure unconvincingly.  While likely there was then a part of me that was a little nervous about family-of-origin issues coming into our games, the main reason beside getting things going were these: 1.  orphans aren't tied down and can haul off and go adventuring whenever they want, 2.  it introduced unknown elements that we could uncover later in gaming, without creating more on the spot, and 3. the orphan is a sympathetic character.  Obviously this habit had become a crutch and a cliche by that point, and my daughter wanted to address this in her share of the world and character building.  Bless her heart, she wanted "some more."

Still, used with discretion and temperance, I find a lot to be said for the figure of the orphan, in terms of freedom and sympathy.  Her unknown parents provide a blank slate upon which creativity may sketch, and whose surface may hide a mystery.  If she takes up a quest, we say to ourselves that orphans don't have a place in the world and so must go out and find or make it for themselves.  And seriously, who is going to root against an orphan?  They're the ultimate underdogs, economically and emotionally.  And any ties they have are made all the more precious, like Chestertonian treasure saved from Crusoe's ship.  Frodo Baggins, after all, was an orphan, and the anxiety that the Pevensies will end up that way are in the background of the first few Narnia novels.

What is the defining issue or issues at the heart of the orphan?  Abandonment, bereavement, want, identity, belonging.  These are powerful human issues; perennial, yes, but I think that belonging and identity may be among the biggest concerns of our time, even in parts of the world where abandonment and want are less pervasive.  Choosing the orphan allows the story to explore this cluster of issues, so we shouldn't be surprised if the choice is timely.

It looks like there are at least eight TV tropes associated with orphan at the eponymous website, so I am not the only one who has overused this character feature.  Being encouraged by the new visitors, comments, and followers of the blog, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.*  What do you think?  Is the orphan overused in certain genres?  Do you have a story about a cliche that you got stuck on in your writing, playing, or other creative outlets that you'd like to share?  Do you have other reflections on orphan characters?  I'd love to hear from you!

*Or indeed, any of the matters on which I have blogged.