“Without parents to help shape the child’s sense of self, the Orphan grows into adulthood with a pronounced need to answer the question at the root of all stories: Who am I?”

Those of you who have followed my blog for some time or taken courses with me through Screenwriting Master Class know how fascinated I am with character archetypes, specifically how there are five — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster — which recur in movies over and over and over.

Some might see archetypes as a sort of reductionist approach to writing when in my experience, it is precisely the opposite.

By working with these five Primary Character Archetypes, we can identify the core narrative function of every key character, then use that knowledge as a guide as we build them out in a limitless number of ways.

One approach is to use an extensive array of Character Types available to us. So this month, I am running a series in which we will explore 20 Character Types, and consider how writers can use them to create unique, compelling figures in our stories.

Today: Orphan.

Some of the most notable movie characters of all time are Orphan types: Huckleberry Finn, Tarzan, Little Orphan Annie, and one of the most beloved of all Dorothy Gale:

Why are orphans so popular in movies? Right off the bat, we are dealing with a character who generates instant sympathy. Abandoned by parents. Or worse, deceased parents. Each of us has experienced loneliness in our lives. Being an orphan taps into an existential sense of aloneness. What this does is immediately lock us into the story, engendering in us a desire to take care of the character in question, such as with the movie Babe (1995):

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Without parents to help shape the child’s sense of self, the Orphan grows into adulthood with a pronounced need to answer the question at the root of all stories: Who am I? Is it any wonder that so many superheroes are orphans: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Magneto, as well as science fiction heroes like Luke Skywalker and fantasy heroes like Harry Potter, carrying with them a need to figure out both how to use their extraordinary powers and how to understand who they are:

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This Orphan’s quest to determine their self-identity can involve a coming to grips with deep emotions and psychological dynamics: shame as the child may feel responsible for being rejected, self-doubt the result of not growing up with parental support and encouragement of parents, and nightmares as the parents continue to hold sway over the Orphan long after they are gone, such as with Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs:

What brainstorming can you do with an Orphan character type?

It’s almost too easy to go this route with a Protagonist, surely so if the writer uses it as a cheap device to elicit sympathy. So dig deeper. What does the Orphan feel about their parents? What coping skills and defense mechanisms have they developed to manage those feelings? How do they compensate for the pain they feel? How has the loss of their parents branded them at their most fundamental level? Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, while not technically an orphan, is abandoned by his mother and sent away from the only home and true happiness he will know in his life. Almost everything you need to know about his character you can see in his face as a child when he learns he is being sent away:

This is the setup for a later payoff:

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For other Character Types, go here.

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