My roommate and I were watching the pilot of the new show Revolution last week, and she recognized the actress playing the protagonist’s mother as Elizabeth Mitchell from Lost. Right away she said, “Oh, damn, I like that actress!” The damn was because she knew, right away, that the mom character was toast. Parents never survive long when the young hero of an epic adventure is about to be launched on his or her journey.
Revolution is a dystopian T.V. show, which is just further proof that YA literature is now in charge of the world, at least in terms of entertainment. I was a little disappointed in the pilot, as they seem to have forgotten to have a writer look over the final draft. Hey, remember that time we walked all the way to Chicago, and then we found the one person we were looking for in the first building we randomly walked into? Good times! At any rate, Charlie, the heroine of the story, loses her mother off-camera, after a mysterious power suck turns off the world (including items with fully-charged batteries, for some reason). Then, in short order, her father goes and gets himself shot, over a flash drive cunningly disguised as a sort of space-hippie necklace. And, viola, Charlie is launched on her adventure. She, as previously mentioned, walks to Chicago, which takes about one commercial break, and then finds her uncle. The uncle character should be safe for a while because A) he’s not her parent and B) he’s Bella’s dad from the Twilight movies. Also, the bad guys obligingly wait in a single-file line to fight him, which is so thoughtful of them.
So why did Charlie’s parents have to die? If you think about it, most of the young heroes, particularly of adventure/quest stories, are orphans of some sort. Are all writers just working out their childhood issues with all this patricide and matricide? No, orphans make for compelling heroes, in more ways than one. I think Margaret Atwood said it best (she usually does) in her short piece “Orphan Stories”:
How swiftly the orphans set sail! No sooner does the starting gun fire than they’re flying! Their yachts are slimmer, their lines trimmer than ours – than our stodgy barges. They drag no anchors, they haul no ballast, they toss all baggage overboard, and the one flag they ever hoist is blank. No wonder they pull out of the bay ahead of the rest, no wonder they round the cape so briskly!
Two parents means rules, resentments, issues. There’s more room for the minor stuff: sibling rivalries, pressure to be good, get good grades, be nice to Aunt Eunice, be a doctor. One of the only rebellious things I ever did was to go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans in defiance of my parents’ wishes. They had predicted I would be assaulted or murdered. I was even more careful than usual on that trip, mostly because I was bound and determined that my parents would not be proven right. Also, as a pathetic side note, I was twenty at the time. This is not the stuff of epic adventure stories. This may also be why I am more about writing comedy.
And so an alarming number of parent characters have been slain by writers—dating all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, who really knew how to mess up a kid’s life. Harry Potter was just the most recent in a long line of heroes whose own call to adventure happened on the day their parents died. The tragedy was necessary to make Harry into the Boy Who Lived, of course. In fact, Dumbledore admits that a Harry who had not been raised by the Dursleys might have been a very different boy. If Harry’s parents had lived, there’s certainly text evidence to support the notion that he would simply have been a mini-James, pantsing the nerdiest wizard in his year, and learning to transmogrify himself just so he can sneak out after curfew.
Harry belongs to the full-orphan category, along with Luke and Annakin Skywalker, and my personal favorite, Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride—and many more. Some of them even have “orphan” right there in the name, like Little Annie.
But a lot of young heroes lose one parent. Often the parent who’s left is either symbolically gone, like Katniss’s ineffectual mom in The Hunger Games, or too busy being a god (see all of Zeus’s heroic sons).
Real-life parents can be pretty helpful, but the paper ones are paradoxically heavier—rather than keeping them to weigh the hero down, or hold her back, writers often cut them loose. As Atwood observes, orphans don’t have to decide to leave, “For orphans, all roads are necessary. How can they be kicked out of home? They’re out of home already.” And as another orphan, Frodo, learned all too well, after you step that first foot out on the road, away from home, that’s the plot—that’s where the story happens.