After leaving the ministry of the Church of England I trained as a screenwriter. It is one of the best things I ever did—not because it led to a glittering career in Hollywood, but because I learned about life from a fresh perspective.
One of the keys to screenwriting is creating sympathetic heroes, and one of the tried and true ways to create a sympathetic protagonist is to make your hero an orphan. Think about all of the orphan heroes: Little Orphan Annie, Pip from Great Expectations and Huck Finn to start. Then there is Oliver Twist and Dorothy who lives with her Aunt and Uncle on the farm just like Luke Skywalker does on Tatooine—and don’t forget Frodo living with Uncle Bilbo in the Shire.
When you extend the orphan idea a little you will see that virtually every film and fictional hero is an orphan or a semi-orphan. The semi-orphans are the ones from broken families. Dad is missing in action or Mom has died or run away. When you add to the orphans the loners, the drifters, the fugitives, the unloved, and the unlovely it becomes clear that the hero is an orphan, and the orphan is the hero.
Why should a storyteller make his hero an orphan? There are several reasons. Firstly, what more effective way can you think of to make a character sympathetic than to make him an orphan? Who can resist a child lost in the city or a little one lost in the woods? Everyone’s heart goes out to a child who has lost his family.
Secondly, the orphan is, by definition, someone who is looking for love. The screenwriter’s task is not only to create a sympathetic protagonist, but also to make the audience bond with the hero. The orphan is looking for love and the people the screenwriter wants to love his hero the most are the members of the audience. As they watch the drama they become surrogate parents. They adopt the kid and watch him as he goes on his heroic journey—rooting for him all the way like the proudest of soccer moms when junior scores a goal.
Thirdly, the orphan’s heroic journey is invariably both outer and inner. Yes, he may be searching for the treasure, striving to destroy the terrible ring or flying a fighter to destroy the death star, but the orphan hero is also searching for his father. This is the mythic level of the story which not only establishes sympathetic rapport with the audience, but also takes the audience deeper into their own search for the Father.
And just as orphan heroes abound, so Father figures are everywhere. Frodo follows Gandalf and Strider. Luke Skywalker bonds with Obi Wan, and Dorothy is enchanted by the traveling Wizard. Huck loves Jim and Pip loves Joe while Little Orphan Annie has Daddy Warbucks. The father figures abound because the subtext of the story is the story of the lost boy or girl longing for home and the child’s return to the Father.
The plot often thickens when the orphan hero finds a false father. Huck is beaten by old Finn. Oliver falls in with Fagin. Pip discovers the disgusting Magwitch, Orphan Annie contends with her fake father Rooster, and Frodo is deeply wounded by the Witch King. Worst of all, Luke Skywalker screams his famous “Nooooo!” when Darth Vader truthfully says, “I am your Father.”
The complication of the false father brings the audience face to face with the horror of what might be called the “anti-Father.” Through fantasy they face the terror of the deadbeat Dad, the violent drunkard, the convict, the conman, the vile villain, and the diabolical Daddy.
This complication only spurs the orphan (and by extension the audience) on to continue the search for the true Father. The story of the orphan hero becomes a perennial myth and metaphor for the Christian journey. Buried deep beneath the surface story is the story of orphaned mankind’s long journey home. The story of the orphaned hero resonates because we know at the depth of our humanity that we are all orphans. We are all alienated from our Father above, and we are all on the existential search to find our true home, our eternal family, and our everlasting Father.
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