Showing posts with label tropes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tropes. Show all posts

Tropes in Literature #3: Conveniently an Orphan

If you haven't seen my other posts on tropes, a trope is a common plot device, character type, writing element, etc.  I believe that many tropes are so common because they're popular, fun, and good—except that they've become so overused that they've lost some of their goodness.  These should be treated carefully and creatively.  Other tropes are simply a result of laziness or convenience.  These should often be avoided.

Whatever your opinion of tropes, they're fun to discuss. 

This month's trope:  "Conveniently an Orphan." 
(named by 

Advantages of making your characters orphans:

-They can conveniently take off on adventures without any family to tie them down or make them look selfish and irresponsible for doing so.
-They don't have to constantly be interrupting the adventure and action in order to go home and visit their family or watch their niece's ballet recital.
-They don't have a support network already, so they'll need to depend more on themselves and their friends—perhaps new and unlikely friends.
-It forces young characters to solve difficult problems that normally their parents would solve.
-You have fewer characters to write.
-It provides a ready-made tragic backstory. ("My mother was murdered so now I'm a workaholic homicide detective who can't get close to people" or "I'm a delightful, sweet-tempered child who, for some strange reason, nobody has ever loved…until now.")
-It can provide motivation in the vein of, "You killed my father.  Prepare to die."
-The bad guy can't kidnap your character's family members in order to force him to do his will—which would, let's face it, be the logical thing for many bad guys to do.  But your character has no family, so…plot problem solved. 
-Orphanhood tends to go well with various "Chosen One" tropes.
-If the character doesn't even know who his parents were, you have various twist possibilities ("Luke, I am your Father!" or "Oh, I'm actually not a milkmaid but a princess!").
-Readers LIKE orphan characters, perhaps because we identify with the loneliness typified best by orphans, perhaps because we like underdogs, perhaps because it's interesting to think about what we would be like without the influence of our parents and families.  Whatever the reason, orphans in literature are popular.

Disadvantages of making your characters orphans:

-If you're not careful, it can easily come off as a convenient cliché.
-It can come of as lazy.
-It can come off as unrealistic.  True orphans who grow up in horrible Dickens-like orphanages or in the dark side of the foster care system aren't always the sweet, innocent, well-adjusted people they are in old books.  Even true orphans do often have other family:  adoptive parents, biological uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc, and these would still provide kidnapping fodder for bad guys.  Some of this family might also be people your character could—and would—phone in a crisis.  So be careful not to write as if your characters grew up in a vacuum, even if both their parents have been dead for many years.

Where this trope appears:

The "Conveniently an Orphan" trope is VERY common in fantasy and science fiction, especially if you count characters who still have one parent alive:  Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Belgariad, the Discworld novels, The Black Cauldron, half the fairy tales you can think of (though they may have one parent), The Wizard of Oz (though she has adopted parents she loves), The Hero and the Crown (still has a father), the Hunger Games (still has a mother).

Many other more mainstream books and classic works of literature also have orphans or characters with only one live parent.   Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, George Elliot, and various Brontes certainly partook.  James Bond is an orphan.  It's also common for the detectives in mysteries (especially TV crime dramas).  You'll see it sometimes in romances and women's lit and other genres.

And, of course, it's essential for sweet orphan stories like Anne of Green Gables (and Montgomery's Emily of New Moon), Annie, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy (only one dead parent), Jane Eyre, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Heidi (though with a loving grandfather), The Boxcar Children, Pollyanna,  etc.  These are all great books, but you'll need a pretty original slant or some particularly compelling characters if you're going to do it now. 

For my previous trope posts, click below:
Tropes in Literature #1:  Mr. Exposition and Captain Obvious
Tropes in Literature #2:  This is My Story

Melinda Brasher is back in the United States after spending two more years in the Czech Republic among castles and forests and hiking trails.  Her most recent sales are to Ember and Double FeatureVisit her online at

Tropes in Literature #2: This is My Story

 Tropes can be our enemies or our friends.  These literary devices, characters types, and plot elements are so common and popular that they often seem clichéd.  As I said in my first post on the topic (Mr. Exposition and Captain Obvious), I don't believe that you should never use tropes.  They're popular for a reason.  But I think it's important to be aware of them so that you can choose carefully which ones to use, which to avoid—and which to subvert.  

This is My Story brilliantly collects, links, and names many TV and literature tropes, and this is one of their best descriptions, cleverly using the trope itself: This is My Story.  I highly recommend reading it yourself,

The trope involves opening your story with something like this:  "My name is John Smith.  My story is important because blah blah blah."  Or, "You won't believe this story, but it's mine, and it's true."  Or, "Everything you've heard about me is wrong, so I'm going to tell you this story to set the record straight."  Or, "This is the blah-blahest story you'll ever hear." Or, "My name is blah blah and I'm famous for blah blah." 

Sometimes this really works, like in The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold: "My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."  The brilliant thing here is the shock value.  It's not what you're expecting from a This is My Story opening.  Most of the time, however, I think it's weak.  I want you to show me that your story's interesting or important or unbelievable.  Don't tell me. 

People rave about The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.  I honestly couldn't get into it, but that might have been my state of mind at the time.  It starts, "My name is Kvothe. I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in."  Massively creative. A taste of intriguing world building.  But then it goes on. "I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day."  And on. "I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep."  When reading, all I could think was, "Great, another wordy braggart who just won't shut up about himself.  That's all I need in my life."  But it obviously worked for a lot of people. 

Here's how Mark Twain started Huckleberry Finn:  "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter."  A variation on the theme, with a little added product placement.  Other classics start similarly, as if writing a boilerplate introduction paragraph to a five paragraph essay:  Robinson Crusoe, Great Expectations, various others.  I've also seen Asimov and Heinlein do it in third person.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford begins, "This is the saddest story I've ever heard."  To me, that's like writing a query letter to an agent and saying, "This is the best book you'll ever read."  Automatic reject.  But again, it obviously worked for some people.

This one's cool, but chiefly because it plays with the trope—and intrigues the reader:  "In a sense, I am Jacob Horner."  John Barth, The End of the Road.  So, in a sense you're not?  Makes me want to read. 

I challenge you, as a writer, to never start a book this way unless you can give it a clever twist.  

Melinda Brasher currently teaches English as a second language in the beautiful Czech Republic.  She loves the sound of glaciers calving and the smell of old books.  Her travel articles and short fiction appear in Go NomadInternational LivingElectric SpecIntergalactic Medicine Show, and others.  For an e-book collection of some of her favorite published pieces, check out Leaving Home.  For something a little more medieval, read her YA fantasy novel, Far-KnowingVisit her online at

Tropes In Literature #1: Mr. Exposition and Captain Obvious

Tropes are common themes, plot elements, or literary devices so popular they've often become cliché.  Some people hate them.  Some editors will throw your manuscript in the trash the moment they see a trope they're tired of.  Others will reject it because it doesn't follow a popular pattern.   People like Terry Pratchett make an art of purposely employing too many tropes, to hilarious effect.  The thing is, clichés become clichés for a reason:  we LOVE certain story elements, and don't mind if we see them over and over again.  Entire genres are built on well established tropes that readers not only tolerate, but expect.

Tropes:  Use Them or Not?

My opinion:  be aware of the tropes of your genre, then go ahead and use the ones you like, the ones that serve your story, but play around with them.  Make them your own.  It's true that, when you boil everything down, there aren't a whole lot of truly unique stories.  It's the way you tell it that makes it unique.   

I'll be featuring individual devices and plot elements here in my Literature Tropes series, but if you want to get lost for an hour or two, visit, where you'll discover all sorts of familiar tropes with clever names like "Dark Lord on Life Support" or "Conveniently an Orphan."

Mr. Exposition  

This trope involves a character who exists only to explain a plot element, an important scientific or magical law, an aspect of a foreign culture, etc. to the protagonist.  Often it's actually for the benefit of the reader, not the protagonist, who should know it already.  Think of all those TV detectives explaining forensic procedures to each other.  I call this "exposition in dialogue," and it's awkward if all characters in the conversation already know everything they're saying, yet they say it anyway.  As a writer, you should think of a more natural way to get the information across to your reader.  If you want some specific alternatives, read my post on Exposition in Dialogue.  Employing Mr. Exposition occasionally—for information the characters really don't know—can be useful and efficient.  And if it's ingrained enough in the character's personality, it can really work.  Think of Star Trek's Data or the immortal Sherlock Holmes.

Captain Obvious

We've all had visits from Captain Obvious in our real lives.  In writing, he's that character who says something that not just the characters but the reader should also clearly know.


You can sometimes make brilliant use this for emphasis, or with a sarcastic character, but be careful otherwise. 

Captain Obvious also likes to repeat in dialogue what has already been narrated.  Picture a vividly written scene where two people are tied to the tracks and blinded by the light of the oncoming train.  Then one character says, "Hey, there's an oncoming train!"  This may be perfect for comic effect, but avoid it if it's not meant to be funny.

Be Aware

Remember, tropes aren't necessarily good or bad.  It's how you use them.  Being aware of some of the most common ones will help you make conscious decisions about using them, twisting them…or cutting them.

Melinda Brasher currently teaches English as a second language in the beautiful Czech Republic.  She loves the sound of glaciers calving and the smell of old books.  Her travel articles and short fiction appear in Go NomadInternational LivingElectric SpecIntergalactic Medicine Show, and others.  For an e-book collection of some of her favorite published pieces, check out Leaving Home.  For something a little more medieval, read her YA fantasy novel, Far-KnowingVisit her online at

NANOWRIMO 2015 word count as of today, November 3:  6307 words

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