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Why Disney kills off the parents

Dumbo_1Have you ever noticed that children’s books and movies love to kill off the parents? Or at least get them out of the picture so the fun can start. Disney especially seems to like orphans as protagonists.

Think about it. Snow White, Dumbo, Bambi, Aladdin, The Lion King, Jungle Book, Tarzan, Little Orphan Annie, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Chronicles of Narnia, Home Alone.

I could go on.

When my boys were younger, it bothered me that they were bombarded with the message that the adventure doesn’t begin until the parents are gone (often permanently).

But then the other day, when I was lying in bed in that half-awake half-asleep state that often brings me plot twists and solutions, it hit me.

Orphans invoke empathy.

Seriously, what tugs at our heartstrings and emotions more than a child losing a parent? It’s a trauma we can all understand, and most of us fear. The orphan is the underdog, deserving of our sympathy, and easily forgiven most transgressions in light of their loss.

As a writer, the ability to invoke that kind of emotion from the reader/viewer is gold. If we don’t invest the reader emotionally from the beginning, it doesn’t matter how thrilling our plot is, she won’t care.

In Blake Snyder’s book SAVE THE CAT, he tells us our hero needs to “do something when we meet him so that we like him and want him to win.” The audience must be “‘in sync’ with the plight of the hero from the very start.” The term “save the cat” comes from the cliché of the hero rescuing a little kid’s cat from a tree so we know right up front that he’s a good guy at heart.

Essentially, there must be something about the character that makes them likable, so we’ll root for them and stick around for their story to unfold.

In THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS, James Scott Bell provides some ideas how we can “emotionally bond” the reader to the main character.

1. “Make the Lead care about someone other than himself.”

Snow White is kind to animals and dwarves.

2. “Have the Lead do things to help those weaker than he is.” (Snyder’s save-the-cat moment.)

Katniss volunteers to take her little sister’s place in a fight to the death. Aladdin steals food for himself, but then gives it to two younger orphans who are starving.

3. “Put the Lead in a situation of jeopardy, hardship or vulnerability.”

Bingo! Orphan the kid and you have jeopardy, hardship, and vulnerability all wrapped up in one heart-string-tugging bundle. Add unsympathetic relatives, step-parents, or school mates, and you have a character we can’t help but root for.

As a writer, I can’t help but admire that.

Photo credit: By The Walt Disney Company (Trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Reply

    There is another reason: the question of agency. If the protagonist has parents who can step in and help (doing homework! driving forgotten instruments to school! keeping track of appointments! or, in story terms, letting Dumbledore or Harry’s parents take on Voldemort instead of Harry having to confront him), the protagonist has no story. We have to believe that the protagonist needs to act and will not be stopped from doing so.

    • Reply

      Oh, absolutely, Erin. There are a lot of reasons why kids on their own work for a story. You get a fish out of water character, vulnerable, put into interesting situations where they must act on their own and solve their own problems. 🙂

  2. Reply

    Good post, Gwen. I believe it’s two fold 1) create empathy for the hero and 2) get the parents out of the way so the kid can have an adventure. Though not a Disney film, Home Alone, does the same thing – The parents are on a plane without their kid. As they are trying to get back to him, he gets to have his adventure. Perhaps it’s the whole coming of age thing and learning you can rely on yourself.

    • Reply

      Thanks, Kathy. Yep, Home Alone is on my list for that very reason. Perfect example of a less deadly parents-out-of-the-way scenario.

      I think you’re right about the coming of age thing. As kids we want the freedom to act on our own, but we also fear it. From the books and movies, kids can learn about the joys and perils of independence, and maybe to appreciate the parents they have, even if they sometimes resent their interference. 😉

  3. Curtis


    Loved this post. My response started out being a couple sentences. It got out of hand. 🙂

    I’m a Robin Williams “Jumanji”, or “Home Alone” kind of kids-in-movies sort of person.

    I’m a little slow to put a child at risk to gen up some dramatic tension. For one thing, it is a slam dunk. It’s just to easy. Stephen King has cashed this one for ever. ( I know. In reality, “At Risk” is the name of a child’s world the second they are born.)

    In Sunday’s opener of RedWidow, we predictably see “Chekhov’s Gun” in an early scene. But, this time it is not on the mantle. It is in a third graders hands.

    A cute little blond kid everyone is gonna love. The silver pistol he holds perfectly is pointed at a bully. The little guy demands the return of his earphones. See, we are already on board with it. Who wouldn’t be. ( I’m thinking. He pulls that trigger and we have a totally different story than advertised. 🙂

    ( I guess it’s a twist on Save the Cat. Only this time the cat has an equalizer that enables the potential for self-salvation. But, alas the cat turns out to be a routine cat in trouble that has only climbed further out on the limb than usual and needs saving. The school Principle does the job nicely and says so in three lines of dialogue.)

    When “Chekhov’s Gun” does go off, the cute kid ‘s Dad has been shot down in the drive way of their home. Gee, look at all that blood. So real. The little guy gets to watch. He is the only witness to the whole thing. ( There is also MacBethian moment also. Blood on Mom’s hands cause if she hadn’t pushed Dad to do what he did he wouldn’t be all shot up in the driveway.)

    All of this is done to get us ready for Mom to “Break Bad.” It works. But, that is about all. A child as a story device is not on my writing bucket list.

    P.S. The cute little kid is a major story thread. He is the key to solving one of the big questions of the show –Who shot my Dad.” ( I wonder if that is the same as “who shot Cock Robin?” Who wants to bet the little guy is really put at risk before this rodeo is over.? We gonna really get to see how far down the rabbit hole the Mom who broke bad will go. And we will cheer for her all the way.

    This really got out of hand.

    • Reply

      Curtis: I’d expect nothing else from you. 😉 It does almost seem too easy, doesn’t it? But on the other hand, specifically for middle grade and young adult fiction, it makes sense. A child’s biggest fear and biggest desire is no parents, right? Not that they want to lose them permanently, but we all wonder “what if”.

      Even in adult fiction, the orphan works on some level. I didn’t think about it until I wrote this post, but in my last finished manuscript, the heroine has lost her entire family right in the beginning, which leaves her really vulnerable when our hero comes along to keep her from getting killed too. 🙂

  4. Reply

    Great post Gwen, the first thing I noticed as a child about Disney, was the evil step-mom or witch was never a blonde! brunets = bad girl LOL

    When I was young, orphans were a literary device, I had never known anyone who’d lost a parent. And all widows were elderly aunts in Florida… I asked a rabbi once, why does God treat widows and orphans like such weak losers. He told me that widows and orphans are vulnerable, they have no one to protect them, they are under no one’s protection. He said that a normal person would assume that the weak are protected by the strong, that a hero will step forward to protect them, but the reality is they are ‘prey’ even in our society. Inheritances are stolen by families from orphans, widows are victims of people driven by greed.

    This became helpful for me, as a writer, to develop the heroine as weak prey but then write her as an evolving, grieving heroine. She can heal and get tough, that a hero might be rebuffed by the heroine, who is stubborn and wants to be tough, but she finally accepts his protection and love but maintains her own independence.

    • Reply

      CristineGzr: Hmm, no evil blondes. I hadn’t thought about that. I was too busy getting mad about all the dumb ones in movies/TV. 😉

      Interesting viewpoint from the rabbi. I definitely want my “weak” characters to grow and be strong and “earn” their happy ending. Thanks for sharing!

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