Have 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