The Orphaned Hero
by Dwight Longenecker
When I was studying screenwriting we spent a good deal of time analyzing the construction of characters for our story. Those who do not create stories may wonder how characters are imagined and brought to life. Some authors and screenwriters turn to acquaintances, friends and family and develop fictional characters who are composites of various people in their lives. Some simply visualize the story and their vivid imagination pours forth a cast of characters to inhabit their drama. There is another way to develop characters however, which fits into the mythic aspect of storytelling. Myth uses archetypal characters, and the characters who inhabit myths fulfill certain functions in the ancient and universal drama.
J.R.R.Tolkien was criticized by aficionados of modern fiction for creating characters in The Lord of the Rings who seemed to be cardboard cutout stock characters. They blamed him for not creating subtle, complex and fascinating individuals: the sort of tortured souls one might find in the works of D.H. Lawrence or Virginia Woolf. In doing so they betrayed their lack of understanding of myth. Tolkien’s characters function on an archetypal level, and they are deliberately one dimensional. We are not expected to submit Aragorn to Freudian analysis because of his Mother’s death. Gimli would take an ax to anyone who expected him to ‘get in touch with his deeper feelings’ and Gandalf would fix a frightening frown on someone who wanted to ‘explore the deeper reasons for his celibacy’ before turning him into something unnatural. No, Tolkien gives us shallow characters because they serve a deeper purpose. They may not expose their depths, but that is because they take us to the depths.
The use of archetypal characters in fiction unlocks the archetypal characters within our own psyche. Through the mystery of myth we connect not with complex and tortured individuals like ourselves, but with characters who are universal. Archetypal characters may be simple, but they are simple like mountains and rivers and the sea are simple. Archetypal characters are bigger and deeper and more mysterious than characters in our own image. Through archetypal characters we connect with the wise and magical mentor, the spirited trickster, the herald, the loyal retainer, the love of our lives, the warrior, the faithful skeptic, the principled hero, the spiritual dreamer and many more. A writer who understands the archetypal role call is well placed to create a cast of characters for his story which is well rounded, believable but which also helps the story to attain a mythic depth that could otherwise not be attained.
Some film writers, like all the best storytellers, do this instinctively. Others create their characters with conscious craftsmanship. Understanding archetypal symbolism and human psychology, they mold their fictional players with deliberate care. Archetypal characters inhabit film after film, and the first of these to be created is the story’s hero. Screenwriter and director Bart Gavigan has pointed out how many heroes of film and literature are orphans. Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, Oliver Twist, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Luke Skywalker; the list could go on and on of the heroes who live with the ordinary aunt and uncle because their parents are gone. The orphaned hero is a constant archetypal character for several reasons.
First of all, the orphaned hero is sympathetic. The good storyteller wants us to connect emotionally with the hero, and what easier and better way to build empathy than to make the hero an orphan? Who can resist feeling sorry for, and loving, a child alone in the world? Making the hero an orphan immediately solves several other dramatic problems. The orphaned hero has an obvious wound, and it is that wound which not only builds empathy with the audience, but gives the hero an obvious area to grow and develop.
It is no co-incidence therefore, that so many film heroes continue to be drawn as orphaned heroes, and if we do not know they are orphans, then they are presented as loners and outcasts: people without a country; without a family and with no real friends. This archetypal orphaned hero reminds us that the hero’s quest takes us on a lonely journey and sets us apart from the ordinary, happy and complacent family member. The orphaned hero tells us that the heroic journey is ultimately a solitary one.
The orphaned hero provides an immediate subplot for the story: the hero is not only on a quest to find the Holy Grail or the Golden Fleece or the Elixir of Life; he is also on a search for his parents and his true family. The orphaned hero is a stock, archetypal character for a deeper reason: his quest for meaning and belonging echoes a deeper quest within the human heart. Stories function on the mythic level when they help us to connect with the universal quest within the heart of every human being and all of humanity itself. The stories that intrigue and touch us most deeply are those stories that incarnate this universal search for meaning, for identity, for family and for love. As the orphaned hero goes on his quest we go on that quest with him, and as we do we join with every other individual and the whole of humanity on that same quest.
The orphaned hero’s quest for the father echoes the quest of humanity because, through the fall, all of humanity is lost in a foreign land. All of us are orphans here, longing for the Father’s love, and waiting to be adopted as his sons and daughters. The orphaned hero thus becomes a vicarious hero for each member of the audience, and at the same time carries the story of the whole of humanity. As the orphaned hero goes on the quest, we all go with him on an unconscious journey to our heavenly home.
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Copyright © Dwight Longenecker. All rights reserved. Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic writer and broadcaster working and living in England. Check his website
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