Kidnapped, lost, stranded, neglected.
Shipwrecked, orphaned, indentured, and banished.
Sent to boarding school. Left in the woods.
Married off. Doled out.
This is the stuff of storybooks. Dead parents, absent grownups. Sad kids all by their lonesome selves. Or maybe not so sad. And not so lonesome. At least not for long…
The adults-are-largely-missing trope is popular in children’s literature. Just off the top of my head, I can rattle off some examples: A Wrinkle in Time, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Anne of Green Gables, The Graveyard Book, Lord of the Flies, The Secret Garden, Looking for Alaska, The Golden Compass, A Separate Peace, Hatchet.
The trope is popular for a reason. Kids love it.
I don’t need a degree in psychology to guess why. In real life, adults, in particular, moms, dads, and teachers, decide most things for kids: how (not) to dress, what (not) to say, where (not) to go, what (not) to eat. Given the chance to slip into a book with a dearth of adults, a young reader must think, Freedom! I wish I lived in this world. I’d like to be this character. To never hear scolds or “no” or “because I said so.” To face hardship and horror—and survive. To do the sorts of things that grownups are always saying are too dangerous, too hard, too inappropriate, too, well…grownup.
To practice being grownups.
And to dabble in the darkness, as well. To test the waters of solitude, to muddle through the murk of loneliness. To rehearse grief, imagine death, and play the orphan—as, in real life, every person will. As every person must. Unless our parents outlive us, we all, one day, become orphans.
The fantasy of unchecked fun. The vicarious pleasure of freedom. The catharsis of exercised fear. These explain a young reader’s preference for parentless plots.
But what about the person who decides to write such a story?
Certainly, she hopes to engage her reader. Sure, she wants to pen a bestseller. But I think there’s more to it than that.
This is a fruitful trope for a writer.
I’m not suggesting we pick off Mom or Dad in the prologues of our next books. The loss doesn’t have to be the death of a parent. It can be the expulsion from a homeland or the theft of an inheritance or a breakup with a best friend or any important excision. But loss invites the question “Now what?” And recovery from a significant loss (making do without, inching along alone) poses challenges to a character—obstacles. Obstacles create conflict. And what requires conflict? Good stories! Plot depends on conflict.
Maybe the next time I’m in the planning stage of a writing project and mulling over my main character, instead of merely deciding how she will look, behave, desire, and dream, I’ll determine what she’s lacking. I will make her lack something. And maybe the next time I am dealing with a floundering work-in-progress, instead of adding more threads, more scenes, more settings, and more characters, I’ll think along the lines of subtraction. I might pluck out a character, burn down a house, or let something beloved be stolen. Poke holes. Erase. Cut, cut, cut. If I make that integral whatever disappear, what will happen?
A lot, I expect. Changes, developments. That’s the paradox of loss. It’s so fertile.
Missing invites substitutes, death incites successors, emptiness begs to be filled, wounds require healing. There’s a morning in mourning, an eve in grieve. Every ending—death, banishment, separation—necessitates beginnings: new lands, new alliances, new adventures.
Perhaps in my next novel, I’ll let my main character get knocked off her feet early on. I will let her fall hard. I’ll leave her sprawled on the ground until she catches her breath. I will help her to her feet. And I’ll wait until she brushes the dust from her hands.
Then I’ll urge her to fight.
If I’ve made her real enough, she’ll manage, get by, surprise me, amaze me. And I will fall in love with her, this remarkable girl. I will adore her—her grit, spirit, pluck.
Indeed, I will need her.
Writers, readers, grownups, kids: we need these scrappy characters. Their troubles and terrors. Their struggles and strife. Their eventual joys. Their ultimate survival. Their life stories…
They’re hopeful. They are antidotes to despair.