Families & Fantasy

There is a dearth of families in fantasy.  There are, of course, exceptions, but most of these are where said families and/or children are important to plot, character, or theme.  If you look back on the classics and semi-classics of fantasy (1970s and 80s), how many protagonists are orphans?  In how many others are the protagonist’s parents barely mentioned if at all?

In Tolkien, Bilbo and Frodo’s parents are never seen.  Indeed, of the nine companions we only meet Gimli and Boromir’s fathers and neither of their mothers (and Gloin is really only in “The Hobbit” as one of the least memorable of the thirteen dwarves and then has a ‘cameo’ in “The Lord of the Rings”).  One of my favorite authors growing up, Lloyd Alexander, almost always had an orphan for a hero including his “Prydain” and “Westmark” series.  This is also true of Raymond Feist’s “Riftwar”, David Edding’s “Belgariad,” and Tad Williams’ “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”.  Of course, I should observe that Harry Potter is an orphan as well.  And it is surprisingly bleak on Disney’s part if you consider their princess movies.  I believe Merida in Pixar’s “Brave” is the only one with both parents alive (though there are several I haven’t seen).

In the above examples, the protagonist is generally a teenager or a young adult, ages which naturally tend toward family links in both our modern day and age and more traditional times.  Few protagonists are ‘seasoned’ and in positions of true independence.

So why are fantasy stories so deadly to protagonists’ parents?  For that matter, why are so many protagonists without siblings?  What happened to family!

I believe there are a myriad of answers to this question, with specific reasons varying by book.  The simplest of these may be that this is an age when young people are beginning to find their own way.  It is a period of transitioning social spheres though the absence of family altogether may make the contrast more of a challenge by depriving the reader of “the before.” 

Yet beyond these somewhat ‘cliché’ answers, I think there is a more basic truth:  simplicity.

Those without family are apt to have few or no ties.  Thus it is easy for them to be apprenticed or yield to wanderlust which is often a natural precursor to adventure.  It also makes them sympathetic… they have no one.  Thus they can easily become an outsider who has to struggle to rise above adversity… and such circumstances once again make them more easily turn to ‘adventuring.’

Economy of words is an important part of storytelling, especially in our modern era with so many other mediums of entertainment pulling at us.  Every scene needs to matter to the story (usually in more than one way), drawing character, plot, and/or theme forward toward the climax and resolution.  As such, not every aspect of an individual’s life can be delved into.  Doing so damages pacing, diminishes suspense, and distracts from whatever point the author is making.

To use “Tears from Iron” as an example, Vistus does have two parents (albeit ‘adoptive’ parents as is the nature of the t’Okaedrin family unit), Dalric and Auphni.  Nevertheless, Auphni is only seen once.  Dalric plays a more significant role, appearing about six times, but he is also heavily overshadowed by Vistus’ brothers.  Why?  Because the story isn’t about child-parent relationships.  Parents are present enough to establish that such a relationship exists, matters to Vistus, and has had an influence on the man he has become.  Sure, I could’ve added scenes where Vistus pours his heart out to his mom or argues with his dad about some aspect of his t’Okaedrin duties, but neither of these would have served the plot, aided his character arc, or enhanced the themes of the story.  They could only detract.  By comparison, Vistus’ relationship with his brothers (especially Bridionis and Arcomin) is fundamental to the story and thus it demands attention.  To give some contrast (and a little bit of a teaser), a theme of “A Whisper in the Sand” is mother-son relationships and thus the scenes unfold in such a way as to make this possible.

Ultimately, does this absence of family matter?  Perhaps not except insofar as it speaks to the type of stories being told.  Where family relationships are a foundation part of the story, we will see families, but at other times we won’t or they’ll be meager glimmers.  The same could be said for any other aspect of society that may or may not see a lot of description such as the foods people eat, sewage systems of their cities, educational institutions (if such exist), and so on.  When they matter, you see them.  When they don’t, you don’t.

Yet as I conclude I’ll make two other amusing observations.  Fantasy stories tend to have few or no children.  And how many protagonists are married?  There are reasons for these, as well… I’ll let you speculate on the answers.