Everyone loves a good rags-to-riches story. Aladdin, Annie, Harry Potter, the list goes on. There’s something about the poor hometown kid makes good story line that resonates with many of us. But in order to create the tension that makes a great story, in order to get us as readers to care about a character, they have to have something to lose. If a character starts with nothing, and gains nothing, there’s no story there. If Aladdin hadn’t found the lamp, he’d just be some poor kid stealing food who met the princess once.
So, in order to create this type of story, the main character has to gain something, and then have it threatened. It doesn’t have to a coming-of-age story either. The hard-bitten vigilante cowboy who roams from town to town killing outlaws is cool. But we don’t really give a shit what happens to him until he falls in love with the world-weary bartender right before a gang of space-faring pirate monkeys are about to destroy the town. Then we care, because he has to decide; is he willing to stand and fight to defend his new love? Of course he is, because if he wasn’t, if he just skipped town ahead of the space-pirate monkey invasion and rode off into the sunset, then we would cease to care about him. Instead we’d start to care about the apprentice blacksmith who always wanted to be a gunfighter, because he’s the one who courageously stands against the space-monkey pirate scourge using a laser pistol he fashioned out of old horseshoes. And he’s the one who makes us cheer as he goes on to win the love of the general store owner’s daughter.
Yes, after writing that, I realize it’s pretty much the plot to Pirates of the Caribbean with space monkeys, but that just proves my point.
So what’s the problem, you may or may not ask, especially if you’re still trying to figure out how someone could build a laser pistol out of old horseshoes. The problem is when an author gives their character something that makes us as readers care about them, and then takes it away (or threatens to), it can come off as manipulative, and sometimes, downright asshole-ish. Take Aladdin again, his baseline when he’s introduced isn’t great, but he has Abu, freedom, and as he says, a great view. Then he meets the genie, becomes a prince, and almost gets the girl before the house of cards comes tumbling down and he realizes, not only is he going to lose his new life, but his old one as well.
And that story line works, because it’s gradual, because it highlights Aladdin’s own character flaws and is resolved when overcomes them. But I’m sure everyone can think of a story where the down on his luck young protagonist with no family meets a mysterious stranger who tells them they have magical powers (or are secretly royalty, or the only heir of a super wealthy family, or however else the writer gives them the life they’d always wanted) and that’s fine, that’s why the story is about that person. If Hagrid had shown up at Number Four, Privet Drive, and said, “Oops, sorry. I’m actually looking for Larry Potter,” the story ends. (Yes, I know Hagrid didn’t show up at Number Four, Privet Drive, that’s not the point.) My issue is when a writer raises the stakes and reveals that the mysterious stranger who changed the main character’s life is actually their long-lost father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, grandma, etc. all along.
Who saw that coming?
And then for some reason they die. Usually by sacrificing themselves to save the main character.
Who saw that coming?
And it blows. Giving an orphan character a family just to take it away is not only a dick move, it’s predictable, which is worse. Remember how mad everyone was when J.K. Rowlings killed off Harry Potter’s godfather, Sirius Black? And he wasn’t even a blood relative. Now imagine how pissed everyone would have been if Harry Potter had found out Dumbledore was his grandpa right before Snape snuffed him? (Oh yeah, spoiler alert. But seriously, is there anyone left who hasn’t read or seen the Harry Potter series?)
So I’m asking writers everywhere to please not give your character a warm fuzzy insta-family just so you can take it away. It’s transparent, and kinda lame. Instead, take a page out of the life of a certain farm boy from Tatooine. No mom or dad, raised by his aunt and uncle, who then get whacked by Tusken Raiders, and then he finds out that the old geezer who inducted him into the ways of the Force is . . . just some old dude his dad used to know. Because his actual dad is the galactic bogeyman. Luke getting his dad back raised the stakes alright, but not because it was something that could be taken away. But because Luke realized everyone had been lying their asses off his whole life. And as a result, he almost hooked up with his sister.
Han was the real hero in that story in more ways than one.
(And yes, technically Luke’s dad does sacrifice himself to save Luke’s life. Even two movies later it was still predictable, and that’s why the order of best movie in the original trilogy goes The Empire Strikes Back, followed by A New Hope, with Return of the Jedi as a distant third, but still better than any of the later movies.)
So remember, the next time you’re writing a character with nothing to lose, maybe leave family out of it. They’re people not props. And I’ve always thought it was more fulfilling when a character gained the family they chose anyway.