Mrs. Meers: Sad to be all alone in the world.
— Thoroughly Modern Millie
Parents are very nice things to have; but they can be darned inconvenient at times if you're a hero. They insist that you finish your homework or do your chores on nights when you need to stop Doctor Squid and demand that you be home at a reasonable hour. Worse yet, if they're at all responsible, they will do their best to Keep You Out of Danger. Now what's the fun of that?
That's why there's a long tradition in fiction of Heroes Without Parents. The parents aren't there for the hero, so he effectively has to face his challenges alone.
There could be a lot of reasons for this. Both parents could have died in a tragic manner, as in the case of Batman or Harry Potter; or the parents might have sent the child away so that he could have a better life, as in Superman's case. Or they might have heard a prophecy that the kid would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother and they were trying to out-fox fate. (Like that ever works!) Or maybe we don't even know; we just found Baby Skeezix in a basket left on the doorstep of Walt Wallet's Garage. (And a cookie for anyone who gets that reference). Does the character know where they went? Did he ever know them? Did they find him a burden they weren't prepared to bear? Did one disappear to find the other? Or did they hurry their child away like Moses in the Bullrushes to save him from their enemies? And is what he "knows" actually true? Just because your adoptive parents tell you your parents died in a car-crash or that your mother died and your father was a transient commerical pilot, doesn't mean it's true. Speaking of which, does your character have any other family, like an estranged twin sister perhaps?
Sometimes the family is there, but the parents are distant or perhaps even hostile. Parents who have disowned their child for taking a path they disapprove of fits this theme.
There is also the - hopefully rare - cases of self-made orphan and the Runaway Child, both of whom reversed the burden of abandonment with differing degrees of finality. If there were never any parents in the first place, consider declaring the character a self made man. And very unusual. The other possibility being that the character only thinks that he is human and may be looking for parents in all the wrong places1.
Of course, in most cases the abandoned child was raised by someone - or something (as in raised by wolves2)3 - since a child growing up without any contact would be a) unlikely to survive and b) completely dysfunctional (absent mythic levels of deviation from normality, and probably inherent divinity). Part of the development may be the character realising that they the people they thought were their parents … aren't, and are possibly not even the same species4. This can be a handy source of plot and adventure hooks for GMs and writers.
Game and Story Use
- Good character background and a lovely source of character angst.
- Also a cliched character background, often developed by players who don't want to give the GM plot hooks - or who just want to avoid family based roleplay plots. Less of an issue in systems that give character points for dependants.
- These players can promptly be used as the targets for every I am your father Luke that the GM has in mind (or anything else that involves meddling with a PCs ancestry for fun and profit) … alternatively, well, the character had to be raised by someone (even if raised by wolves).
- This can actually be a significant disadvantage in some settings - especially a traditional feudal one where networking with your relatives is an important part of life.
- There's the classic: "My Parents were both killed…
- in a robbery
- in a skiing accident
- in a cholera epidemic
- by a serial killer's rampage
- when Aldeberran blew up
- while running the bulls
- "I never knew my parents; I was raised by…
- Benedictine nuns
- "I haven't spoken to my parents in years; not since they threw me out of the house when they found out I was…
- secretly helping the Resistance
- actually a Republican
- all of the above
- This may also be the appropriate trope for an adopted character (even if he doesn't know it) - which sets him up for a potentially unusual background.
- At some stage, everyone's parents "abandon" them - if only by dying of old age - this important phase of a character's life is as plot worthy as any other. In many contexts this may suddenly make a character responsible for a whole range of things that he has never had to deal with, from supporting himself to being legally responsible for the lives of large numbers of people.
- For pop culture examples, the final seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer dealt with the aftermath of the death of Buffy's mother (her father having abandoned the family years earlier) and the sudden requirement for her to take responsibility, socially, legally and economically for herself and her younger sister … which provided useful development when she progressed to leadership of the Slayer Army in the last season.