Orphan's Ordeal

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Some orphans have it easy, but not these ones.

This trope is about fiction highlighting the unpleasant side of losing one's parents to death or abandonment. The parents are lost recently, and the main plot (or at least a major subplot) involves dealing with this loss. This generally includes some combination of:

The character is often a Heartwarming Orphan. If they're especially unlucky, they will be Raised by Orcs.

Contrast with Conveniently an Orphan, where orphanhood is used simply as a plot-enabler. Also see Happily Adopted.

Examples of Orphan's Ordeal include:

Anime and Manga

  • Barefoot Gen: Many, many children were made homeless orphans by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
  • Tower of God: Anak Zahard's parents relationship was an illegal one, so her parents were killed and Anak just barely managed to survive. She tries to get revenge on the perpetrators by wiping them out entirely, however, the Zahard family is not only the royal family, but also gathers the strongest warriors and adopts them.
  • Chrono Crusade: Although most of Rosette's history as an orphan is more of a case of Conveniently an Orphan, in the manga it's revealed that one of the major points of Rosette's personality—her difficulty with being able to sit and wait—partially comes from the trauma of being able to do nothing but wait as the adults that knew her parents arranged their funeral and sent her and her brother to an orphanage.
    • Joshua, Azmaria and Satella all show lingering affects of the deaths of their parents, as well. And, in fact, even Aion's issues stem partially from what happened to his mother. This trope is really one of the biggest reasons why the characters in Chrono Crusade come off as such a Dysfunction Junction.
  • Elfen Lied: Lucy.
  • Grave of the Fireflies is pretty much all this. Or at least the depressing parts.
  • Hellsing: Poor Integra Hellsing. Not only did she lose her mother years before, but the day that her father died of lung cancer, his brother Richard attempted to murder her in order to gain control of the family vampire-hunting organization. Fortunately, she is saved after fleeing to the basement when she discovers Alucard who was sealed there for the last twenty years and after he takes out the mooks and blocks a bullet for her, she shoots her uncle and lives to tell the tale, but damn, what a hell of a day that must have been.
  • In Princess Tutu, many of Fakir's flaws stem from his parents' deaths—particularly the fact that he witnessed it, and he was at least partially to blame.
  • Claus and Lavie of Last Exile swing between this and Conveniently an Orphan - after all, they wouldn't be teenage vanship pilots in their father's old vanship if their mother and fathers were still around - but the loss of both their fathers in the Grand Stream and the later death of Claus' mother is a hard blow that forces the two together into a makeshift family, to learn how to fly the vanship on their own so they can support themselves and is tied in with their ambition to succeed at the task their fathers failed in, as well as certain plot points involving Alex, captain of the Silvana.
  • Aside from Johan and Nina (obviously), the former of whom is raised at an orphanage designed for brainwashing children into becoming perfect soldiers, there is a whole slew of orphans whose lives are horribly screwed up. A little Czech boy, for example, receives a hint that his mother might be found at the local Red Light District, where he ends up witnessing a borderline rape of a druggie hooker.
  • Sasuke Uchiha of Naruto. A perfectly happy child with a large clan that he viewed as an extended family, he returned one night to discover they were dead. All of them except for his beloved older brother. Who had just killed their parents. Needless to say, this had a rather large impact on his future personality (disorders) and career and life goals.
    • Naruto Uzumaki is an orphan too, and he also has it pretty rough. In fact, there are a lot of orphans, mostly because their parents worked in a high-risk profession, and all these orphans frequently wind up with severe psychological issues because There Are No Therapists.
  • In Natsume Yuujinchou, after his parents died, Natsume found himself passed around from distant relative to distant relative because nobody wanted to deal with the Creepy Child who claimed to see dead people and monsters everywhere. As a result, he has a great deal of difficulty being open and honest with anyone for fear of rejection.
  • In Full Moon o Sagashite, not only is twelve-year-old Mitsuki an orphan, she has terminal throat cancer, a cold grandmother who doesn't let her do anything remotely fun, and later finds out thather first childhood love died in a car accident. Geesus!
  • Barnaby from Tiger and Bunny was orphaned at the age of four and has since been raised in an orphanage (though certain circumstances have lead him to believe otherwise). Flashbacks prove that he was a cheerful, contented kid before this; but twenty years later we see him as a cold, cynical Broken Ace who is hell-bent on avenging his murdered parents. Despite all this he was apparently quite popular at school, is fairly affluent as an adult and competent at his job—not that he'd allow such things to hinder his quest for vengeance.


  • James-Michael from Omega the Unknown is orphaned and as a result, is thrust from a life of isolated study in the mountains into NYC's Hell's Kitchen, where he goes to an Inner-City School and is bullied by Delinquents, and trudges daily through a neighborhood full of sex workers, porno theaters, winos, drug pushers, and roving gangs of muggers.
  • Done in the Silver Age Doom Patrol with the character of Beast Boy (yes, that one). The poor kid was already a bright green shapeshifter, but he couldn't save his parents. And then his uncle Galtry took him in. The Patrol took care of Galtry, and Gar wound up Happily Adopted by Rita Farr and Mento...(well, until she got killed, too).
  • The Pre-Crisis version of Superman had him often fixated on the loss of his biological parents and his world with his super-memory of his short time there. The modern version however has no such baggage.
  • Batman


  • The Rescuers: Penny's need for a new family is a recurring point. Mme Medusa is marked as a true villain by her casual cruelty to Penny; she crosses the Moral Event Horizon by telling Penny, "What makes you think anyone would want a homely little girl like you?"
    • That's more of a Kick the Dog moment than a Moral Event Horizon. She crossed the MEH whenever it was that she decided to make a small child dig in a frequently-flooded cave for diamonds.
  • An American Tail: Feivel gets separated from his family, under circumstances leading his parents to assume he's dead. Most of his adventures come from trying to find his parents again.
  • Australia makes a hash of these issues, when a boy who is half-aboriginal has loses his mother, and the characters say that he needs someone to take care of him, and Nicole Kidman's character should do it because she's a woman.
  • Sabine Kleist, 7 years old. The heroine loses her parents in a car crash and comes in the orphanage (the orphanage isn't really bad, but...) She runs away to try and find a new parents - but in the end she realizes this isn't going to happen and returns to the orphanage.
  • All Dogs Go to Heaven features an orphan girl who goes through a very peculiar ordeal; she lives in a junkyard and ends up kidnapped by a pack of talking, gambling dogs. Of course she's the only human who can understand them.
  • Batman: A boy witnesses the death of his parents and revenge becomes his all-consuming purpose. Isn't this orphan ordeal cranked Up to Eleven?
  • Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. This is a dual orphan plot in that a young man (Luke) is raised by "relatives", and tries to avenge the man who "killed his father" as well as seek his own identity. He wishes he wasn't an orphan but after he finds out that Big Bad is his father in the Luke, I Am Your Father scene then he wishes he WERE an orphan.
  • Kung Fu Panda 2 has Po finally realize he was orphaned by the most horrific means, but achieves Inner Peace by remembering how Happily Adopted he was.


  • Jane in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.
  • Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess. Sara's only living parent, her father, dies while she is at Boarding School. Sara never gives up though even after all the crap she goes through.
  • Orphans feature prominently in Charles Dickens' work:
  • Alexander Key's Escape to Witch Mountain begins the day after the death of Granny Malone, the guardian of the two protagonists, Tony and Tia. They're sent to an Orphanage of Fear (which is run as a juvenile home), and begin seriously trying to remember their past before Granny Malone took them in. They run away from the Orphanage of Fear when they are adopted by an Illegal Guardian because Tia remembers that he's not the blood relative he claims to be - he turned them over to Granny Malone in the first place, though neither she nor her brother remembers why.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events. The Baudelaire children bounce from one Illegal Guardian or useless caretaker to the next, and investigate their family's secret past.
  • Major plot point in the first book of the Warchild Series. In it, Jos loses his parents on the opening page. He's then kidnapped along with several other children on the same starship, and gradually loses them too. He doesn't have much time to cope with the loss of his family, since he's also facing abuse and captivity at the hands of a psychopath. But when he escapes said psycho, he has a slew of issues to work out. Much of the book focuses on his emotional need for a surrogate family coupled with his trouble trusting anyone enough to make the connection.
  • While not a complete example of this, honorable mention should go to Harry Potter, who spends a decent amount of time throughout the books looking for a father figure who won't die on him.
  • Ren, Brom, and Ichy in Hannah Tinti's The Good Thief.
  • Harry Dresden is an adult, but the fact that he was orphaned at the age of six (his mother died in childbirth and has father had an aneurysm) is a source of anguish to him, both in itself (he is often lonely due to his lack of a family) and because of the situation it left him in (he was adopted by a man who turned out to be a dark wizard, who trained Harry in a particularly harsh manner, and eventually tried to enslave him and his other adopted child (who was also Harry's lover) when they were in their teens, forcing Harry to kill him). He eventually gets hints that his parents deaths may not have been accidental, and that his mother (also a wizard) ran with a very bad crowd. In later books, it starts to work out, with Harry discovering his mother left her dark allies behind, that he has a brother, and the identity of his mother's killer, allowing him to avenge her.
  • Elaine Michaels in Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld books. Orphaned in a car crash at five, goes through a series of foster families, some of them abusive. And then gets turned into a werewolf.
    • Many of the characters in the series have missing parents, and those that don't sometimes wish they did.
  • Happens to Lyra in Black Dogs, but she is quickly taken under the dog solder, Sadrao's, wing.
  • Sassinak, by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon, in which Space Pirates destroy the title character's home, murders her parents, turns her best friend into a depressed wreck, and makes her their slave. She spends the rest of her life taking revenge setting things right.
  • Maud Flynn in A Drowned Maiden's Hair: A Melodrama by Laura Amy Schlitz.
  • Adoptive families in the works of Agatha Christie tend to be dysfunctional at best- in 'Appointment With Death', Mrs. Boynton is a Complete Monster to her adopted children. Unfortunate Implications abound.
  • Prevalent in F. M. Busby's Rissa Kerguelen series: the heroine and her brother lose their parents very early and are raised, separately, in a "Total Welfare" institution. Their childhoods leave her with issues and him with what can only be described as a subscription. Bran Tregare is not orphaned, but his parents protect him from UET by abandoning him to its clutches—a military academy where the policy is, sometimes literally, "kill or be killed". Zelde M'tana's earliest clear memory is of being part of a band of "Wild Children".
  • This is essentially Kathleen's story in Diana Wynne Jones's Dogsbody. A bit different in that her father is kept apart from her in prison. When he does die during an escape attempt, her situation changes for the worse. She's taken in by relatives before the book begins, but some of them treat her as servant and abuse her emotionally.
  • In Jane of Lantern Hill by L. M. Montgomery, this is a subplot, about Jody.
  • In Sharon Creech's The Wanderer, Sophie is currently Happily Adopted. However, it becomes very clear in flashbacks, that for a few years, she was living in foster families which didn't really cared for her.
  • The German author Antonia Michaelis has two books (The Adopted Room and Secret of 12th Continent) which deal with two inmates of an orphanage. Both lost their parents and are very unhappy about it. in the end, one gets Happily Adopted, while the other manages to find his father
  • Most of the characters in Someone Elses War are Child Soldiers, and thus many of them have to deal with the reality of a world in which they can never go back to their parents. Special mention goes to Otto, who left his destitute parents in order to spare them the expenses of feeding an extra mouth.

Live Action TV

  • While we never see it, Dr. Brennan from Bones did not have a happy time in foster care after her parents mysteriously vanished. It also serves as a Freudian Excuse for her being rather cold and detached.
    • That weirded me out - it seems that on American TV, almost no one has extended families! (Is this because on TV, everyone has always followed the 'one child per family' policy?
      • Any extended family probably couldn't find her as her family was in hiding and she didn't even know her real name.
  • Little House On the Prairie: Several episodes had children becoming orphans and the Ingalls becoming involved (in some way) to help the children grieve and/or find new housing. Prominent examples:
    • The Sanderson children—John Jr., Carl and Alicia—are left parent-less after their mother dies of a long illness. Mr. Edwards and his wife-to-be, Grace Snider, agree to take in the children.
    • Albert Quinn, the street urchin left on the streets of Winoka after his drunken father (a dirt farmer) abandons him. The Ingalls take custody of Albert and legally adopt him, but not until overcoming custody challenge by the boy's father (who comes forward only after learning he could lose his potential farmhand).
    • In 1980, a one-up episode was a re-write of an old Bonanza episode ("A Silent Cry") featured a cranky old man (Dub Taylor as caretaker of the Blind School, where Mary is a teacher) wanting to adopt both a "normal" boy and his mute brother and adoption officials want to separate them).
    • In 1981, Charles and Albert are hauling freight with a young couple and their two children (Jason Bateman and Missy Francis, as James and Cassandra Cooper) when a tragic accident involving the other couple's wagon (the horses became spooked and, in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the runaway wagon, the brakes fail) crashes, killing both parents. The two children—who stay behind with Charles and Albert, and witness everything unfold—go into shock, and the Ingalls agree to take them in ... temporarily, until a suitable family is found that will adopt them. It's thought at first James and Cassandra will be taken to a loving home, but the father proves to be anything but (he whips James when he is unfairly accused of stealing). When the children take refuge at the Ingalls after the whipping incident, and Charles—after visiting with the father, who was out looking for the children—senses that the man is abusive, he and Caroline conclude that, despite their already crowded house, they have a moral obligation to take custody of the children. Both James and Cassandra remain a part of the cast for the 1981-1982 season, until the Ingalls' departure for Burr Oak, Iowa, in the fall of 1982.
    • Later in 1981, the bratty orphan, Nancy, is legally adopted by the Olesens. Nancy claims that she was abandoned by her "loving" mother, but she tells this lie to help her cope with the truth: her birth mother had died while giving birth to her (a condition today known as pre-eclampsia), and with hospital officials unable to find her biological father, she is taken to an orphanage. Of all people, it is Mrs. Olesen—the series villain, who had wanted to adopt Nancy just to spoil—who helps her realize she has people who love her and are willing to give her a stable home.
    • In 1982, Laura and Almonzo (by now, the series two main leads) take in their niece, Jenny (Shannen Doherty, in her first major role). Jenny becomes orphaned when her father dies suddenly of heart disease; her mother had died some years earlier. Jenny is shaken by losing her father and tries suicide, but it is a friend of the Wilders—Jeb Carter, who is Jenny's age—that rescues her from suicide by drowning ... and at the same time, overcome his fear of water and shut up Nancy for good.
    • During the 1982-1983 season, Mr. Edwards (a year after divorcing his wife, due to his alcoholism) is involved in two custody battles. In "The Wild Boy," a mute boy is discovered to be orphaned, although he does have someone—a cruel circus master, who had doped the boy so high he acts like "The Wild Boy -- "taking care" of him, and Edwards rescues him from the circus to give him a stable home. (An episode later in the season has the boy returning home to his loving biological father.) An episode played more for laughs is when Edwards agrees to take care of Blanche the orangutan, after her master dies suddenly.
  • Diff'rent Strokes: The premise (a white millionaire adopting two black boys from Harlem) is set up when the boys' mother dies. (A Backstory explains that father had passed some years earlier.)

Newspaper Comics

  • Little Orphan Annie. Since a stable home life is boring, and there's only so many variations on the plot of thieves trying to steal Daddy Warbuck's fortune, Annie would often be separated from her guardian and resume living on the street.


  • Gunnerkrigg Court. Antimony spends the first several chapters dealing in her own way with the double-whammy of her mum's death and her father's subsequent disappearance. Now she's trying to solve some of the mysteries from the Court's and her own parent's histories.
  • Digger: the hyena Grim Eyes is technically not an orphan at the start, but her mother Blood Eyes was abusive to Grim Eyes and her father Skin Painter. Skin Painter killed Blood Eyes for it, and as punishment his "name was eaten", considered a Fate Worse Than Death by hyenas.

Western Animation

Video Games

  • Fire Emblem just hates orphans. Lucius, after having his father killed by Renault, has his mother die of disease. He is then put in an orphanage where he was tormented and brutally picked on by adults and children alike. After this, he's hired on with the Cornwells, who become sort of a surrogate family to him until they die, too, by committing suicide when their house is attacked. As a result, he has a "sickness of the soul" that he cannot get rid of and that plagues him frequently.
  • Yuna has a horrific time of it, although it's heavily implied at best. Her mother died when a world-killing god-whale named "Sin" wrecked the ship she was in, which left her father so broken that he went to defeat it so nobody else would have to feel that sort of pain. Of course, Yuna then had to go through the next ten years being reminded of her father's sacrifice, which turned out to be futile since Sin just ended up coming back. It leads to Yuna herself undertaking the same journey to kill Sin for good in memory of him.
  • Pilika probably has one of the most horrible childhood ever. Her whole family and village is butchered by Luca, the bloodlusty prince of Highlands Kingdom who didn't hesitate a second to organize the slaughter of a part of his own army and blame the opposing side just to begin a new war, becaming a war orphan and the sole survivor of her village. Later, the same man nearly achieves to cut her in half, while smiling and slaughing. She is saved at the last minute, but becomes mute for most of the game. She is then separated from Jowy, her replacement father, who joins Luca's side (though he has good reasons) and is forced to stay with the hero who ends fighting Jowy (the hero's best friend), in the opposite army. When Luca finally dies and Jowy replaces him as the king of Highlands, the war isn't quite over yet : during a meeting where both sides should have signed a peace treaty, she is being used by Shu, the hero's strategist, as a human shield in order to save the hero's hide (turns out the peace treaty was a trap set up by Jowy), abandonning her to the enemy side (which is, in fact, a good thing since Jowy will take care of her, and it's her reunion with Jowy which grants her speech back). In the end, when Highlands is losing the war, she is sent to Harmonia, a distant country, by Jowy along with Jillia, Luca's sister, in order to survive and starts a new life, Jowy staying behind. Yes, she has to leave forever her only parental figure remaining, and to flee with the sister of her parent's murderer (to Jillia's defense, she's not crazy like her brother). You can't help but to feel sorry for her.
  • Rule of Rose all the way. There's a reason why the narration never fails to refer to Jennifer as the "poor, unlucky girl", and the other orphans aren't much better; at least Clara, the "Frightened Princess" is probably actually significantly worse off, but she isn't the focus of the story.
  • Colonist Commander Shepard watched batarian pirates destroy his/her home town shortly after s/he turned sixteen. Not only did Shepard's parents die, but everyone except Shepard who wasn't killed was Made a Slave as they were dragged off. Not the happy origin, clearly.
    • He/She then went on to join the military for revenge, and watch as him/her entire squad was killed off by a thresher maw. She is later forced to work for the organization that orchestrated the event. After getting killed and put through trans-human experiments.