While working on a bunch of different things this morning, I stumbled upon this interesting idea about the nature of relationships and storytelling. At first I wanted to use the idea as a character-defining concept, but as I thought about it, more and greater applications came to mind.
I want to call this my “Mutable Relationships Narrative Hypothesis.”
Functionally, there are five sorts of relationships that exist when you consider an individual. You have their relationship originators (which is always two), and any absence or replacement of the relationship originators. We can consider human reproduction the ideal example in this case: a child will always have two parents.
Consider then, if a (presumed normal, mortal human child) child has two parents and either of those parents is displaced, the child (representing the individual) must either replace the parent or suffer the absence of the displaced parent.
A. Both parents present
B. One parent absent
C. Both parents absent
D. One parent replaced
E. Both parents replaced
Now, a parent may be functionally “replaced” by any influence, be it a sibling or other relation, an animal companion of some sort, or potentially even a habitual activity. Every child then has one possible starting point (both parents present) and five possible “end” points (their life ending in the initial state or any of the other four).
Conflict then, is any time a relationship (involving first the individual, and then two separate “origin” points) is threatened with change. Whether the change comes to fruition is a matter of suspense. Does the individual succeed in averting the change (resolving the conflict) without deviating from their starting point?
You could then call any state beyond the initial one a “drama point,” where the character may derive some sort of suspense without taking any time to set up. A character with no parents (functionally an orphan) is initially a more dramatic personage than a character with two living parents.
The author must then establish tension, drama, or suspense without falling back on this – which I’ll say right now is more difficult than making the character an orphan. First of all, you have three characters to create, and relationships to establish between all three of them (between mother and father, parents and child, etc).
When in doubt, don’t make orphans of your characters unless you’re actually going to make family some point of importance. Leave the question of their parents open as long as possible (though the age of a character might preclude this) because it’s easier to leave things up in the air than define them “impossibly.”
Once you kill off Uncle Ben, you can’t bring him back.