Using Archetypes: The Orphan

The Orphan is a personality archetype that reflects unmet needs and the desire for fulfillment and safety. They are "wise" and world-weary, but are prone to cynicism and despair. When the Orphan feels, it is feeling born in suffering that bears no joy, unless they are able to overcome the darker aspects of their nature.


For those of us just seeing this work for the first time, I'm starting a series on using Pearson's personality archetypes (affiliate link) in storytelling. This profile, of the Orphan, is the second of twelve entries in this series, following the Destroyer. You might also be interested in my earlier series on the Hero and the Nemesis.

If you just want a quick recap or introduction, here's the gist: archetypes are recurring patterns that have proven to be pretty universal. They're cognitive schemes that allow us to examine behavior and narratives in light of a coherent whole. That makes them valuable tools to audiences and storytellers, since they make stories authentic and lend them meaning.

Understanding the Orphan

When I teach archetypes, I typically start with the Innocent and the Orphan. The Innocent is the bright-eyed idealist, and it's pretty easy to be enamored with them. They're pure, hopeful, and really too good for this world, but that's part of their appeal.

Above all, the Innocent is immediately obvious as a heroic character: they're willing to hope for a grand future.

Take that and turn it on its head, and you've got the Orphan. At a glance, they're pretty much the losers in any story. They're the "all singing, all dancing crap of the world" from Fight Club. At best tragic, sometimes comic, and often villainous, the immediate conception of Orphans is as side-characters.

But the Orphan can be powerfully heroic, because of their suffering.

The Orphan learns self-reliance. Nobody else looks out for them, so they have to do it themselves.

The Orphan as Hero

What makes the Orphan so spectacular is that they don't have grand schemes, but they desire (if they do not fall to the despair and victimhood of their Shadow) to join together in solidarity with others and seek safety.

When I think of the Orphan, I also think of Victor Frankl's autobiographical section of Man's Search for Meaning, written about his experiences as a prisoner during the Holocaust. His focus on the nobility and dignity that can be maintained even when everything else is taken strikes me as an example of the Orphan archetype reaching its pinnacle, with his role as a psychiatrist helping him help other inmates (albeit with only some small fruits in comparison to the great horrors around him).

Orphans are members of groups. They don't necessarily respect authority–and they are surely not going to ever rely on it–but they do believe in the pursuit of safety and security. In fact, one of the key traits of the Orphan is that they are likely to rebel, rejecting authority because they believe it is both inherently flawed and holds them and their lot in contempt. The Orphan resents evil, even to the point of hating it and the icons that they associate with it, because they have felt its harm first-hand.

It is important to remember that this is often a matter of practical survival. The Orphan makes expectations about the world that are rooted firmly in the realm of the realistic, and their goals are strictly practical.

Orphans work hard. They're wary and mistrust outsiders, but in doing so they can serve as watchmen in their community, keeping an eye out for trouble and being the voice of reason when everyone else goes mad with images of glory.

The Tragic Orphan

Of all the archetypes, the Orphan is interesting in the number of ways that it falls. The Orphan has more opportunities for moral and psychological failure than other archetypes, though it is often less dangerous to those around it. I theorize that what we consider the Orphan could actually be further broken into two separate archetypes, based on the fact that it often seems to have two Shadows, but that's a topic for later.

The Predator

The Predator is the first off-shoot of the Orphan. Orphans rebel. Predators revel in riot and havoc. Jordan Peterson often uses the story of Pinocchio to illustrate the human capacity for this sort of predatory behavior. The lost children who are in Stromboli's entourage sell Pinnochio to Stromboli, victimizing their own even as they themselves are victims.

Illustration from a French manuscript of Pinocchio, by Carlo Chiostri and A. Bongini

The Predator side of the Orphan is tragic because it perpetuates the cycle of suffering. It embodies the sadism and the dysfunction of rebellion without consideration for its effects.

The other consequence for the Predator is that they often find themselves coming to the realization that they are one of the evils in the wrong that they hate and resent.

The Victim

The alternative fallen Orphan is the Victim. Where the Predator lashes out, the Victim lashes in. They erode their own conception of their worth and agency, viewing themselves as a passive recipient of the harms they suffer at the hands of society. The Victim is ripe for exploitation, and even if they are not exploited they pursue a sort of false martyrdom, a masochistic approach to the world and relationships that ends with their own destruction.

In a villainous sense, the Victim may use their position to exploit others. In a tragic sense, they may burden them. The Victim is also common in the role of the anti-hero, when they lack the strength to become a true Hero, but are forced onto the Hero's Journey nonetheless (or deceive themselves into attempting the trials they are going to fail; the Orphan of all archetypes cannot fall prey to others in this matter).

The Victim has no trust, no hope, and no future. They can recover, but only by undergoing a paradigm shift.

The Orphan in Star Wars

So, in the interest of full confession, when I was a child I wanted to grow up to be Harrison Ford. Of all the roles I knew him for, however, the one that always stuck with me was Han Solo, in Star Wars.

Han Solo is the epitome of the Orphan archetype. Even his name, Solo, indicates a past of rejection and failure. Some of his old back-story is non-canon and up in the air pending the new re-imagining of the universe, but when we meet him we see that he is a smuggler with a firm distrust of the Resistance (Leia is the Innocent archetype, and the two go together like water and oil when they first meet).

All that he cares about are two things: paying off his debts, and his best friend Chewbacca, who turns out to be in fairly similar straits to Han (alone in the world, running from the authorities, dubious concern about the law). They get along fantastically, and I think they make a great duo for storytelling and exploits, but that's not the point.

The point is that Han shows us how the Orphan can succeed. Confronted with the horrible power of the Empire, he joins the Rebellion (in a semi-official capacity) to survive. He builds connections with others, like Luke, Chewbacca, and Leia not because he wants some grandiose vision to come to pass, but because they have to. He's driven by need.
But he's also a very heroic figure. Although he initially seems villainous, or at least untrustworthy, he is not motivated by fear, disgust, resentment, or a notion of his own victimhood.

Instead, he acknowledges his assertions about the world without denying them. He sees that the universe is a place where good people suffer, and he starts doing little things to help end that suffering. Eventually he blossoms into a full-blown hero, able to make sacrifices and form bonds with others, replacing the structures he hated with social ties and connections.

Using the Orphan in Storytelling

Injustice is the rallying call of the Orphan. They are born when the world destroys their hopes. To use the Orphan, give them a cause.

The Orphan is an incarnation of the realization that the world is filled with evil–Shadow–that goes beyond simple reaction to stimuli, the notion that there are those who consciously seek to do harm for their own self-gratification.

The Orphan suffers. They're great as characters who we can live vicariously in, because all of us suffer. Jordan Peterson frequently says that "life is tragic" and this is true for everyone. We all suffer a loss at some point that we don't deserve. Not every setback and chastisement is deserved.

And the Orphan needs to overcome more than a little bit of that unfair punishment. They make great heroes because they are forced to confront cynicism, masochism, and sadism. They desire fundamentally to transcend the world around them, being something better, a bastion in a world of sin. They don't put this in such lofty language. For them, a fireplace, a meal, a roof will suffice. One fewer member of the flock vanishing into the night is success for the Orphan.

That's noble. That's inspiring on an incredible level. Even in the light of doubt, often in the face of despair, the Orphan continues to fight. They don't even always believe they will succeed. The heroic Orphan can illustrate great triumph.
Villainous Orphans lose that urge to protect others. They care only about themselves, either in the pursuit of apotheosis of their suffering via death or addiction, or the infliction of their suffering on others in twisted sadism.

Show the Orphan in their moments of weakness, when the world hits them hard. Their mutual relationships with others will serve as their salvation, bring meaning into their lives. They survive to help others survive. They survive because others, who they have given up hope of waiting for, save them.

Using the Orphan in Games

The Orphan is meaningful and psychologically deep. We love the Orphan because they're the under-dog. We want them to succeed because even though they don't have the hope of the Innocent, they are no less pure. They are also not conceited like some of the other archetypes wind up being: they want nothing more than to be free from evil, which is a much greater demand than they realize.

To make an Orphan archetype work, you need two things:

  • A fundamental injustice for them to rebel against.
  • Some person, institution, or group they can connect to, even hesitantly and unwillingly.

Ironically, the Orphan is best shown when they can connect to some ideal: they do not pursue it as their own, but without some shining light they can never break beyond living for the next dawn.

The Orphan fits well in pretty much any setting or role, so long as the world around them has injustice. If your world doesn't have some injustice in its major conflicts, then the Orphan is likely not going to show up as a full-featured archetype, or they'll seem out of place.

Wrapping Up

The Orphan is lost, cold, and lonely even in a crowd. They have lost everything, and when they gain it again they have a hard time letting go. They are outcasts, but also pursue social bonds; rebels in need of order.

The purpose of the Orphan is to illustrate how to survive. Where the Innocent shows us lofty ideals, and teaches us how to dream, the Orphan gives us a path for our waking hours, teaching us how to make decisions when we need to consider the costs they will have.


Interesting and well written article. I look forward to reading more of your work. I especially liked how you used Han Solo as an example of the heroic orphan archetype. :)

Well, I try to do an article a day, so hopefully you'll see some more good stuff up here soon. There are still 10 of Pearson's archetypes left, and from there I hope to move into some other forms of storytelling via games.