Please join us to discuss everything literary (especially kid literary): good books, the writing life, the people and businesses who create books, controversies in book world, what's good to snack on while reading and writing, and anything else bookish. We welcome your thoughts.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

If I do away with Mom and Dad, and my character is an orphan...

By Kitty Griffin


What do all of these children have in common? They’re orphans in works of fiction. When writing, sometimes it’s convenient to do away with Mom and Dad.

How many of these stories are realistic when dealing with the subject of adoption? You’ll have to be the judge of that. Would an aunt and uncle be as cruel and uncaring as the Dursley family was to Harry Potter?

But bad things do happen to children who are adopted. And that’s what I want to talk about.

Do you know someone who was adopted? How would you know unless, say, the person is of one race and the adopting parents are another? Otherwise, really, there’s no way to tell. It’s not something most of us who were adopted talk about.

Right. I said us. I was adopted.

So, when you write, and you decide that for one reason or another, you want to make your character an orphan, make sure you do your due diligence on understanding some of the obstacles that an adopted person faces. I highly recommend the movie, “Philomena” which tells the true story of an Irish woman’s determination to find the son taken (stolen) from her by nuns. It shows the mother’s yearning to find the truth, as well as her son’s attempts to find his mother. Because when you do a story where the mother gives up the child (as opposed to one where  the parents die) it’s going to cast a different light on your character. I promise you this, I’ve not met one adopted person who hasn’t been determined to find out more about their past.

The other thing I’ve learned, and this one was a very powerful lesson, was that most mothers who relinquish their children want to know what happened to them. Until I did a newspaper story on “The Other Mother’s Day,” a story where I interviewed women who’d given up their children. My view of a mother that would do this was one where I pictured a drunk, an addict, a mentally defective woman, or a criminal woman. What I found were women who never forgot their child’s birthday. It stunned me. I had to re-evaluate.

What stirred these feelings was a story I found in the paper today—“Adoptee from South Korea faces deportation from US.”
When people adopt internationally, if they don’t take care of getting citizenship for the child, when that child grows up it can come as quite a shock to find out that they can be deported.

Can you imagine? If he’s sent back to Korea he doesn’t know the language. He doesn’t know the culture. He suffered at the hands of abusive foster parents who are now in prison for what they did to the children they had and the children they adopted.

See what I mean about really looking into things should you decide to make your character an orphan, or a ward of the state?

I point this out not as an indictment against adoption, but rather to show how many things there are than could complicate your story. People often have this rosy image of adoption. Oh, poor little baby needs a home. Loving parents just waiting for a baby. Everyone is happy. No. Adoption is like anything else we face in life, a struggle. In my case, the people who adopted me didn’t have a clue as to how to deal with me. To this day I don’t know why they adopted me. They were older parents with a teen-age boy and my adoptive mother put down on the form, “We think our son could use a playmate.” I was a three-year-old girl. We won’t get into that. Sigh.

All I ask is that you think things through and do a bit of research. You might discover ways to enrich your story and power your character by giving them more obstacles. Or you might find that, hey, a real mom and dad would be more realistic.

Just give it some thought.


  1. Kitty, This was so interesting-- and moving. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

    1. As I said, seeing that this man who was abused is being returned to Korea gave me pause. Adoption is often framed as a win win, when in reality there are some serious issues. Thank you for commenting.