"But my dad had no grandparents. Not a single cousin. I've never met another Wayne in Gotham ever. Are we dealing with generations of only childs marrying other only childs, with grandparent suicide pacts?"
For a lot of people, their grandparents are a fairly prominent feature in their lives, at least when they're young. With medical science advancing and more elderly people overcoming previous aversions to doctors and medication, grandparents being around well into people's adulthoods is fairly common these days. Four-generation families are also fairly common, and there are uncommon cases of five-generation families, as well as sporadic cases of six-generation families.
So where are they in most works of fiction?
Sure, a fair number of sitcoms will have them pop up at least from time to time, especially when their grandchildren are youngsters (either the main characters or sons and daughters of the main characters). But in more dramatic TV series and movies, especially action, you can expect grandparents to not only be utterly absent, but the very concept never even mentioned.
This is especially telling in a shared universe setting where parental death is a common part of the backstory for the characters. They may wind up being raised by aunts, uncles, butlers, random rich people or wolves, or wind up in an orphanage. Which, hey, some people's grandparents just didn't live long enough to be a factor in this... but when you've got over 20 or so heroes with this in their backstory, and not one of them had one out of four grandparents live, it starts to become obvious as a World of No Grandparents.
The only conclusion one can draw from this is that apparently that particular generation gave birth to the hero's parents and, their purpose fulfilled, promptly croaked.
This trope is often just the most obvious symptom of a world where the main character apparently has absolutely no relatives other than his or her parents, sort of the exact opposite of a Tangled Family Tree. While it's possible that the hero might not have had aunts, uncles, cousins and so on, his or her parents had to come from somewhere. But these are not only never seen, but they're never mentioned; if ancestors beyond their parents are brought up, it's usually either ancient ones or at least a great-grandparent. This can also be a side effect of the Competence Zone; grandparents are seen as providing little of interest for the main characters.
This will often be seen in older franchises. The difference isn't just lower life expectancy in previous centuries, though; the frequency and means of immigration in the pre-jet era meant that many children born before 1940 never had the chance to meet their grandparents. When such franchises are updated and rebooted, the lack of family is much more out of place.
For the one-less-generation removed version of this trope, see Parental Abandonment. Compare Only Child Syndrome. A World Of No Parents is a Teenage Wasteland.
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Anime and Manga
After both of Naruto's parents die on the day of his birth, no one steps up to raise him. Not only is neither family ever mentioned, but Jiraiya doesn't recall that he is Naruto's godfather until the moments before his death! There are minor characters Raised by Grandparents, even when it is illogical or inconvenient, but this seems to be because of Only Child Syndrome. In some cases the lack more distant relations and even siblings can be explained by the fact that in the last two decades, Konoha has endured two major wars, a giant demon attacking it, two invasions, and several minor conflicts, including the genocide of an entire clan. Mass casualty events seem common enough that they put a major dent into the population. It's suggested that one reason nigh everybody in the village treated Naruto as though he were the Nine Tailed Fox was that everybody in the village knew someone who was killed in the attack.
Yusuke and Kurama on YuYu Hakusho both have just their mothers. Atsuko had Yusuke at fourteen and there's every chance she was either already an orphan or disowned on the spot; his father is conspicuously absent. Shiori seems to have had her son late in life, but although her husband is dead it's still surprising that neither her parents nor his appear when she's dying. Kuwabara's parents seem to be just straight-up neglectful, and Hiei's case is justified.
In Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, the only people who are grandparents in the series are the characters who become grandparents when their children have children of their own during the course of the story (such as the Takamachis and Lindy). Teana lives with her brother after her parents die, and then lives alone after her brother dies.
In Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, Jun and Jinpei are said to have been living on the street when they were adopted by Nambu. Jinpei was abandoned as a baby; no explanation was given for Jun. Subverted in Ryu's case, since his father (and brother) are still alive, but his grandparents are not seen or mentioned. Averted in Joe's case, since his grandparents would have been told he was dead (long story). Subverted in Ken's, where his father seems to have straight up given custody of Ken to Nambu (even though his mother was alive at the time...) but no grandparents are ever mentioned.
Many of the young Fairy Tail members are orphaned and have more or less been adopted by the guild with the older members acting as mother/father/grandparent figures. Examples are Gray, Juvia, Lucy (though she did have one parent left when she joined Fairy Tail), the Strauss siblings and probably Natsu, Erza and Wendy. And yet none of these have ever had any single grandparent mentioned. The only character in the series who for sure has a grandparent is Laxus, and he isn't orphaned (though his father is evil, but Laxus only realized this when he himself did a Heel-Face Turn and came to see Fairy Tail as his "true" family).
The DCU is particularly bad about this, considering the sheer number of heroes who can include "orphaned at an early age" as part of their origin.
Bruce Wayne, orphaned at age 8. Despite being the heir of one of the oldest and most prominent families in Gotham (and possibly America), he is raised by his butler. Possibly justified by the fact that Alfred was more or less considered family. In Golden and Silver Age comics, Bruce was raised by a relative, his uncle Philip Wayne; Alfred only raised him in modern comics.
Some other Waynes have appeared over the years including, believe it or not, Bruce's older brother. Where has he been all these years? In a coma, apparently. The ghost hero Deadman actually took over his body for a while. He doesn't seem to exist Post-Crisis, however. Also, Owlman, Batman's Evil Counterpart from a parallel universe, was Bruce's older brother rather than al alternate version of him.
Owlman is canon again as of the New52.
It's implied that the modern Batwoman Kate Kane may be a cousin, since Bruce's mother's maiden name was Kane, but their exact relationship is unclear and it's never been discussed on panel.
Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow. (Though he was always sort of Batman... WITH ARROWS! in his early days anyway.) Parents died in an animal attack on safari. Apparently raised by a business associate of his father.
Practically every Robin ever. Dick Grayson's parents (and sometimes a sibling, depending on the version) fall to their death. The person that takes him in? A millionaire he'd never met before. This trope is recognized to such an extent in-universe that when someone did show up claiming to be one of Dick's relatives, everyone immediately disbelieved him outright.
A real uncle did turn up and successfully sue for custody fairly early in the comics' run—that is, in the forties. Of course, he was actually hoping to get Bruce to pay him a million dollars to get Dick back, and wound up trying to murder Batman and getting sent to jail. Unlike supervillains, he never appeared again, nor did his wife.
Robin does have an uncle in the comic based on Young Justice. The problem is that he's paralyzed due to the "accident" that killed Dick's parents, aunt, and cousin, and can't take care of him. Dick mentions in the same flashback that both of his grandfathers died before he was born. On The Adventures of Superman, Bruce is taking care of Robin on Robin's father's request. Moreover, it's revealed that Robin has an estranged grandfather.
For a time in the Pre Crisis days, Dick had his Aunt Harriet Cooper. She was later used in the TV show.
Jason Todd's father died, and again Bruce Wayne takes in some random orphan he'd never met before. (Oh well, if Fate can get away with it...)
When Tim Drake's father died... well, you can see the pattern here. Since the Drakes were apparently almost as well known a family as the Waynes, this adds an extra notch of "Huh?" to the whole thing.
Though Superman's parents were rebooted back to life after the Golden/Silver age, their parents are never really mentioned. This trope was (possibly unintentionally) lampshaded when, in Smallville, Clark responded to mention of Martha's father with a startled look and saying "My grandfather?" in a tone that clearly said, "I have one?!" This makes sense with versions of Superman that were adopted by already aging Kents.
Marvel Comics is pretty bad about this, too, though since it's a slightly less common origin there (slightly), it's not quite as glaring.
Spiderman: Peter Parker's parents died in a plane crash, and he's raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, without much mention of any other family. (Though oddly, in the comic his aunt and uncle look more like his grandparents, the Fridge Logic of which has become more obvious to people in recent years.)
Peter's father was born when Ben was already an adult, so one can assume Peter's paternal grandparents would be too old. But no explination for Peter's mother's side.
Since many X-Men origin stories revolve around parents abandoning their mutant children, its assumed that the no one else in the kid's family would want a fish-boy/spiked/avalanche-making teenager. Averted (eventually), at least in one case. After Cyclops' parents are apparently killed (but actually kidnapped by aliens) he spends years convinced he's an orphan. Eventually it's revealed that his father's parents are still alive (so is his father, but he's busy having a mid-life crisis being a Space Pirate), and they become a significant part of his life.
Cyclops: I have grandparents?!?
Corsair: Most everyone does.
In the Daredevil movie, Matt Murdock's father dies, and he's immediately bundled off to an orphanage. No mention of his father's or mother's parents. (The comic doesn't have them either, but Matt is over eighteen at the time, so it's a less obvious omission.) It's implied in the Battlin' Jack Murdock mini that his mother's father didn't approve of her relationship with Jack Murdock, so she abandoned Matt and left to become a nun. Matt's maternal family may not even know he exists, and if they do, they may not care.
Harry Potter was born when his parents were 20 and shortly afterwards was left with only one surviving family member in his Aunt Petunia. Apparently all four of his grandparents had died, and Word of God was that James' parents specifically were quite old when they had him, and get brief mention as Sirius refers to James' parents taking him in when he ran away, and we get about a sentence mention of Lily's parents reaction to Platform Nine and Three Quarters.
Neville Longbottom is the only character known to have a living grandparent. Teddy Lupin's maternal grandmother raised him after Remus and Tonks were killed in Battle of Hogwarts.
Draco actually had a living great-grandfather until he was ten. Pollux Black (Narcissa's paternal grandfather) was alive until 1990. Pollux's wife Irma Crabbe might also have been alive during Draco's childhood as well.
An exception is also Harry's godchild Ted Lupin who grows up with his grandmother Andromeda because he is orphaned shortly after his birth. However, his grandmother is probably his only living relative since his maternal grandfather (Tonks's father) dies some time before his birth. Lupin doesn't seem to have living parents (who would be Ted's paternal grandparents), but it has neither been confirmed or dismissed.
Its been confirmed on Pottermore that Remus' mother Hope died sometime before Voldemort attacked the Potters. No confirmation on his father Lyall though.
In A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaire orphans are raised by absurdly distant relatives (on the order of "fourth cousin three times removed") and later by people who aren't relatives at all, as if their grandparents or other relatively close relatives are simply not present. (Though in the book, Mr. Poe says that the children will be raised by whoever is most "convenient", and Count Olaf is simply the only "relative" of the children in the city, while in the movie, he explains that the children will stay with their "closest living relative", which he takes far more literally than probably intended, as Klaus starts to protest.) The movie gives this a Lampshade Hanging, in which Klaus observes that "none of our relatives are related to us".
As the series progresses it becomes apparent that all the guardians (or at least the first few) were part of VFD, and it's implied that the orphans' parents specifically intended for the children to stay with members of the group. Unfortunately, they didn't count on the schism.
Especially bad in Artemis Fowl, where fairies live for hundreds of years (usually over 1000) and Holly Short is stated in the first book to be somewhere in her eighties. So not only should her grandparents be alive, but her great-grandparents, her great-great-grandparents, and possibly her great-great-great-grandparents.
Of course, Holly states she lost her father when she is barely 60. It's not said why. Maybe he was hundreds of years old already at her birth, or died in an accident. Her mother died not long after she graduated from the academy from an occupational hazard.
We find out in the last book that the Fairies suffered a devastating magical disease recently in their history. That may explain why, although the natural lifespan of fairies is long, there are few very old ones named. Also, despite (or because of) their long lifespans fairies reproduce at a slower rate than humans do, so it's likely that there are only three or four living generations at a time anyway.
To some extent, Star Wars averts this. Okay, there's a definite death toll, but the foster families of Luke and Leia have other members, and parts of their mother's family remain in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Padme's parents died long before their grandkids could meet them, but she had sisters who lived. Uncle Owen's father died, and he had an uncle who died as a child. Aunt Beru had at least two siblings, Dama and Haro. Leia had a large profile of aunts and an extended adoptive family, all of whom died on Alderaan. None of the survivors have particularly prominent roles in the Expanded Universe, but Haro was killed by Imperials and Dama once helped Han and Leia as they passed through her part of Tatooine.
Tash and Arranda of Galaxy of Fear were mentioned to have an extensive family network, but... they, too, were on Alderaan. One of their aunts had married the brother of an alien who was offworld at the time and took them in, but if this uncle had any other family is never explained.
Despite the large amounts of characters and the entire world set up in the Hunger Games only three grandparents are ever mentioned: Greasy Sae, President Snow and Mrs. Everdeen, who may not even be alive when her grandchildren are born. It can leave you wondering over things like why Katniss' grandparents didn't help them out after the death of her father (Are they dead too? Did they disown their daughter to the point of not caring if she and their granddaughters starve to death?) and if there's anybody left alive related by blood to Peeta at the end of the war. Also feels like a bit of a missed opportunity in that the book explores what parents feel like during the reaping but no mention is ever made to grandparents, who are essentially going through the same thing they did with their own kids only now for the second time around.
According to FanonHaymitch Abernathy is the honorary grandfather of Katniss and Peeta's children. Which is not unlikely, especially since both biological grandfathers are dead.
Notably, the Stark children not only lack living grandparents (their paternal grandfather died shortly before Robert's Rebellion, their maternal grandfather of natural causes during the War of Five Kings, and their maternal grandmother due to Death by Childbirth way before the series starts. Only their paternal grandmother is unaccounted for) but also aunts, uncles, and cousins more closely related than the centuries-distant Karstarks. This causes succession problems when things start to go to hell.
Averted by Joffrey Baratheon, whose maternal grandfather Tywin Lannister is a major character and outlives his grandson, but not by much.
The Targaryen dynasty was historically kept relatively small thanks to periodic succession crises that occasionally involved civil war or assassination and their habit of incestuous marriages. It's said that "too many dragons can be as troublesome as too few," so this may have been partially intentional as well. Currently there's only one confirmed member left, with no living parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.
Massively averted by the Freys: Lord Walder Frey has a veritable army of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and bastards, grandbastards, and great-grandbastards. He's north of ninety and not looking likely to kick off any time soon.
Ramsay Bolton has no living grandparents, and his father Roose has no known granchildren.
Ditto the Greyjoys, who have only two living generations (Euron / Victarion / Aeron's and Theon / Asha's).
Live Action TV
As to be expected with their Kill 'em All fetish, Supernatural has left the boys with no family whatsoever. It's been revealed that, somehow, all of their mother's family and friends were killed. Time Travel lets the boys' mother's parents show up, and we learn about their personalities and lives. However, we also get to see them die.
The sixth season reveals that some of their more distant relatives are still alive and their maternal grandfather has been resurrected. What happened to John's side of the family is less clear. (Perhaps the whole Hunter lifestyle made John lose touch with them even more completely than you'd expect? Perhaps Azazel saw to it that they died?)
In the eighth season, we get to meet John's father, actually, who was sent to the future when John was still a child and therefore John lived and died believing his father had bailed on him.
Averted in Stargate SG-1 by Col. Cameron Mitchell. He was raised (in part if not in whole) by his Bible-thumping grandmother, whom he often quotes.
There's also Daniel's "insane" (his words) maternal grandfather Nicholas Ballard in the episode "Crystal Skull". He still didn't help raise Daniel after his parents were killed, though, being too busy with archaeology (something which Daniel always resented).
On The Vampire Diaries, despite the fact that Elena's parents are all dead and Matt has been abandoned by his mother, we never see (or hear any mention of) their grandparents. The only grandparent that has been shown is Bonnie's grandmother, who dies.
Massively averted in Charmed, where we start with the Charmed Ones' grandmother dying and end up with them teaching their own grandkids magic.
On Glee when Quinn's parents disown her she is left homeless with no mention of why her grandparents are not an option. She lives with her boyfriend, then the father of her baby, and then just a new friend from school rather than any family members. Also in season 2 when Kurt's father is unconscious and in the hospital, only Kurt's teachers seem to be able to provide the role of surrogate guardian. His mother died but what about 1 of her parents or 1 of Burt's parents remaining alive and interested in either the well-being of Burt himself or Kurt? It seems particularly odd that these kids live in a world of no grandparents. The only two grandparents ever mentioned on the show are Santana's abuela and Puck's nana. We don't know whether these women are Santana's & Puck's maternal or paternal grandmothers nor if each of the kids' other 3 grandparents are alive or not.
Chuck is another good example of this. Ellie & Chuck are both abandoned by their parents at too young of an age, and grandparents (or aunts or uncles) are never brought up even in passing.
Gossip Girl: CeCe (Lily's mother) is the single grandparent on the show, grandparent to both Eric and Serena... but some kids who might need a grandmother more might be Nate who was truly homeless and abandoned by his parents in season 2, or Chuck who was officially orphaned, also in season 2. They act like these boys have no other family members who might possibly be alive, and the idea of grandparents is ignored for the sake of, presumably, better drama - it is more dramatic to truly be alone in the world.
Veronica Mars Not once are grandparents brought up on this show, as far as I can remember. In especially Logan's case, a grandparent as a guardian might have been helpful especially starting in season 2. But it'd be interesting if Veronica maybe had some grandparents too, etc. Many characters this might have been applicable to.
Averted since Booth was successfully raised by his grandfather in the absence of his parents.
Zig-zagged due to inconsistency in Brennan's case. At one point, it was said that her grandfather got her out of the foster system after her parents changed their names and disappeared, while at another point she claimed to have never met her grandparents.
Smallville: Despite the fact that almost every character has family issues on this show, grandparents are not brought up. Lex could've used a kind grandparent in his life to counteract Lionel's toxic presence after his mother's death... Lana's Aunt Nell was there for her but eventually left town and Lana could have also used one... even the idea of Clark having a living grandparent might have proved interesting. Hiram is mentioned. But...
Zig-zagged in Downton Abbey. The Crowley daughters have both their maternal and paternal grandmothers and, while their paternal grandmother is a strong presence in their lives due to popping in and out frequently, they still see their maternal grandmother every so often. On the other hand, both of their grandfathers are dead. Also zig-zagged with Mary and Sybil's children. George has both his grandmothers and his maternal grandfather, but his paternal grandfather is dead. We don't know if Tom's parents are still alive, but if they are, they'd still be in Ireland and not likely to show up any time soon.
Zig-zagged in Call the Midwife. While the mothers-to-be don't always have their own mothers with them (which often makes sense given that most of the women either moved away from their families or are otherwise in living conditions that aren't kind to the elderly), several episodes do emphasize the importance of a pregnant woman having her mother's presence to guide her through childbirth. One episode has a Jewish woman's mother living with her and her husband and another has a woman whose abusive husband keeps her and their children from seeing her mother. (when the woman and her husband are jailed for child neglect, their children are put in the care of their grandmother.) A later season also makes much of Chummy's mother visiting to see her grandchild, showing the differences between Chummy's upper-class mother and Chummy herself in how they think a child should be raised.
Mythology and Religion
The Bible, Book of Exodus: After wandering the desert for 40 years, only two people over the age of 20 when those 40 years started made it to The Promised Land—Joshua, son of Nun and Caleb, son of Jephunneh. Not even Moses was allowed to enter (though he was allowed to see it). This was intentional by God, thanks to all that kvetching the older generations did.
Completely averted with halflings in Dungeons & Dragons, who are mentioned to, when meeting another of their species, trace their respective family trees back as far as they can remember, hoping to see if they're related. Taken almost to the point of parody by kender in the Dragonlance setting. The setting's resident halflings, a common kender greeting ritual when meeting one another is to walk back their own ancestry back to Uncle Trapspringer, a kender mythical figure. Thus, by kender logic, all kender are extremely distantly related and thus treat one another like long-lost brothers. This is most likely based on Hobbits from Lord of the Rings who put huge emphasis on family and will often refer to each other by how they are related. Most famously, Bilbo and Frodo's are first and second cousin, once removed either way.
This is why there's a case of Nephewism in the Another Code games. Sayoko's parents are implied to still be living in Japan, making it implausible for them to raise Ashley, while Richard's parents are mentioned as having died in a plane crash in his journal entries in the first game.
Apparently Trucy Wright-nee-Gramarye has no known relatives on either side of her family, which allows her to be taken in by a disbarred bachelor.
The same appears to be true for Miles Edgeworth, which allows him to be taken in by an Amoral Attorney from Germany.
On the other hand, there's Kay Faraday who goes to live with her mother's family after her father is killed.
Final Fantasy X. All but one of the main party members is an orphan (Rikku is the only one with a parent still alive, and she's still missing a mother) and none of them mention any grandparents. A Justified Trope with Sin kicking around.
Justified in Tales of the Questor. In spite of the fact that Word of God (and extra material published in the archival CDs) indicate that Racconans have an average lifespan of 250 years, we never see Quentyn's grandparents, great grandparents, etc. However it has been revealed that a rather lethal plague had swept through Antillia about 100 years ago, killing off many of the very young and very old, as well as savagely pruning the otherwise large family trees one would expect from such a long-lived species.
Darkwing Duck: Gosalyn's grandfather was murdered shortly after her parents died, getting her sent to an orphanage until the Diabolical Mastermind who ordered the hit on said grandfather came looking for her. Hence how she ended up adopted by The Hero.
All the parents of the cast of Danny Phantom are present and accounted for, but only one grandparent has ever shown in the series: Sam's grandma. Danny did mention his "Grandpa Fenton" in one episode.
Averted in The Land Before Time. After Littlefoot's mother dies, his grandparents raise him from that point onwards. Although there is no mention of his paternal grandparents, or the grandparents of any of his friends.
Littlefoot's father is shown to be part of a migratory herd of Longnecks (Apatosaur/Brachiosaur) so it's not impossible that the rest of his father's family is also constantly on the move.
In the DCAU Batman series, the circus people offer to take Dick in; Gordon comments on the boy not having any (blood) family. But since Dick saw the guy who sabotaged the trapeze and caused his parents' deaths, Dick is a material witness. The combined needing him available (they didn't know it would take ten years to catch the guy) and the need to protect him explains why Bruce obtained physical (and apparently legal) custody of the boy.
Static and Gear are both of an age where'd you'd expect their grandparents to still be around. But even in the episode where Static teams up with Soul Powerwhile working at a senior citizen home, we never see them.
The Zeta Project: When Ro finally met her brother, he mentioned about having briefly lived with grandparents. When she asked what became of them, he made a solemn face and told her they were old. The sad meaning of the statement was not lost.
Noticeably averted in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Granny Smith (grandmother to Applejack and her siblings) is present in multiple episodes, and is even the focus of one. And Pinkie Pie has mentioned both of her grandmothers (Granny Pie and Nana Pinkie) as the sources of things she knows today.
Come to think of it, the Apple siblings are a rare example of an inversion of this trope, as they've apparently been Raised by Grandparents -or a grandparent anyway- without any canon explanation of what happened to their mother and father.