Home for the Holidays: Writing Family Roles in Fiction

There’s one in every family. You know who you are. (If you don’t know, it’s probably you). There’s always a black sheep of the family, just like there’s the quirky aunt who gives you horrible knitted sweaters for Christmas, or the grandparent who forgets you grew into an adult 10 years ago, or the screaming child who didn’t get the present they wanted under the tree.

Holidays can be absolutely wonderful. They are a special time to enjoy food, friends, and–most importantly–get together with family you might not see very often (sometimes intentionally). But they can also be incredibly stressful.

Why? Well, of course, there’s the stress of vacuuming those old M&M’s out of the couch and untangling stubborn strings of lights and buying a present for that relative who has absolutely everything.

But mostly, holidays are often stressful because families are complicated. They’re organic systems that can vary widely even among people from similar places and backgrounds. There are past histories and unresolved tensions and way too many cooks trying to burn a turkey in the kitchen. 

I love getting to know my friends’ families. I think it’s fascinating, and I always come away learning something new about them as a person.If you’re an author, the same should be true of your characters. Your characters don’t exist in a vacuum. They have stories before your story that should include their families.

Often writers take the easy route, making their character an orphan, but in doing so they miss out on an invaluable opportunity to reveal their character by their interactions with their family and role in the communal dynamic. 

o-malleyGrowing up, I loved a romantic suspense series by Dee Henderson called the O’Malley series. The books are about a group of orphans who decide to change their last names and become a family when they become adults. They each have very interesting jobs (U.S. Marshall, hostage negotiator, Red Cross worker, fireman, paramedic, pediatrician) and help each other through a collection of hair-raising adventures.

But what sets these books apart from run-of-the-mill romantic suspense novels is the fantastic sibling dynamics. There’s Marcus, the protective oldest brother; Kate, the spitfire who is always marshaling her family behind some cause; Rachel, the softie who keeps a finger on the emotional pulse; Stephen, the cool kid who everyone loves anyway; Lisa, the uber-independent nerdy animal lover; Jack, the little brother and eternal prankster; and Jennifer, the sweet and beloved baby sister of the bunch.

Authentic family roles and relationships in fiction add a genuine feel of realism and a connection point with readers that is nearly impossible to achieve any other way. 

Can you identify each of your characters’ role in their family? How has that shaped them? How does it differ from the way a reader would usually see them? For example, maybe a hardened, feared assassin goes home for the holidays and is bossed around by his big sister and yelled at for burning the mashed potatoes. That’d be interesting, right?

Not only are there the sibling birth order factors to consider (look it up–it’s a thing), there are also roles each person plays within the family. For example, usually there’s the joker, the peacemaker, the get-‘er-done bossy one, the problem child and the quirky lone wolf, just to name a few. There’s the helicopter mom and the workaholic dad and the aunt we don’t talk about and the passive-aggressive Susie Homemaker.

img_5918rvThere’s that person who adores Christmas and goes into bake-and-decorate-all-the-things mode (me). And then there’s that person who puts both the Grinch and Grumpy Cat to shame (my brother).

You may love your family, you may hate them, or a little bit of both. But no matter how you feel about your family, they’ve still shaped who you are. They are part of your story. 

Know your characters’ families as well as you know your own. Use them to reveal your character (or annoy the heck out of them). Allow them to bring chaos into your characters’ lives and then pull out the “all the feels” moment. With a bit of practice, your characters’ families can become your new best friends.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. This is completely on the mark! Everyone’s relationship with their family, whether good or bad, has shaped who they are. It is something that I think a lot of people forget, which is sad particularly at this time of year.

    1. Karis Waters says:

      It’s easy to forget, especially in fiction, and it’s easy to be to generic as well. Some people have completely horrible families, some people may have perfect families (though I haven’t met on yet), but most are a mix of the good and the bad and significantly shape who we are. Thanks for sharing!

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