Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Importance of Family in Novels, Part 2

How was your Friday? Er… Christmas, that is. I hope yours was blessed as mine.
I spent my day with family, enjoying one another’s company and the gifts we exchanged.
Oh, look at how well that transitions into our topic today!
I know I’m so clever, right?

As I said Thursday, family is so important to your hero. They should be his foundation. Science has found that our personalities are affected more by biology than by environment, but it has also found that our beliefs, our bedrock values, are often bent toward that which was shown to us at a young age.
Yes, there are drifters and rebels. But deep down most people share common beliefs with their parents (information from Myers’, Psychology 9th edition).

What happens to your hero when he’s orphaned? The state of being without one or more parental guardians is a common life for heroes and heroines alike. They live on the streets or in an orphanage and feel an alien jealousy for all the little cherubs walking down the same street with their parents.
For some reason this state of being… appeals… to readers. People love to pity an orphan. Want proof? Look at Disney. And have a link to a short sketch that makes fun of the orphan trope, while making a very interesting point about writing and clichés.  

It’s not a bad thing to have an orphaned character. I have several myself. However, can we show what family is like when all our characters are urchins living on the street?
Sure, we can find a home for them by the end of the book, but that’s the expectation we all have. Orphan will not be orphaned by the end of the book. If that doesn’t happen, we’re not satisfied. We expect and want that to happen, as readers. See the half dozen remakes of Annie as evidence.

If our character isn’t orphaned, how do we show family as a light in this world? How to we use them to use strong themes: themes of joy and empathy and acceptance?
Through family that is whole.
I don’t mean that the family must have a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, a baby, and an adopted child who fits in perfectly with everyone else.
That’s a perfect family.
I said whole, not perfect. If we wanted to read about a perfect family we would read Little House on the Prairie and reminisce about reading those books as children, or having them read aloud to us.
A whole family may look different in every novel. It may appear as a single mother and her teenage son, or a couple who can never have children or a couple with four daughters. These same families may argue and fight and even hate one another at times.
The thing that makes them whole isn’t the numbers or some “checklist” of a perfect family. Wholeness comes from something more than that. A deeper, much more profound, description.
A whole family is a family that loves its individual members despite their failures. Despite hiccups in relationships, despite darkness and anger and strife, they support each other.

“Love and Magic have a great deal in common. They enrich the soul, delight the heart. And they both take practice.” – Nora Roberts.

But… how do you show this?
How do writers present the power of family in novels in such a way that is real?
Honestly, I don’t know. I can’t say because there are so many right answers. Just as there are so many kinds of “whole” families, there are just as many ways to show those deeper themes.
I do, however, have a few ideas you might consider:

-Start with relationships. Every family is made up of at least one relationship. Be this a single mother-son relationship or a husband-wife relationship, there has to be at least one. If there isn’t some form of relationship, there is no family.
The base of a family is those relationships. It’s your job, writer, to explore those relationships and strive to create them and present them as realistic as possible. Yes, some relationships can be strained. But don’t flood your novel with breaking families. That’s a depressing read.

-Never force the relationship. Sometimes it feels like characters take on a will of their own. They act in ways we realize we barely told them to. That is the sign of a character coming to life. No, they aren’t real. No, they’re not a voice in your head. You have just learned to create a mindset that matches their personality. That’s fantastic.
But what if your character doesn’t get along with her father and you wanted her to?
Quite simply, you have two choices. Force the change, or let their relationship be strained.
Personally, I vote for the latter. If you force the change in their personalities and situation it can come out with that same forced and strained sort of “my author made me do it”. Your non-writer readers may not notice distinctly “oh, the author is forcing this relationship”, but they will notice the strain through things like stilted dialogue and contradictory moments of angst in the supposedly happy relationship.

-Consider your options. Don’t just assign your family characters roles and relationships without thinking. If you let the lazy side of your brain (we all have one) take over, it’s not going to come out pretty. Or believable.
Make each choice with careful consideration.
Because each family member has to make sense.
Each family member has to be real.

Consider that above all the rest.
Even if the relationship is strained, keep it real.
Reality is what we may try to escape by reading, but reading reality is what brings us back with a renewed hope for our own.

What do you think? What sort of family interaction takes place in your novel?

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