Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Importance of Family in Novels

It’s that time of year, is it not? The time we gather together we family and enjoy each other (or in some cases… not) and spend time with people we’re related to (and also in some cases… not).

I’m going to do something special, this year. Obviously, since today isn’t Friday. Instead of one post on Friday, I’m doing two posts: today and Saturday. And in the spirit (I never did understand the idea of this “spirit”, because it’s only a thing in A Christmas Carol) of Christmas, I’m going to talk about family.
But not just any family, the family in your novel and in mine.

What sort of family does your main character have?
If your hero/ine is like many others, they may have very little for family. An evil uncle or older brother, perhaps. A younger sister or baby brother.
And… that’s about it.


That’s the question I’m going to focus on this week, along with this question: what does a main character’s family do?

Let’s focus on the second question, today. What does a main character’s family do?

See, most families we see around us aren’t the kind of family we experience in novels. In novels we find families that are often torn apart or missing various members. So when we do have those members in our novels, what do they do?
I have found three things, in my pondering of this question, that seem to answer our predicament:

-They support the hero/ine
-They give the hero/ine something to lose
-They represent the hero/ine’s Old Life

Each of these things is rather simple, is it not? Let’s try to make this a bit more fun and expand on them, shall we?

Family supports the Main Character

Does your family hate you? Do they avoid you at all costs and look down on you with disdain?
Most families… don’t. Yes, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions. But most families – the kind of family that is genuine and real – stand by you. When others disagree, they’re willing to stick in a good word for you.
Your main character is probably going to do something stupid at some point in your novel. If they don’t, they are quite the perfect human being. Er… angel, because human beings aren’t perfect. How does the family react when the main character does that stupid thing?
Of all the emotions they experience, I find that empathy and support are the strongest. You, as the author, have the ability to use powerful emotions to show your reader what a family can do. Even if you have a broken family, or if your reader has a broken family, it can be a powerful and sincere message to show them (and yourself) a family that cares for its members.
Yes, it’s okay to have a character whose family is broken. But if all you do through your whole novel is show family after family being torn apart and hateful of each other, what sort of message is that?
I, for one, like happy messages to go with dark themes. But that’s a topic for another time.

Family provides Conflict

By this I don’t mean they create cliché conflict through being the villain. Nor do I mean they create harsh and dark conflict through being abusive.
Yes, both of those are legitimate ways family can provide conflict.

My real meaning, however, is that they can provide loss. As Daniel Schwabauer [link] would put it, family provides the hero/ine “Something to Lose”.
Does your main character care about their family? They should. Well, except for the ones that hate him/her. If we assume your character has a loving and support family (see above), then your hero/ine will care for them. Significantly. To the point where any loss of a family member will be devastating.
Please note I am not supporting the killing off of innocent main character family members everywhere. That’s as much a cliché as the uncle being the villain.
Instead, I am advocating for the use of tension. If your hero thinks his family is endangered, will he not struggle to protect them? If they will be punished for his attempts to stop the villain, will that not make it all the harder a choice for him?

Hard choices are the best kind, in novels. They provide the strongest emotions and the most powerful conflict.
Family, especially endangered family, can provide hard choices.

Family represents an Old Life

As a writer, you might often hear phrases like “a return to the old life” or “contrasting the old life with the new” and so forth.
Basically, the heroine must change over the course of her story. If she doesn’t, your story really isn’t a story. Stories are about change, about struggle and emotions and conflict and wonder and truth. All of those things involve change.
Suppose your main character goes on an adventure. She fights trolls and goblins and finds a golden ring and helps steal from and slay a dragon, fights in a battle, and then returns home (yes, this sounds like the Hobbit, but the MC is a female so it’s obviously different and unique, okay?).
If the heroine of this highly familiar story goes back to her old habits without a second thought or change, will you find that realistic?
Characters endure adventures and come out changed. Maybe they become more courageous or kinder or more selfless. Whatever it is, they can’t just slip back into the old routine without a hitch. Instead they must struggle to find a balance. They find their place in their old life using the new outlook they have on life.
There are many ways to show this, but family is one of them. 

I wrote a novella about a year ago. It was about this girl who went off to learn how to control the Gifts (that is to say, magical abilities) she was given by a dragon (not your average dragon, but an adorable little dragon with the personality of a grumpy cat). Lots of things happen, but she comes back to her family and the family farm at the very end.
She is changed, to the point where her family has a hard time reckoning her with the girl they sent off months ago. She's not different physically (she’s the same, in that respect), but in the way she acts and thinks.
It’s a contrast.
Her younger brother acts pretty much the same as he did at the beginning of the book. He’s lazy and in love in both cases. His stagnancy provides a black-and-white comparison. The main character is different than she used to be.
She’s changed.

Family is so important. So, so important. Often times they shape who we are and who we become.
Shouldn’t they shape our heroes and heroines, too?

What do you think? How important is family to your story? Leave a comment and share!

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