Family members are an important part of any story. Even if they’re absent, long dead, or unresponsive, our family helps shape us as people.
So why would it be any different for fictional characters?
As Flannery O’Connor once observed:
“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
Almost everything we say or do can be traced, in one way or another, back to our childhood. Did you grow up in a happy home, or one that was full of chaos? What kinds of emotional wounds did your family inflict upon you – purposefully or unintentionally? How did your family life shape you into the person you are today?
These are important psychological questions to ask yourself, as it will give you a better understanding of your own life, but they’re also incredibly powerful tools for building realistic characters.
Where did your characters grow up? What kind of family lives did they have? Were they closer to their mother or father, or maybe a sibling, perhaps even an older member of the family like a grandparent? What kinds of lessons did they learn at home? What kinds of values did their family teach them?
Remember that these can be both positive and negative. We often model our own relationships on the relationships we see in our youth. So if your characters’ parents had a messy divorce, they might be inclined to avoid attachment and commitment in their own relationships. Conversely, if their parents are still happily married after 50 years, they may yearn for the same kind of soulmate, and seek out similar types of relationships for themselves.
If your character is still a child, think about the kinds of things their family members do to influence them. Adults can threaten punishment or promise rewards for a child’s behavior. Or, if they are bad parents, they might lash out physically or verbally against them.
Think about how many family members are important to the story. Some of these relationships may only provide background information about your character, while others may be a continuing source of pleasure or pain. Who are these people, and what are they up to, anyway?
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