Friday, March 22, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

Today, I want to talk about family dynamics in fiction.

I'm an only child and grew up with my own space ... a lot of space.  While I was homeschooled for a few years with another girl, that was still a finite situation:  when the "school day" was over, she went home.  So I've never had siblings, and I never had personal experience with the trials and joys of it.  It's probably impossible to interact in the world and not have some knowledge of sibling dynamics, but I was always on the outside looking in, and I found them fascinating.

(Homeschooling also had another effect on my understanding of siblinghood.  Since my interactions weren't confined within a specific age / grade range, I had what I think was more than usual tolerance for brothers and sisters.)

In general, though, my family dynamic was small, close-knit and healthy ... at which point, I will stop talking personal biography and get to the point.  The way that families interact, to me, is endlessly fascinating, with so many powerful permutations - many of which defy logic.  The most virulent rivalries are amongst families ... and so are unbreakable bonds and loyalties held even by people who might otherwise have no redeeming qualities.  A parent's love can overcome tremendous obstacles or scar a child for life.  Sibling rivalries can be the stuff of myths - literally.  Romulus and Remus, anyone?

And what about more distant relatives, with whom we have less frequent interactions?  So often, there's an obligation to spend time with or do things for someone we just don't like.  (I'm fortunate enough that that's not my family, but I know I'm in a minority.)  Family is a grab-bag, often with few common interests and incompatible personalities.  And when a family member is down on their luck, there's pressure from multiple sources - particularly society - to pick them back up.  It's altruism for a stranger, expectation for family.

The nature and intensity of the family bond isn't a static, singular thing, either.  There's a great range in how much people are willing to give, forgive, tolerate, embrace ...

In fiction, family helps make a character feel as if they didn't simply drop out of the sky, fully formed.  It provides them with roots, with a sense of continuity - that impression of history before the story, even if ma and pa's courtship wouldn't make for riveting drama.  Because we all have strong feelings about family, show a character interacting with his or hers - or simply referring to them - and you instantly learn something new about them.  Showing the family at work (or play) provides another avenue for introducing or implying backstory without an infodump whack over the head.

Family is also interesting for the contradictions that develop.  I'll 'fess up:  one of my favorite things to do with my antagonists is to give them a deep sense of family loyalty.  They may do terrible things and have less-than-winning personalities (though I've always liked an honorable antagonist, too), but they have a sibling or child for whom they will do anything.  When I set up Treddian, one of the dubious heroes of Butterfly's Poison, probably the first redeeming quality we see in him comes from his interactions with his daughter.  (That whole book was a lot of fun to write, because it was the first time I really worked with mature characters who had long histories and extended family ties, including children - but I digress.)

Family presents any number of plot possibilities, from a disapproving parent to a tagalong younger sibling ... and especially for short works, it's a good short hand in motivation.  If something has happened to the main character's brother, it needs less explanation than with some other relationships.  Of course, a good story should explore the motivation further, but it's an easy hook to present to hang action upon until there's time to slow down and provide detail.  The emotional charge is instinctive.  We all translate our own experiences.

It's hard to think of a novel I've worked on, at least for some time, that hasn't had some family dynamic.  The main plot of Journal of the Dead pivots around Rhiane and her son.  Butterfly's Poison - see above.  Even Scylla and Charybdis has some elements, with Gwydion being in (unrequited) love with his brother's wife.  And Flow?  Flow is absolutely a story about family, identity and discovering the lines between the two.

(As to the heading of this post - hey, I started this when it was still Thursday.  It counts.)

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