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Ties that Bind and Define – The Family of Your Protagonist

Photo [1] by Goran Vrakela, CC0 [2]

Two weeks ago, my siblings and I helped my mother move to an excellent assisted living facility within a mile of my childhood home. That’s the easy explanation, a breezy summation which masks the heart-wrenching path of the past year, from growing concerns over physical and cognitive health, to a rushed winnowing of household possessions to furnish a single room, to standing near as Mom said goodbye to her home of nearly six decades. The simple statement avoids another aspect which caught us all by surprise, the emotional toll of chafing against traditional family roles, both mother to child and sibling to sibling. Suffice to say the process was punctuated by eruptions of frustration as we lurched toward a destination we could no longer avoid.

In retrospect, it is no surprise that during my return flight I struggled to enter the world of Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Blunt’s debut set within a stilted, dysfunctional family household. Perhaps, in some ways, the read should have offered solace. After all, my family had successfully navigated a painful task, joining together as families must. But I suppose the bruises were too fresh, the lessons still unclear, to fully counter a natural resistance. Yet as I forged my way through the pages, I found myself pondering the family at the heart of my first novel, as well as the one in my current manuscript. And, in a most writerly fashion, questions began to churn.

Specifically, I pondered how depictions of family can offer a window into a protagonist’s core character. Similarly, I considered how fictional families, not unlike real ones, can challenge a protagonist unlike any other external or internal force. Here are a few ideas drawn from the exercise:

The Origin Story

Fans of comic books and even some devotees of the movies that followed, such as myself, are familiar with the concept of a superhero – or supervillain – “origin story.” The origin story is the installment that explains the circumstances, whether by chance or intention, in which powers first appear, and the psychological transformation that follows as the hero or villain assumes the role offered, or thrust upon them, in response to their newfound abilities. Origin stories are crowd favorites and, as such, are often reimagined over time, incorporating contemporary concerns and social dilemmas to attract new audiences while balancing the expectations of the old.

Of course, if one strips away the razzle-dazzle superpowers, an even more universal story remains. We call them coming of age tales, in which questions arise as a protagonist shifts from lessons instilled by family toward a maturing inner voice to light their way forward. And what became clear as I considered a number of favorite reads was this — every protagonist possesses his or her own origin story. Regardless of whether the story in hand is that coming of age tale, the key ingredient for compelling reads of nearly any genre are characters with strands leading back to the events which lifted them, or sent them tumbling, to the ground they inhabit in their present story. So as writers the question we must continually ask is whether the plots we construct, and the emotional journeys we craft, honor and reflect the fundamentals of our protagonist’s origin.

Expectations and Motivations

But how does one accomplish this? I think it starts with stepping inside your protagonist to appreciate the expectations that weigh upon them and the emotional touchstones that drive them. I now see how the recent issues with my mom not only raised questions on my role within the family, but also underscored advantages I gained simply by being the youngest, thus avoiding the tumult my older brothers and sisters experienced. The realizations give me a new perspective on my characters, an awareness of burdens they may carry from their childhoods, some obvious and others buried deep. Perhaps, too, your own characters have wounds you have yet to discover. Maybe, for some, the injury is a family that expected nothing, and gave nothing but neglect. Whatever it may be, the question you should ask is how those experiences color their current relationships. Have your characters risen above their histories, or are they bound to demons from the past? Either way, those roots can feed the conflicts within a story, and breathe life into its climax.

Piercing the Emotional Core

Of course, family conflicts sometimes do more than support a story. Sometimes they take center stage. These are the tales populating the vast genre known as family drama. And, boy, do families know how to ramp up the drama! As Whitney Otto explained in her bestselling novel How to Make an American Quilt, “No one fights dirtier or more brutally than blood; only family knows the exact placement of the heart.”

If you are writing a family drama, or if a scene in your work in progress involves a family fight, keep that advice in mind. Letting the sparks fly may well offer a prime opportunity to expose a protagonist’s unresolved or repressed anguish. Family members can cut to the quick when they feel cornered, as should your writing when capturing those moments.

Conversely, moments of reconciliation with family, and those times when families pull together, provide powerful ways to highlight a protagonist’s growth. Such scenes, or shortly thereafter, can be an opportune time for a character to achieve some measure of self-acceptance, even closure. It works that way in real life too, and so it should in our fictions. I should know. Despite the ups and downs, my mother has indeed found a new home, a safe one within a thriving community. And I, for one, could not be more delighted that she has.

These are a few of my observations regarding family as a way to shed light upon a protagonist. What are your experiences? Do stories come to mind that depict family realistically, or in a manner that heightened your perception of the characters?  How do you incorporate a protagonist’s origin story, or depict family relationships, in your own writing? Are there family matters in your current WIP that warrant a bit more fleshing out? Please share. I am curious how others see and develop family relationships within their own stories.

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About John J Kelley [3]

John J Kelley [4] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [5], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards.

Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.