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Navigating Families in Fiction

Flickr Creative Commons: Josh McGinn

On Thanksgiving Day, I was standing in my kitchen, chopping celery and contemplating the timing for dinner, when Joni Mitchell’s song “The River” came on and all of a sudden my eyes filled and I felt such a sense of loss I could hardly stand it. I missed my father, who LOVED the holidays and has been dead for seven years; I missed my mother, whose distinctive laugh has been the soundtrack to all my holidays but who is now too infirm to leave her home; I missed my daughter, who lives 3,000 miles away. Then our guests arrived and the house filled with food and talk and laughter and I felt elated.

If ever there were a best of times and worst of times, it would be now, that period from Thanksgiving through Hanukkah and Christmas, with all its expectations and disappointments and loves and heartaches and estrangements. It’s the time when all the things we value most and despise most about families come roaring to the forefront, demanding attention, and when all our own successes and losses seem to tumble from their neat little shelves in our lives and knock us on the head.

Families are at the heart of most fiction, be it Game of Thrones’s Starks, John Steinbeck’s Trasks and Hamiltons in East of Eden, or Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, the ultimate father-son dyad. Every single fictional family is messy and imperfect, sometimes fierce in their love for each other, sometimes brutal to each other, always multi-layered and complex. So if the holidays evoke a similarly broad range of emotions in you, USE that. Use it to explore the complexity of family relationships in your fiction. If your main character is an orphan or a thief or a soldier, she still has a “family,” even if it’s the one she’s cobbled together out of vagrants or wizards and elves (depending on your genre). Consider:

Estrangement. Once, one of my family members stopped speaking to me for more than a year over something that seemed minor to me but was major to them. And of course it wasn’t just about the inciting incident; it was about our years of history together, the wounds inflicted without knowing how much they hurt, the misunderstandings, the failed communication. If one or more of your characters is estranged from someone important to them, make sure you understand the history behind that. You don’t have to put it all down on the page, but you need to understand the complexities there, so the estrangement makes sense to the reader even if the characters themselves lack the self-knowledge or self-awareness to get it.

Loss. I’ve written before about how loss drives fiction (https://writerunboxed.com/2016/06/15/forging-character/ [1]). And it’s true. There’s not a person alive who hasn’t experienced some kind of loss by the time they’re a teenager, whether it’s the loss of a first love, the death of a pet, a move, a loss of innocence, or the death of a grandparent. And as we get older the losses mount—marriages end, children grow up, we move away from beloved friends, parents die, our bodies change—it never ends. What losses has your character experienced? How do those losses affect how your character relates to his family, to who he is in his family? A patriarch dies and a son mourns at the same time he comes in to new power. A mother loses a child and the certainties that had shaped her life vanish in a second. Explore that.

Irritation. If you want to portray family relationships accurately, don’t ignore how annoying families can be. Your fictional family should sometimes snap at each for no reason, feel irrational rage that someone left their boxers shorts in the middle of the living room floor (again), and bicker over who’s better at reading maps and giving directions. These details provide the authenticity that makes your fictional family feel as real as the one in the next room.

Compassion. Yes, families can be endlessly difficult, but they can also be endlessly forgiving. The family member who didn’t speak to me for a year is also one of a handful of people in my life I can count on to always have my back, no matter what. For many, the harsh words, the betrayals, the disappointments, the failures often go hand in hand with the loving words, the forgiveness, the acceptance, the grace. A fictional family (and by family I mean both biological relatives and/or the people we choose who become our families, like Huck and Jim, or Sam and Frodo) needs to have the same bond so many families have in real life—a glowing, beating heart that binds them through the best and worst of everything.

Gratitude. And just as with real families, fictional families need to look up once in a while and remember that family is the fire that forges us all, in ways both painful and beautiful. And that’s something to be thankful for.

What is your fictional family like? What obstacles have you encountered in writing families in fiction?

About Kathleen McCleary [2]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.