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/). 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. [Read more…]