Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fictional Families

A few years ago I discovered my characters are all orphans. That discovery led to some uneasy speculations about Freudian significance...until a writing mentor noticed the same thing and gave me an explanation. Apparently, most fictitious characters are orphans. Speculation on why ranges from engaging the reader's sympathies to necessary freedoms. But one of the biggest reason is: it's hard to make a realistic fictional family.

Someone once said "A family is the most complex civilization" and I believe that. In my new novel SS-5, for the first time I have two main characters with families. It's weird how difficult it is to realistically replicate the workings of a large family, particularly if the familes aren't central to the plot. Because in fiction, just like in real life, families take over. They dominate. I'm getting so interested in my family I'm losing track of the story!

I suddenly understand the attraction of the orphanage.

Seriously, though, some things I've found helpful in family-building are 1) twisting cliches till they're fresh ideas - sibling rivalry is fascinating if you freshen it up, 2) give each family member a history and story of their own - my MC's father is a WWI vet, her sister's boyfriend is a POW, her mother smuggles Jewish children from the Nazis, 3) use enough tension to make the family realistic.

And then I just have to keep all that lovely information in the background, a vivid setting without strangling the rest of the story. Lovely. Such a simple task.

Orphans are definitely easier.


Kelsey said...

Oy. This story, in addition to all its other wondrous elements, has a large family in it? *LIKES* How large? Really large? (Five children or less doesn't count. ...Me? biased? never. :P) Good advice...must remember that :D

I think the main reason so many characters are orphans, or have their parents otherwise out of the picture, is because (to put it bluntly) parents get in the way of the main character accomplishing the story goal. If they're always being sheltered, and the parents do everything for the character, then life is so, you know, ordinary... :P

I love writing families (although for the aforementioned reason it's usually just the kids)--it's so much fun to figure them out and watch their dynamics evolve. I don't know if I do it convincingly or not, but I have way more trouble with only children. Hmm.

Elisabeth said...

Hmmm. Now that I come to think of it, both of my main characters are orphans too. But there's good reason for it, and it plays into some of the story's themes.

Orphans can create plots too, usually of the more sentimental variety. I realized once that Shirley Temple is practically always an orphan, or at least short a parent, in all of her movies, and I finally figured it out: Although a little girl is the main character, a bit of romance was neccessary somewhere, which was the department of the nice couple who adopts her after getting together, or the existing parent and someone else who comes along. :)

Spits said...

The truth. Oh the truth. :D I've...never (*thinks about this*--no, never) written a character that wasn't an orphan! And to think...I've got stories with non-orphans planned...eeps!

Or...wait. I guess "Brothers" the guy does have a Mom...but she's kinda... She's angry, resentful, works...and basically seldom enters the story! :D And only children...HATE writing characters with siblings! Weird, huh? ;)

Aisley Crosse said...

Maybe there is more of a story in the family, maybe more to add to the story, I would definitely spend some time writing about them -- separate from the rest of the novel, just to get to know them better, find that chemistry and see what they have to offer.

Hannah said...

I have four characters in the same story (well, three because I kill off one) who are all orphans AND siblings.

I normaly get rid of the parents, anyway. They just kinda...get in the way. (Not always in real life, though.)

Nina Hansen said...

I loved hearing all your thoughts on this! Apparently this is quite a hot topic!

Aly: yes, Charlotte's family is essential to the story, and no it's not that large! But dealing with father, mother, brother and sister plus her is already taxing my limits!

Elisabeth: Interesting insights! I agree!

Aisley: Yes, I do that! That's ALREADY landed me with sequel after sequel. ;)

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