Tuesday, May 28, 2013

All in the Family

Nobody likes to read about cardboard characters, but how can an author bring a fictional person to life?

One way is by including family members in a story. Here are a few ideas of how to insert them:

1. Part of backstory
Weave in small hints, or include flashbacks, which in some way tie in the past actions of a family member with a main character's present behavior. A mother who gave up a child for adoption, a father who cheated on his wife, or a sibling who received too little or too much attention, are some examples.

2. Immediate family interaction 
What's happening in the here and now can be compelling. Some examples are a loving husband and wife, or the opposite, an incompatible couple, maybe squabbling siblings, or those who'll go out on a limb to help each otherOne overused, yet still popular concept I often run into is the brother who gambles too much and the sibling who pays for the other's transgressions.

3. An important family event
One way to provide a glimpse of a character's nature is by depicting the death or funeral of a family member, either by natural or suspicious means. Lots of possibilities to depict grief, or perhaps jealousy over inheritance; or, on the other side of the coin, unexpected inherited debt.

Happy occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, are other ways to demonstrate how a character interacts with family members, be it for the good or bad.

Now it's your turn. Can you think of any other examples, or expand on one I've mentioned?




Experience the diversity & versatility of Morgan Mandel. For romantic comedy: Her Handyman & Girl of My Dreams. Thriller: Forever Young: Blessing or Curse.  Romantic suspense: Killer Career. Mystery: Two Wrongs. Twitter:@MorganMandel Websites: Morgan Mandel.Com Chick Lit Faves 

16 comments :

  1. Family interactions are a great way to give a character dimension. Other possibilities include friends, enemies, lovers, etc., from the past (pre-starting point of book). For example, what if an ex-husband or wife surfaces, one that hasn't been heard from in 10, 20, or more years? What if that person had been assumed dead...or was declared legally dead? How about an old school mate, a best friend with whom the protagonist had a major falling out, or a former acquaintance with whom one indulged in a crime or serious defamation of another's character?

    What if a protagonist has left a former life behind, created a new image, is a well-respected community member, and then a former cellmate from a prison across the country suddenly shows up? How about former family members, such as the brother or sister of an ex-spouse, one with an ax to grind? Or how about one that knocks on the door with a child or children in tow that were awarded to the other parent in a bitter custody battle -- and years later that parent has died long after disappearing and leaving no forwarding address? Or what of an abducted toddler that is found and returned to the birth parent ten years later?

    What a great post, Morgan! The possibilities are as endless as the writer's imagination. This is great grist for the character development mill.

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  2. Family can complicate solving the overall story problem. Though some family problems are overused, such as "parent with Alzheimer's" or "spouse with cancer." There are less overt ways to use conflict within a family: petty jealousies, personality conflicts, childhood wounds. The overall story problem can cause these issues to boil to the surface, hindering the protagonist's efforts at a key moment when he needs help. It can also be motive for mayhem or the core problem at the heart of a literary story. Death brings out the worst in people sometimes. Rational people become irrational when a parent dies. Families aren't always close and loving. If a young adult protagonist has an awful family, he won't enjoy visits home. While everyone else is packing up and looking forward to the holiday, he will be cringing and gathering his courage to face them. They dysfunctional family is used often. It would be nice to see supportive, healthy families portrayed once in a while.

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  3. In my memoir I share my father giving a testimony at church which revealed some of his past to me. Looking at photographs - my mother told me about her time as a live-in maid when I questioned her about a picture in my bedroom of a woman in a flapper dress - turned out to be her. She also described her time with my father when she was pasting pictures in a photo album.

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  4. Great post, Morgan. As an addition, sometimes people themselves perceive their family members as almost cardboard characters, and that is how they portray them to others. e.g. "My father has no patience and is alway angry," "My mother is a saint to put up with my father," "My brother is a mooching ne'er do well," or "My sister is an attention hog."

    A turn could then be to have the protagonist see them in a new light upon introducing a friend or coworker into the mix. Perhaps Dad strikes up a mentoring friendship with the troubled teenaged son of the friend or coworker. Perhaps Mom doesn't come across to friend/coworker as saintly rather as someone playing their cards very close to their chest, as if guarding a devastating secret about her past behavior. Perhaps friend/coworker sees something admirable in the brother and falls for him. Perhaps friend/coworker finds sister very normal and enjoyable to be with while in comparison, the protagonist is actually the needy attention seeker of the family.

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  5. Morgan:
    Excellent advice.
    You wrote:
    One overused, yet still popular concept I often run into is the brother who gambles too much and the sibling who pays for the other's transgressions.

    The state lottery here has been around almost 30 years and almost every American Indian reservation has casinos. There are hundreds of thousands who gamble away money that could have helped family or friends or even strangers who are down and out.
    Maybe gambling is one of the last hidden addictions?
    You're right about it being used in storylines, there are dozens of movies where it plays a major or minor role.
    Thanks again for the article. Good ways to build conflict, both internal and external.

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  6. The characters in my books have more depth than their author.

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  7. You folks have come up with some great ideas for including family in books, even more than I could have thought up!

    And, Christopher, your remark cracked me up!

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  8. Since family relationships, especially our family of origin, do play an important role in shaping who we are, it stands to reason that our characters' families do the same. This is a good reminder that we can use that factor to flesh out our characters.

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  9. Love this, Morgan. I'm always having my writers explore their characters' families and family histories. You find out so much about them that way! Family is such an odd melting pot of neurosis! LOL.

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  10. God discussion starter, Morgan, there are some great ideas here! It can also help if one of the family members is a record-keeper of some sort—whether official (doctor, archaeologist, priest), self-appointed (unofficial town historian, genealogist) or by nature (observant, scrapbooker, busybody). Their records and personal observations can add depth and conflict to the story.

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  11. We need to do a post of all Christopher's funniest remarks! LOL.

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  12. Okay, this was not a religious post at all—I simply can't type! I meant "good" discussion starter...

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  13. Kathryn, my husband's aunt was the record-keeper of the family. She knew not only every person's birthday, but also the date anyone died, not only that, how old they'd be if still alive. Now, we just flounder along using our calendars, and hoping we don't miss anything.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  14. A remark from my dad while going through photo albums after my grandmother died--"Your grandma rode steers in rodeos"--has resulted in four books (2 published and 2 in the works). I'm amazed when I think of that!

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  15. Family relationships are important in providing a back story for main characters as well. Kim Reynolds, my librarian sleuth, has an unusual family background which adds to the mystery background of the novels.

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  16. From everyone's comments, it goes to show that family is important in novels!

    Morgan Mandel
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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