Have you noticed we’ve been revisiting the theme of family lately? It’s for good reason, though. Our original case study on family introduced the theme and how it can be explored in stories. Then our more recent posts have investigated it further, and from different angles. If each post were to represent one of the Five W questions, then the case study on family would be the “what,” our reasons for the importance of this theme the “why,” and our recommended reading list on family the “who.”
Today, it’s time for the “how”. The case study hints at this with five keys for exploring family in our writing. This post, however, goes even deeper. So if you’d like some new techniques or exercises to help you practice this literary theme, grab a pen (or open a new word processing document) and let’s begin!
Demonstrating Relationships through Dialogue and Interaction
When writing about family, the relationships within your focus family will be front and center. Many of your story’s scenes should show these family members—your characters, in other words—interacting in expected and unexpected ways. For example, they might bond over preparing meals, keep secrets from one another, or express jealousy over a relative’s accomplishments.
However these interactions play out, they should make sense for the characters in each relationship. They should also be influenced by the relationship’s complexities and the history between the characters. Do they openly show each other affection? Are they distant or abusive (either physically or emotionally) to one another? Who is the decision maker or authority figure, and how do they demonstrate their power? Understanding these relationships will help you accurately and effectively create them on the page, and allow the reader to experience the unique emotions or conflicts of each one.
To illustrate family relationships in a scene, keep these six elements in mind:
- Purpose: What happens during the scene? Are its events an everyday occurrence or an extraordinary circumstance? Why is it important to the plot/story?
- Subtext: What is the relationship between these characters? What attitudes do they have toward each other? What opinions and fundamental beliefs do they share or disagree on? How do these underlying factors influence their interactions?
- Dialogue: What do the characters say? How clearly do they communicate their thoughts and feelings to each other? How does this interaction evolve as the scene progresses?
- Behavior & Body Language: How do these family members behave toward one another? What body language do they use throughout the scene?
- Emotions: What emotions are revealed in each character’s dialogue, behavior, and body language? How do these emotions impact the interaction’s outcome?
- Outcome: How does this interaction end? What impact does it have on the characters’ relationship? For example, are they angry at each other? Do they come to a mutual agreement? Are both characters satisfied, or did one bend to the other’s will?
Exercise #1: Write a scene where two family members from your story discuss a responsibility or commitment (household chore, miscommunication on a school pick-up time, late bill payment, etc.) that one of the characters has neglected. How does this scene reveal their relationship’s layers? How do the outcome and the emotions expressed affect the characters and their relationship? Make sure you consider the six elements listed above as you go along.
Also, feel free to try the exercises in our post on using dialogue to demonstrate literary themes.
Cultivating Conflict through Opposition and Antagonism
Every family relationship has its challenges. Even if two siblings or a parent and child usually get along well, they’re bound to disagree on something. It could be over an everyday occurrence (a sister borrows clothes without asking, or a son is late for school) or a life-changing event (a spouse admits to infidelity, or parents disapprove of an adult daughter’s fiancé). In this way, family members can act as antagonists, either in a minor role or as the main adversary.
This is NOT to say that an antagonistic family member is a villain. Yes, a villain is a type of antagonist, but a villain typically has malicious or harmful intentions toward the protagonist and/or her goal. But what if a parent, sibling, or other family member is a good person, even if their motives or desires don’t align with the protagonist’s? Recognizing this crucial distinction and developing your characters accordingly can help you keep any conflicts within your story’s family grounded and realistic.
What does it look like when family members experience conflict despite their good intentions? Here are two examples:
- Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale: Vasya’s family loves one another deeply, but their bond is fraught with tension. For example, Vasya is constantly scolded by her father and older siblings for her adventuresome, impulsive behavior. And when father Pyotr brings home a stepmother, most of his children aren’t excited about a new woman taking their deceased mother’s place.
- Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay: Life for the Dunbar brothers is anything but conflict-free after their mother passes away and their father abandons them, leaving the eldest son, Matthew, in charge. They argue about unwanted pets sleeping on their beds, engage in fistfights, and disagree about staying in school—and that’s just for starters.
Exercise #2: Make a list or table of your protagonist’s family relationships and the tension within each one. Which of the protagonist’s attitudes, opinions, or fundamental beliefs differ from those of her mother, father, significant other, etc.? How does each character act toward one another when a conflict arises? Consider each character’s unique personality, motives, and behaviors as you work on each relationship.
Reflecting and Contrasting Family Dynamics with “Mirror Families”
Stories often feature mirror characters to reflect differences in personality, circumstances, and much more. In family stories, this technique goes a step further by using entire families as mirrors to one another. Giving your protagonist a second family—maybe a friend’s family, or another group of characters that acts as a family—to observe and spend time with can give her a new perspective on the function or meaning of family and motivate her to make other changes in hopes of improving her own family situation.
Typically a mirror family and its impact on the protagonist falls into one of three categories:
- Bright: This mirror family demonstrates more love, trust, or other qualities that the protagonist finds desirable, usually because her own family lacks these qualities. It therefore shows the protagonist that positive examples of families, or more positive ways of being a family, really do exist.
- Broken: This mirror family shocks or horrifies the protagonist (who comes from a happy family or views her family as boring or unbearable) with power struggles, abusive behaviors, and other harmful dynamics. As a result, it teaches the protagonist to be thankful for her family and to change her attitude for the better.
- Distorted: This family appears to be a Bright mirror until the protagonist learns a shocking truth or secret about the family that explains the tension or awkwardness she’s witnessed within their unit. She then realizes that no family is perfect and readjusts her perception or behavior toward her own family.
Exercise #3: Create a three-column table, with headings for “Bright,” “Broken,” and “Distorted.” Then, list any fictional families who act as a mirror to the protagonist’s family in the appropriate column. If it helps, write down why you believe each family is Bright, Broken, or Distorted. How many of each type can you identify? Which categories do you have an easy or challenging time identifying?
Exercise #4: Free-write about your protagonist and her family, including any stressful circumstances that will impact this family during the story (a divorce, moving house, abuse, etc.) and the protagonist’s attitudes toward each family member and her family as a whole. Then brainstorm a second family who could act as a mirror. What kind of mirror family would work best? How does this family differ from the protagonist’s? What will she learn from them? Make sure you consider the mirror family’s purpose in the overall story, how the protagonist meets this family, and what events make it necessary for her to spend time with them.
Using Major Life Events to Heighten Conflict
Weddings, divorces, birth of a child, death of a loved one—these and other major life events can change a family forever in profound and sometimes surprising ways. Such moments are also prime opportunities for highlighting the theme in question.
The key with these milestones is that they’re high-stress events. This stress will lead to extreme emotions (joy, exhaustion, grief, etc.) that rely on the nature of the event and on each character’s attitude toward these circumstances. It can also increase any existing tension between the characters involved. So while it’s normal for a bride and her mother to argue about wedding-planning details, any ongoing conflicts between these characters (for example, if the mother has control issues, or if the daughter is careless with her finances) could exacerbate their situation.
Don’t be afraid of complicating things for your story’s family. Conflict gives a story momentum and enriches it with emotion. Plus, it’s a part of family life, no matter if the family is biological or “found.” By building conflict naturally into relationships, everyday occurrences, and major events, you’ll ensure the family you’re creating will function just as any real-life family would.
Exercise #5: Create a grid or table that outlines how each member of your story’s family would feel toward or act during different major life events and any strains this would place on the family as a whole. For example, would the older sister be jealous if her younger sister got engaged first? Which child would be more emotional over the loss of their father? Does the mother go overboard when planning parties for these milestone? Will certain characters remain clear-headed and even-keeled in these situations? Then, write a scene using one of the scenarios you’ve brainstormed, using the questions and elements from Activities #1 and #2 above.
How have you explored family in your own stories? What other writing prompts or exercises would you recommend to help nurture this theme?
Sara Letourneau is a freelance editor and writing coach based in Massachusetts. She’s currently taking clients with manuscripts in speculative fiction, literary fiction, or YA, though she’s open to other genres as well. She’s also a poet whose work has appeared in Amethyst Review, Canary, Muddy River Poetry Review, Soul-Lit, and elsewhere. A Massachusetts resident, she can often be found performing her poems at local open mic nights, reading good books, and enjoying a cup of tea. Learn more about how Sara can help you with your writing at Heart of the Story Editorial & Coaching Services. You can also connect with her at her writer website, Twitter, Goodreads, or Instagram.