A Family for your Characters

My mom and dad divorced before my 2nd birthday. Within a few months, Mom moved to another state and remarried.  She’d known my step-dad since their childhood in northern Minnesota.  My older brother and I grew up in a household with Mom, our step-dad, and ultimately five other siblings.  Our younger brother, Tim, died in an accident when he was four and I was eight.   His death forever touched our lives.

My Great-Grandparents, Godiace & Alphonsine - With their children about 1910

Both my real dad and step-dad were working men who started and ran their own businesses. Through the years Mom tended house, raised her children, baked, read, and sold Avon.   Nearby lived our aunts and uncles and many, many cousins.  We visited a lot.  One of our uncles was an elementary school teacher with a passion for knowledge, a true Renaissance man who, among other pursuits, played guitar, carved Nordic tree sculptures, and boiled down road kill for the skulls.

Who we all became as adults was a direct result of the childhood we lived through together.

The Maher Siblings, around 1920

George Santayana called the family “one of nature’s masterpieces.”  For all its faults and even dis-functionality at times, I view my family as such.  Somehow, despite familial squabbles, when things matter we band together.  My siblings, my cousins, and I share much more than blood kinship, much more than common strands of DNA.  We share the common bond of memories from growing up together.  And I love them all.

When developing the protagonists for my books, even before I write about them, I must create and come to understand their family lives.  Did they grow up wealthy or poor?  How many siblings?  What was their education?  Where did they live?  Rural, urban, apartment, mansion, log cabin?  What part of the country, and when?  What was their family heritage – Irish or English? American or French?  Norwegian or German?  Did they or their parents fight in a war?  What is their religion?  What was their role in the family – big brother, pacifist, troublemaker, caretaker?  Are their parents still living?  What was their relationship with them?  Who was most important in their lives – a parent, a sibling, a pet, a favored aunt?  Why?

The Ueland Siblings - 1973

I cannot paint my hero’s, my heroine’s, or even my villain’s personality without first developing then understanding their families.  Not every aspect of this information must be written directly into the book; in fact, it’s generally better if it isn’t.  But I need to know it, and I need to understand it.  Their family life is part of their background.  It shapes who my characters are.  Equally as important, it shapes their motivation in the story.  It makes them come alive.

Creating family backgrounds is also essential in creating the book’s core conflict.  But I guess that’s for another blog.   🙂