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.   🙂   

6 thoughts on “A Family for your Characters

  1. So interesting–your take on families and how you create your characters once you know their background. I do something totally different but not nearly in as much depth to begin a story. The family dynamics usually evolve once I understand my main characters better in relation to the story I’m telling and the changes that will happen to them because of the story.

    I always love seeing the similarities and differences in how a writer approaches to work of creating characters.

    Thank you for this post.

  2. Oh, my characters and family do evolve more once the story is underway. I sometimes have to suddenly create a “missing brother”, soap opera style, to explain something. But the basics are there – he’s the youngest son of a wealthy southern family, she’s the self-sufficient only daughter of a poor northern farmer. That’s what gives me their methods of dealing with life, and often their conflict as well.

    It is fun seeing the differing ways writers create, isn’t it? Take care, my friend.

  3. Hi Deb. Your blog is so timely. Just last night as I was drifting off to sleep my husband suddenly asked if my heroine had a family. When I said yes, he proceeded to ask me questions about them. After answering them, I asked why he wanted to know, and he said he was just curious –which is exactly what I want my readers to be. So just as we develop our characters and come to know them our readers wonder all about them, too. Jordan

  4. Jordan, what a great conversation that must have been! I love those drifting to sleep talks; they linger in one’s mind, often find their way into dreams, and whole new plot twists are born. And what a great husband to be curious enough about your book to ask questions and converse about it. Treasure him! 🙂

    Thanks so much for stopping in. I’ll look forward to seeing your website once it is up and running!

  5. Deb – thank you for sharing your wonderful writing with me. I can sympathize with the varied aspects of your writing – you write like I think, but I could never put pen to paper. I best stick with oils on canvas and reap the benefits of knowing YOU!

  6. Linda, whenever I look at your paintings I think I would love to be able to create like you. So beautiful! I’ve even toyed with taking a painting class at the community college. Then I remember my mediocre skills in junior high, and attempts to draw even silly pictures for my sons when they were little. I best stick with words in Word and reap the benefits of knowing YOU!

    Thank you for stopping by.

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