Former news producer, Dave Creek, has seen the family dynamic play out in real life over and over on the evening news. Now the Hydra author of Some Distant Shore, The Human Equations, and other science fiction novels, shares his thoughts on the roll a character’s family life can both help and hurt your novel, with input from several other authors he interviewed on the subject.
It’s no accident that Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel Feather Crowns has as its third listing in the Library of Congress cataloging information “Family–Kentucky–Fiction.” Much of her work is about the relationships her protagonists have with their families. In Feather Crowns, Christie Wheeler gives birth to quintuplets by page 32! The rest of the action in the novel comes as Christie and her husband cope with the unexpected arrival of these “miracle babies.”
Providing your protagonist with a detailed family life gives them a depth difficult to achieve any other way. It’s also a good “jump-start” if you haven’t yet fleshed-out your character in great detail. The technique forces you to confront basic decisions about them. Was their childhood a happy one? Are family reunions joyful occasions or burdensome events they attend only grudgingly?
“People say ‘Your novels are about family.’ I say ‘all novels are about family.'” Shelby Hearon, NEA/PEN Syndication Short Story Prize winner and author of 12 novels, says it’s often very effective to see a character in relationship to their parents, brothers and sisters, or children. “You show how they are, and you don’t just show them going to the office or something like that.”
Lois Battle, author of six novels including Storyville, says you have to know the nature of the character’s family, even if that information doesn’t appear in the book. “In the same way that if you met someone, became friendly with them, as your intimacy increases you would start to ask them personal questions–what was your mother like, and your father, and what’s your ethnic background, what religious education did you have? It may not always appear in a novel but you absolutely have to know that–it’s crucial….You just have to have it.”
A compelling-enough character can even allow you to break free of genre conventions. In my short story “The Loophole,” published in ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION, my protagonist is a man who dreams of traveling to the stars. It’s only after he accepts that his dream is impossible that he contents himself with a support role on Earth, marries his life-long love, and has children. He and his wife have just watched one of the first starships thrusting away from the Earth:
I packed the telescope away and Laney and I ran down to the ocean and splashed each other in the surf, laughing and running like children.
After awhile, exhausted, we left the water and collapsed onto the sand, as if we were new life that had just crawled up from the sea.
If you can provide a convincing motivation, your detective can give up solving crimes for the sake of those he loves. Or perhaps the murder of a family member is the motivation for an amateur to turn crime-fighter–just as Bruce Wayne became Batman.
Terry Bisson, author of the Hugo and Nebula-award-winning SF story “Bears Discover Fire,” offers a differing view. He warns, “It depends on what you’re trying to do in the story.”
A self-described “minimalist” who has written a number of short-short stories, Bisson says he often uses details of a character’s family life, but it’s always a conscious choice for the sake of the story. Since everything counts in short-shorts, though, he calls himself “stingy” with such details.
But doesn’t such detail of a character’s background enrich your story? “Sometimes you don’t want to enrich a story,” Bisson says. “Sometimes you want to pare a story down.” He adds, “To me it depends on what you’re trying to do in the text…if there’s a backstory that you want to get in there, yeah, but sometimes you want to know very little about a character. And that’s not just genre fiction, it might be any kind of fiction.”
Even in genre fiction like SF or espionage stories, Shelby Hearon points out, a family could be your character’s colleagues rather than blood relatives.
So what approach should you take? It may help to know the demographics of your audience. Historical romance novelist Patricia Rice explains: “Women definitely want to know about the family of the protagonist.” She says the first thing some of her female readers ask about her books is whether they have a baby in them. “The kind of books that men seem to be responding to have no family life whatsoever in them . . .a man’s going to buy it if there’s a machine or a fancy car in it, but not because there’s a baby in the book.”
Sometimes family isn’t just an element in a writer’s work, but one of the reasons she started writing to begin with. Carol Higgins Clark is continuing a family tradition, and not just because her mother is best-selling mystery novelist Mary Higgins Clark. “I’m one of five children . . . so there would always be a lot of storytelling going on, and we always used to joke at the dinner table that if what you were telling was boring you’d get cut off by somebody else . . . so you always had to fight to talk.”
Her mother often told Clark that when she was growing up, she would drink tea with others and tell stories, and nothing was said simply. “I think that that helps as a writer because you’re really weaving a tale.”
Clark says she uses family life to characterize her female sleuth Regan Reilly, as well as to add humor. Reilly’s mother is a mystery writer and her father owns three funeral homes. “So they’re kind of upset that she’s a detective because they worry about her. And she says to them, ‘You two should talk. I’ve got a mother who writes about serial killers and a father who’s a funeral director.’ And they expect her to get a normal job.”
Mason says, “More often than not, I think people are obsessed with the family . . . We’re also romanticizing the family, because we’re all thinking that it’s more nourishing and life-giving than perhaps it was. The family I wrote about (in Feather Crowns), the members of the family are really hard on themselves. But on the other hand, they had advantages by being a unit, too.”
As a writer, you have an advantage when you make your character part of such a unit. Try it!