Monday, September 28, 2009

Family Ties

Wow, it's been a while! I was busy this summer, with a trip up to Vermont and a trip down to D.C, and several day trips to the beach. For the most part, it was a pretty good summer.

The summer ended on an 'up' beat: I saw a lot of my family at an anniversary party for my aunt and uncle. I laughed more than I have in years with my cousins, and I needed that. It was the perfect stress-buster. We drudged up memories that had been long forgotten but are still chuckle-producing. It was a wonderful night.

On the long drive home after the party, I couldn't help thinking about my family. Some of my cousins are very much alike. Their gestures, their expressions, even their voices are similar. Yet others are so different... it's a wonder that we all come from the same gene pool. I wonder the same thing about my kids sometimes, too. They are four kids with the same parents, yet they're so very different at times. At other times, we would swear God used a cookie-cutter to make them--they can be so much alike, too.

It's amazing how much family members can be so similar without even noticing. Little things--like how they hold a fork, how they chew their food, how they brush their teeth. Two of my kids will rub their eyes with their fists when they're tired--just like they did when they were little. My daughters fight with each other because they're so much alike, and they don't even know it. My husband and his mother laugh exactly the same way, though he doesn't think so. Familial traits and habits are hard to notice sometimes, from the "inside". But for outsiders looking in, similarities among family members can be seen as plain as day.

Writers tend to forget about likenesses in their characters. We're always looking for ways to differentiate between characters, and make them stand out from each other. It gets too confusing if our characters are alike, doesn't it? After all, characters in books are truly only words on paper. Readers would beg to differ with us. The very best characters take on lives of their own, off the pages. Think of Charlotte, or Willy Wonka, or Albus Dumbledore. Wonderful, vivid characters. They've lived in the hearts of readers for years--more than just words on paper.

So, why would we want to make characters similar to each other? Well, think of the Weasly family in the Harry Potter series: many of their familiar traits sort of 'brand' them, and make them easy to recognize as part of that family--red hair, freckles, tall, and skinny. Fred and George are almost interchangeable at times, they are so comparable... but they don't have the same fate, do they?The Weasly kids are introduced as a group of very similar characters, but they grow to be very different individuals by the end of the series. And that growth and differentiation makes them much richer, more real characters for the readers.

The Casson Family from Hilary MacKay's Saffy's Angel is probably one of the quirkiest families in fiction. Mrs. Casson is an artist and often simply falls asleep without making dinner. Mr. Casson is a typical "Type A" personality. The kids all have names from the color chart. The Casson house is often chaotic, but none of them seem to notice or mind. This peculiarity is part of what makes the whole family unique and memorable. MacKay couldn't have made this family so unusual if she hadn't first established what was "normal" for them--the habits and traits that the family members don't think unusual, but outsiders looking in find quite strange. Saffy and her sisters are like each other in many ways, but Saffy begins to grow and change when she notices her differences from her family members. In the end, Saffy has to learn to accept her differences so she can still function as part of her family.

Traits and habits are just small ways to make the lives of your characters more interesting and realistic for your readers. Similarities as well as differences from family members can be sources of tension for characters. (Think of how often Ron wished he was different than his brothers!) Personalities tend to run in families: hot tempers, stubbornness, and strong but silent are just a few types that pop into my head. Look for different ways to infuse these attributes into more than one of your characters.

You can build a fascinating background for your character when you create a family for them. Your main character can be a fourth-generation onion hater, whose great-great grandfather decreed no onions would ever pass the threshold of their kitchen door. Have fun with it! Open your eyes and take a look at what habits and quirks you can find in your own family, and then take a look at other families around you.

And most of all, don't forget how fun families can be!


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