Where Have all the Families Gone?


Vision 8


Where Have all the Families Gone?


Valerie Serdy

Copyright © 2002, Valerie Serdy, All Rights Reserved

Family relationships are among the hardest to maintain, yet they form some of the strongest bonds.  Many families have unspoken rules and protocols to rival an international dinner, spelling disaster for the suitor who comes to take away Mama’s baby.  Our relationships with our parents are usually the first social relationships we learn and therefore tend to define how we interact with others.  Our relationships with our siblings help define how we relate to our peers.  Having children ourselves tends to completely redefine our relationship with our parents.  So why do so few protagonists in fantasy novels have a family?

In fact, the only book I’ve read recently that had any family was Barbara Hambly’s Stranger at the Wedding.  And even then Kyra has abandoned her family for various reasons.  Only as the novel unfolds and we see her return to her estranged family do we begin to see familial involvement in Kyra’s life and the novel’s plot.

That's only one novel out of seven I looked at.  Those aren’t good odds when you consider we all come from somewhere.  We have parents, grandparents, uncles, and sisters.  My cousin liked pulling and twisting my toes whenever we got in wrestling matches.  My aunt smokes like a chimney, eats only macaroni and cheese, and is plump enough to hug comfortably without straining to reach around her.  My mom likes watching birds and walking through cemeteries; my sister catalogs the gifts she receives and how much those gifts cost to determine whether she’s been slighted.  I love them all.  I miss being near them, although some days, I’m very very glad there’s half a continent between us.

It’s a very complex and contradictory set of emotions I hold for my family.  If I didn’t love them so much, I couldn’t possibly get so mad at the things they do or say.  If I didn’t love them so much, I couldn’t possibly care what they think of my life.  And I’m not alone in this.  Most of my friends have equally complex feelings about their own families.  So why are so many characters in fantasy novels orphans?  Why do so many other characters happily (and easily!) chuck it all for their dreams?

Perhaps because it’s just hard to write believable relationships and additional family characters.  Letting those family members mess with your carefully constructed plot is hard.

Imagine your main character has children.  If Mom and Dad must leave the village to go on quest, they must either arrange childcare or take little Baby along with them.  If Mom arranges childcare, as she travels she will likely feel a barrage of emotions: anger that she must leave, guilt that she left her child behind, worry, homesickness, sadness.  It takes a skilled writer to interweave these emotions such that we know what Mom is feeling and how those feelings affect her decisions and actions without boring us to tears by belaboring the point.

Now imagine Mom decides to take Baby along on her quest.  You as the writer must portray that child believably.  Children in fiction often come across as props that can serve the same function as a family pet: cute and loved but without much intelligence.  One a meager step above pet status, some children are simply comic relief.  Aw, look at the cute thing Baby said.  Often, children become mouthpieces for the writer.  We all know the “innocence” of childhood.  Writers (and TV writers especially) have been known to throw their own words into the innocent mouth of babes to make a point about the various ills of society.

But it isn’t just writing child characters realistically that’s hard.  Children are inherently chaotic and your plot will take twists and turns because of that.  If Mom decides to take Baby along on her quest, Mom still has to teach Baby proper manners when begging for supplies, social mores when talking to whores and thieves for more information, not to mention Baby’s ABCs.  Children get sick, have temper tantrums, run off on their own, and repeat your words at the most inopportune times.  They get scared and have nightmares; they run into your arms for hugs.  This too, is part of writing child characters believably.

But maybe you think this children stuff is too hard to write about or it doesn’t make sense for your 16-year-old protagonist to have children of her own.  That’s all right.  But remember each of us is a child.  We all started somewhere with a mother and father.  We may have never met them, we may not like them now, we may love them with all our hearts.  The relationship between child and parent is demanding, complicated, heart-breaking, and loving.  We may not have resolved entirely how we feel about our parents, and judging from some of the titles available on the self-help bookshelves, it will take a long time for some of us to do so (Toxic Parents and Divorcing Your Parents to name a couple).  Our feelings for our parents are often a bundle of contradictions.  At various times, I’ve thought of my parents as brilliant and abusive, omnipotent and impotent, insightful and obtuse.  Even the kids I know who are adopted feel the same things for their adopted parents that I feel for my biological parents.  But often, they also feel a sense of loss or not belonging because they didn’t know their biological parents. 

Our relationships with our parents tend to color our entire outlook on life: they are the first close relationships we ever make.  We often avoid or embrace people based on how they remind us of our parents.  We sometimes vow to do things differently than our parents.  And true to the contradictions that surround our feelings, we accept that the things our parents have done are good and we’d like to be more like them.  We often involve them in our lives as we move through major life-changing events, asking them to our weddings, calling them for advice when our first baby screams through the night.  We are often defined by our parents and our relationship to them.

So why do so few characters in fantasy fiction have parents (or at least parents they interact with)?  Perhaps, as with characters having children, it’s just too hard to write that relationship believably.  If I haven’t resolved my own feelings about my parents it’s hard to know how my characters should act.  And then, too, my plot gets complicated: if handled poorly, it could be boring or pedestrian for an adventuring character to have bouts of homesickness and wish they could ask Mom for some advice, or maybe just get a hot home-cooked meal. 

And that’s too bad, really.  If most genre writers continue to avoid writing family relationships, I feel we’re failing.  The old adage is to write what you know.  But if I refuse to look closely at my own family relationships, I hide a part of me from my reader (and myself).  If I don’t examine these relationships closely, I may never understand why critiques come back stating that the relationships I’ve depicted don’t seem real.

In order to improve our craft, we must reach for those challenges placed before us.  How can we expect to write realistic relationships if we avoid examining the most important relationships in our lives?  If the job of a writer is to shine truths on various aspects of humanity, how can we claim to do that if all our characters are orphans?  If we claim to write realistic worlds, our world-building is lacking when our characters do not have a family to lean on when times get tough. 

And lest you think I’m all talk, my own current work-in-progress centers on my main character’s desire to pull her estranged family back together.  Her life is convoluted by the presence of her father, three brothers, and her eldest brother’s new wife.  It’s hard.  I’ve had to face some of my feelings about my own father while writing this.  It’s cathartic and maddening and a challenge I’m glad I took up.  Most days.

Adding family back to my work has given it a depth I never would have believed possible.  By working to reconnect with and save her family, my main character has inner conflict helping to drive the external conflict and bring it home on a more personal level.  Her quest matters not just to her, not just to the faceless people of her village, but also to her family.  By exploring her familial relationships, I have more material to use when she falls in love and rejects that love from fear.  I feel my story has an added level or realism and, perhaps, more honesty than some of the other fantasy fiction I’ve read.  And if that honesty exists, if my themes reach out to an and later a reader who willingly buys a copy, well, that’s all any writer can ask for.