Most characters in a story will have a family member featuring at least in a minor role in the plot. But how should you write them to make them credible?

All characters need to be credible

A character in a script, a novel or novella needs to have a personality, inner conflicts, outer conflicts, nuance and complexity, flaws and strengths. The list of attributes can go on and on. What we know is that a great character in a story needs to be credible. In short, he or she has to be a person (or thing if you’re into science fiction) who the audience can relate to.

Family characters are different

How is a family character any different from an ‘ordinary’ character? Well, let’s look at ‘real life’. How is your mother different from any other older woman walking along the street? How differently do you relate to your sister or brother (or cousin) compared to - say- your friends? They are more important, more loved, more hated even, than other people in your life.

Below I’ve listed eight ways to highlight this difference when writing family characters.

1. Blood is thicker than water

When writing family characters try to think about the bond that the narrator has with the family member. Forgetting your friend’s birthday might be embarrassing, but forgetting your mother’s Special Day will get you the silent treatment for months (or, if she’s anything like my mother, a particularly generous gift for my next birthday - she’s a master of passive-aggressive behaviour). These strong bonds may often be invisible to outsiders, but the family members know they exist. When writing family members, these kind of deep emotions are a great way to give characters added intensity.

2. Physical likeness

It’s useful when writing family members as characters to remember that families often look alike. Even if they don’t have the same colour of hair, or eyes, there’s is often something visible to show a shared DNA. They can be the same height, build, or just have the same mannerisms. All this physical likeness makes it easy for the writer to differentiate the family members from the other characters, or to describe the relationship without having to constantly point it out.

3. Love and hate

Love and hate are two sides of the same coin. They are both deep emotions that occur in the same area of the brain and in family members it’s more common to love and hate a person at the same time. Just read Freud, or look at family rifts. Often members of the same family don’t speak to each other for years - the hate is far deeper than in other relationships. For an author, however, these love-hate relationships are rich pickings. It may explain why there are so many best-selling books written about families (Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, The Tea Planter’s Wife) and hit TV series about families who love and support - and fight - each other at the same time (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Simpsons).

4. Name them

Don’t forget to give family members names and use them in the text. It may seem strange to describe a character’s mother as, ‘Mary’ for example, because the character would never use it. But it becomes very repetitive to constantly use the possessive form, ‘John’s mother’, so inserting the first name occasionally is a better way to make sentences flow. Here’s an example, ‘John’s mother liked to think she was always right, but John knew on many occasions Mary had been very much in the wrong - most painfully when she said his acute appendicitis was just wind.’

5. Same use of language

Family members usually have exactly the same accent and use of language. They also often possess a certain kind of short-hand of expression when discussing past events, especially shared past events. In a story you can make up an expression, or a way of pronouncing a word, to subtly indicate a family connection.

6. A secret society

If you’ve ever been the only outsider at a family dinner, you’ll know what I mean about a family being like a secret society. At a family supper you (the stranger) feel like treading on eggshells because the rules are unnamed but you know they mustn’t be broken. ‘Dad always sits there,’ you’re told just the moment you’ve parked you rear end on a chair. There may also be tragic events known by all but never mentioned; funny incidents told and retold at each meeting of the clan. In a story, these kinds of unspoken rules and shared experiences are an excellent way to describe many people at the same time. You can attribute various reactions to different members of the family, and in so doing not only differentiate them from the other characters, but also give them each their own unique personality.

7. It’s a gang thing

As well being a secret society, families are like gangs. All for one and one for all. Just think of your partner; does she or he go on about their mum or dad, and how awfully bad they’ve behaved, or what terrible characters they are? If you, however, dare to level one small criticism against any members of your partner’s family, he will begin to defend them straight away. Even after a fight (families often fight a lot more than others), if you as an outsider start to take sides, you often find yourself in the wrong. Use this gang-like mentality to create complicated relationships in your text between family members and you’ll find you have some great characters.

8. Think different but same

Finally, when writing family members, it’s useful to list the attributes that are the same, and the ones that are different, with each character, making sure there are enough similarities for you to refer to in the story. Think of a family you know well, and try to list all the similarities the members of that family possess. You’ll be surprised how complex those people (characters) suddenly become! In your story you can use the complexities, perhaps changing the different pieces of your family character puzzle a little. And hey presto, you have a cast of characters for your next novel!

Helena Halme has written several novels where family relationships feature heavily. Her latest novel, THE GOOD OFFICER, is the 4th novel in The Englishman series of Nordic contemporary romances and is now available to buy on Amazon.com.