First of two posts on families. There’s so much here.
1) Differentiate between your character’s perceptions of her family and the reality of her family.
One reason I loathe and detest and hate and would like to set on fire the majority of teenage protagonists in the fantasy genre, and run away from most books with them, and much prefer adult protagonists, is that the teenagers are almost always represented as perfectly right about their families. Either their families love and adore them, or they despise them for no good reason. Whichever it is, the teenagers are sure to think about it within a few pages of their introduction. And they are right. They are right, and that will never change.
I’ve been part of family interactions as well as seen them from outside. I think almost everyone has. And I would ask: How many arguments or problems in a family are only one person’s fault? Almost none. Yet the families of fantasy protagonists are often sure to blame them unfairly. The innocent protagonist only wants to daydream, and her mean ol’ parents will insist that she work. (See point 2). She almost never appears to consider that sitting around on a bale of hay and daydreaming, especially if she’s part of a farm family, will make her a liability, since she still takes from the family without giving anything. I would have no problem with the daydreaming if she agreed to sleep outside or take a cut in the food her family feeds her in exchange.
What about if the protagonist’s sister makes fun at her for being less beautiful than she is, and teases her, and makes her run away in tears? It’s the mean ol’ sister’s fault, of course. (See point 3). Yet the protagonist continues giving her sister exactly what she wants, the tears and the running away, and she never does anything new. For example, she never attempts to suggest a reasonable solution to the problem to her parents. She just has conversations with them about her sister “exactly like every other conversation they’d ever had.” And that’s the problem, you stupid-ass. I don’t feel inclined to give unconditional sympathy to someone who keeps walking the same rut she’s trod every time. Sympathy, yes, but at some point I would expect her to consider what new thing she could do, and at least try it. Passive-aggressive mumbling of the same tired kind will make her parents irritable and snappish. I am speaking from personal experience, here. (Recovering passive-aggressive addict with two younger siblings).
Does her brother keep beheading her flowers? That mean ol’ brother! (See point 4). So the heroine puts fire-spells on her garden to protect it, and then the fire-spells burn her brother, and her parents blame her, and isn’t that unfair?
Well, no, I don’t think so. I think a human life is worth more than flowers. And if it was a true accident—for example, if the heroine misjudged the strength of her spells—that just proves that she isn’t ready to be fooling around with magic yet. Her parents might have a point there.
Always, always remember that the other family members may have reasons for acting as they do. Think about what it would be like from their perspective. Don’t assume they’re just mean ol’ people without thinking about it more carefully. Even “straightforward” abuse is a lot more complicated than it seems on the surface. (See point 5).
2) Don’t over rely on your audience’s tendency to identify with lonely dreamers.
Some fantasy readers do. They were lonely dreamers themselves. Others don’t. They were never lonely dreamers, or they outgrew it, or they changed, or they got up and made their dreams fucking real.
Sometimes I feel as though the author, at a loss to make her protagonist readable or sympathetic, decides that “daydreams” and “dreams of adventure” and “wanderlust” (though it’s rarely called that, presumably because you don’t want to use the word “lust” around a delicate maiden—fantasy heroines are almost always virgins) are enough to do it. Awww, lookit the widdle girl, wanting to adventure and she can’t! Awww, lookit the wonely boy, teased and taunted by his brothers because he would rather read than help with the farm chores! How sad they are! Let us cry for them.
Sorry, but when that first moment of oh-so-special sharing is past, I want to know more about them. What do they dream about? What do they want most out of life? Have they given up on their dreams, or have they half given up, or do they still think that there’s a chance of achieving them?
It’s remarkable, after all the pages devoted to the protagonist’s dreaming, how vague the answers to those questions often are. Probably because answering the question “What does your character desire most?” is a good first step on the road to someone definable. And what will the story do without the vague Everygirl or Everyboy who’s taunted by their families? (Or perhaps you can’t use the word “desire” around those delicate, virginal maidens, either).
Think about it, please. Why not a dreamer whom her family cherishes and understands, but as well as leaving her alone to daydream, they do insist that she does all her chores? And no, I don’t think that requiring she do as much as her brothers and sisters in terms of chores is abuse. Nor is insisting that, if the lonely reading boy gets books, his brothers get swords. (Books in most fantasy worlds are expensive). Life is so much more interesting when dreams have to get shaped and channeled by the limits of the possible. It’s the first step towards achieving them, for one thing.
3) Don’t base the protagonist’s relationship to siblings of the same sex on appearance.
I try. I really do. I make a valiant effort to keep going when it becomes clear that the author is going to compare how beautiful two or three sisters are, or how handsome two or three brothers are, and zzzzz.
Wait. Wait. I can do this. See, the protagonist is the youngest sister, and her elder sister makes her feel bad for having blond hair, and zzzzz.
No, no, really! See, the youngest sister also has color-changing eyes and, and, zzzzzz….
Not going to work. Gee, I wonder why?
Maybe because it’s a fucking shallow thing to base sibling relationships on? Yes, it can be a start, but it’s far more likely that the protagonist would relate to a stranger or schoolyard rival that way, not someone she’s known all her life. She would remember embarrassing stories about her sister as a child. Yes, the male protagonist might feel squirmy if a girl he likes prefers his more handsome brother to him, but he’s hardly going to creep about and think only of how he always knew his brother would get the girls, because of his appearance. They’ve also had far more serious conflicts based on clashing personalities, having to share the same possessions, competing for parental attention, and so on.
There are two other reasons that sibling appearance contests send me to sleep:
- If the fantasy author who can build reasonable suspense about the ending is one in a hundred, the fantasy author who can build believable romantic suspense about whether two characters will really end up with each other is one in a thousand. If the protagonist appears to be losing her crush—I refuse to dignify the silly games that go on in these fantasy books with the term “love”—to her prettier sister, either she will win him by being more beautiful in the end, or he’ll turn out to be shallow and she’ll find someone a million times better. There’s not a whole lot of variation.
- The author winds up changing her mind about the protagonist’s appearance anyway. Retellings of the ugly duckling story are rampant in fantasy novels. The protagonist will always “bloom late,” or “grow into her own beauty,” or “shine in his eyes because he knew and loved her.” The male protagonist always loses his acne, if he even had to begin with, sooner or later and grows a manly jaw and is sure to be described as “ruggedly handsome.” It’s predictable as the sun rising.
4) Don’t make relationships with siblings of the opposite sex exclusively bitter little sniping contests.
Once again, they’re complicated. I fought with my brother bitterly, but that’s because he was three and I was eight, and we had opposite interests. Now we manage to get along all right when one or both of us isn’t in a pissy mood. People do change.
I admit, I have to raise an eyebrow when I see a protagonist who has a younger fourteen-year-old brother acting just like a five-year-old. Yes, it’s possible that he just never grew up, but I would think that less likely in a fantasy world than in our own. Fantasy worlds are usually harsher, with more work, more disease, less comfortable living conditions, more violence, and on and on and on and on, to say nothing of the random rampaging dragons or marauding evil guys. Someone who’s still that childish at fourteen would probably attract attention and condemnation from outside the family, and it’s doubtful that a peasant family (where most fantasy protagonists come from, or apparently come from) could afford to have a child who acted like that; they’d either get him to straighten up before he hit fourteen or get him out of the house somehow, perhaps by apprenticing him. So the protagonist is being put in an utterly unrealistic situation just so the author can milk the maximum pity for her. I see. Good-bye.
For an older sibling, consider creating an antagonistic relationship out of something other than jealousy. So many times, the older brother or sister hates the younger sister or brother because they’re “jealous.” Yet, at the same time, the protagonist is represented as having almost nothing—no powerful and influential friends, because they’re too “different” from everyone else in the village or the castle; no good possessions, because of course their horrible hateful parents give the good stuff to their favored siblings; no free time; no way of making their dreams come true. So, um, why are these siblings “jealous” again? And don’t say that the older siblings recognize the inherent goodness of the protagonists or some such bull. I will bite you.
Very, very often, the writing of these relationships makes it sound as if it really were a teenager writing them. That could be a good thing, I suppose, if the goal is to get across the protagonist’s teenage mindset. But if the world is also teenager, if everyone really does act out of jealousy and petty hatred, then the book has a BIG problem. (See point 1 again. Do you really want a teenage world, where people never think of anything deeper?)
5) Don’t do the abusive parents/uncle/aunt/guardian shtick. Please, with cherries?
I already did a whole rant on abused characters, so you can go look at that if you want detailed explanations of everything I’m saying here. But this applies specifically to abusive relationships with parental figures.
- Such abuse is blatantly exploitative. It exploits audience pity, it exploits audience cleverness that might otherwise notice obvious plotholes, and it exploits the reader’s immersion in the story. Of course everyone is against child abuse. If you don’t like the protagonist, are you saying you’re for child abuse? It’s wrong, it’s sick, it’s stupid, and I wish people would stop writing about it for the same reason that I wish people would stop writing those Chicken Soup for the Soul books.
- It’s become the typical thing to do. The fantasy protagonists who emerge from abused backgrounds aren’t special. They’re common as grubs under a log.
- Such protagonists are very rarely like real-life abused children, for all the supposed “trauma” they’ve endured. They have the showy signs—some scars, some broken limbs, some nightmares (nightmares are a favorite). They don’t have the gaping psychological wounds that abuse often leaves. The author may claim that they do, but for some reason, those wounds usually vanish the moment the wise old mentor “rescues” them and tells them about their special magic and destiny.
- The reasons for the abuse are not treated with any complexity. They usually come out of jealousy, or because the parents wish the protagonist’s magic had gone to a sibling, or because she wants adventure and is a girl, or something of the kind. The abusers are not people. They are the good ol’ mean abusive robots.
- It stands in for real characterization. The protagonist is simply Abused, much like she’s Not Pretty Compared to Her Sister.
- It leads to a revenge set-up—how will her abusive parent(s) feel when she comes back with magic and money and a prince on her arm, huh, huh?—that can’t be done with any more variation than most typical fantasy romances.
- Author issues stand a nasty chance of coming to the fore. Not all fantasy authors were abused, but they may have strained relationships with their parents, and use this to talk about those things. I signed up to read a fantasy, not a therapy session, thanks.
- Most of the time abuse is, simply, boring. Look, her father’s breaking her arm now. And is she thinking about how much it hurts and how unfair it is? She is. And look, I bet the author’s going to use “her arm snapped like a broken stick” comparison—yes, there it is! Yawn. A lot of authors seem to think abuse is easy to write. It is not. There has to be a sense of real horror, tension, drama, suspense. And a lot of fantasy authors regularly shoot their own suspense dead as a doornail.
Next part is on special loving families, and also twin relationships.