For all its flaws and foibles, without her family, Elizabeth Bennet would never have fallen in love with and married Fitzwilliam Darcy. Pride and Prejudice is about family: Bingley’s, Darcy’s, and Elizabeth’s. And where would Game of Thrones be without the highly stressed and often dysfunctional Lannisters, Starks, Targarians, and the rest? Families define circumstances, characters, conflicts, and so much more.
About thirty five or so years ago, at the invitation of a friend, I attended a party where one of the guests was holding forth about “these kids today” and the demise of the American family or some such tripe. I found his thesis interesting but flawed. I jumped right in (I’m seldom shy at parties where I don’t know anyone and there is alcohol) with a comment that family is so important to “kids these days” that if their own family didn’t work for them, they’d create a family out of friends and fellow travelers. My utterly humiliated friend drug me aside and hissed, “Do you know who that is? He’s the professor (at the local college) of family studies!” Unabashed, I responded, “He’s still wrong.”
Everybody comes from somewhere, and even orphans, a la Charles Dickens, end up with someone close to care about or devil them. Even a nameless assassin with no past like Jason Bourne will claw his way back to being David Webb, a man who once had a family. Because you can pick your friends but not your family, kin folk can bring a story tension and conflict; allies, or rescue at the appropriate moment; insight into the protagonist and his actions; even insight into why the bad guys got the way they are.
My family has been, at various times, not fully functional, so when I went out into the world on my own, I figured I could do a better job of running my life without bothering with family interference. For the most part, that worked for me, but, as I said, family is so important that, in time, I made my own–my own community of friends, people with similar interests, drinking buddies, allies, and so forth. I also, in time, made peace with my family, or the fragmented bits of it that have presented themselves over the years.
When I started writing, I wanted my characters to be independent and self sufficient. But I found if I introduced some of their family as well as their friends, colleagues, and lovers, the story got richer, like the stories of many of my favorite fictional characters who have lovable or maddening or otherwise noteworthy family members.
Some of the family that show up in my stories are modeled after my own relatives. But I have had enough scrapes with other families that I think I’ll have a supply of notable characters for the rest of my writing career–enough to round out a lifetime’s worth of work.
Image: A slice of my husband’s family. By Warren C. Hutchins, Sr.