Some of the most powerful stories, whether they are real or fiction, are about families. Think of Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, Little Women, Star Wars or even Disney’s Frozen! So why is this so important to readers? Is it because they can relate to the powerful bonds of a family? Or is it because they can see the problems they face within their own family in what they read? Or do they want to share in the lives of a family more extraordinary than their own? Possibly it’s a little of all of these things because people usually enjoy being part of a family unit, and even if they don’t, they still cling to the sense of family they may have had in the past or are drawn towards a family they aspire to having in future.
In fantasy, writing about ‘family’ is something that can be drawn upon in a variety of ways, allowing the reader to empathise, because they understand what a family means. By pulling at the heartstrings (or even the frustrations) of your readers through family bonds in your writing, you’re creating a sense of ‘reality’ that makes even the most ‘out there’ fantasy seem a little bit closer to home. Regardless of whether your fantasy characters are humanoid or not, they have to have come from somewhere. Family ties can be used to build the foundations of a solid plot thread.
- Orphans – You may think it strange to start these suggestions with someone who has no family, but how many stories have you read that feature a central character who has lost their parents? From Oliver to Great Expectations to Clan of the Cave Bear to Harry Potter to BFG, fiction is littered with poor unhappy waifs who long for the comfort, support and stability of a family they simply don’t have. But writers take such characters and draw upon their inner strength so that they’re living by their wits and become more independent than those with family around them, while their lack of family lies in the background of their lives like an open wound; sometimes even as an Achille’s heel. Sometimes orphans know who their parents were, but there are times when they don’t and this can provide a sense of mystery, especially if you give little hints as the story progresses. David and Leigh Edding’s The Belgariad is like this, where the central figure Belgarian has no idea who his parents were and although he’s being cared for by his ‘aunt’ and ‘grandfather’ as he grows up, little teasers are given away by the other characters as to who he really is and the hidden powers he possesses. As the story progresses more hints are given away until it gets to a point where the boy practically explodes in his desire to know who he is so that he can become who he needs to be; a sorcerer king who will save his world. This is quite the opposite to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter who is constantly reminded of who his parents were, but their past is still drip-fed to him – not everything is given away at once.
- Taboo family – I can’t be the only one who wasn’t initially shocked by the brother and sister in Game of Thrones who were getting busy under the king’s nose, and producing children as if they were actually the king’s. The creation of a family through incest is a taboo that underpins our society and George R. R. Martin definitely feeds off this in his writing to shock us and make us read further. But just remember that incest in royal families has been rife throughout history. Pharaohs married their siblings, medieval European royalty married close cousins from all sides of their family – often requiring a dispensation from the pope (and often being annulled due to consanguinity even though they knew they were related from the start). So you have that shock value that stuns the reader, while the characters themselves often see no problem in the arrangement whatsoever.
- Moral compass – The people who bring you up normally determine the definition and direction of the morals and beliefs you hold, which can be both good and bad. Some families hold long running moral positions that many of us may not see as justified, such as blood feuds, over the top religious beliefs, terrifying political standings, discriminatory tendencies, etc. that run through from father/mother to son/daughter throughout the generations until finally one of them cops on that all is not right in the world. Imagine a child brought up by a family who for generations have hated other people of a particular race/religion/colour/alliance/etc. (for some dreadful reason in the dim distant past) and coming to realise that they’d prefer not to for their own reasons, and want things to change. This can, of course, prove controversial or even dangerous – look at poor old Romeo and Juliet for example. It’s very easy to follow the status quo in a family, but moving outside that to stand on higher moral ground can provide the grounds for friction and violence in your story.
- Long suffering families – Families that are stricken by a problem amongst one of their number often suffer it together – all in their own ways. An excellent example is The Time Traveller’s Wife, where the husband is afflicted by an unfortunate tendency to travel into the past or future without warning. This then impacts the relationship with his wife who continually miscarries their babies because each foetus also appears to “travel” outside of her womb. The friction, pain and worry of this hereditary problem is something the couple both suffer but in quite different ways. Families usually try to support each other through their troubles, even if they’d prefer to run away from them as fast as they can, but that doesn’t mean they suffer the problem in the same way.
- Blood does run thicker than water – Often in stories you may have heroes and heroines who turn up to save the day in the name of love or honour, but I actually do like the ones where someone from their family is their saviour. Somehow it’s more believable because family ties can be very strong and the people who love you most (no matter what mischief you get yourself into) are usually family, because they know you and can look past any current problems to the person they’ve known from birth.