Before I started up this blog, I toyed around with the idea of a monthly creativity game where every month had its own theme. These themes would all revolve around fictional characters and they would act as prompts for the creation of some type of work, both from myself and anyone willing to participate. I, personally, would spend the month putting together a piece of writing or working out a character design based on the theme. Or I would do them beforehand and use my work as examples for others, I never really ironed out all the details. Now, in an effort to give myself more things to do on off-Thursdays, I’m bringing the idea back in a new form. Instead of creating a piece of work using the theme, I’ll be taking a more analytical approach to them and attempting to determine how they can be best used in a fictional story.
Since it’s February, I might as well start with the theme I had pre-written for this month; Family February! This will cover more than just biological families, but for simplicity’s sake let’s start with those. Biological relationships are important to any character and, a lot of the time, if their birth family isn’t immediately relevant then they’re dead for simplicity’s sake. It’s astoundingly easy to use birth family as a source of conflict for a character; killing them off is an automatic source of trauma and makes a free antagonist out of the killer(s) or a family member could just be the antagonist, adding an innate level of personal investment to our focal figure.
On top of this, the death of family works due to the sense of irreplaceability that it carries. If a friend dies then you can make new friends, if a lover dies then you can love again, but you only get one biological family. Only one pair of people brought you into this world and if they, who had the task of raising you, are killed or let you down then that’s a huge mental and emotional blow. Even if you weren’t raised by biological family, it’s still easy to empathise with these types of plot points because the point is that these are the figures you had growing up. I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that most people can relate to the process of growing up.
So dead and/or bad family provides easy conflict, can be almost universally empathised/sympathised with and is a reasonable source of trauma/messed up development in a character. These are all things that are good for a story, so it’s no wonder why this happens a lot in fiction. So, which is better, a family that’s dead or a family which is evil? For my money, I would actually say the bad family makes for better storytelling. While sad, a character having a dead family feels like a cheap shot while a more antagonistic/abusive home leaves more time to fully develop a character’s flawed upbringing. The result of dead family is always vengeance or action against whatever caused their deaths, there’s little variance while poor upbringing can change a character in a countless many ways.
The families in question don’t even need to necessarily be ‘evil’ to achieve this result. It could simply be a case of them not knowing how to properly raise their children or not being able to fully provide what they need. Going to the extreme of making the family outright abusive isn’t always necessary when these more-common-to-real-life avenues exist and can also make for interesting characters. A character might even have an outright good family but still be completely jaded thanks to general living conditions they had growing up. I know there are stories where this type of thing has been done but, compared to the dead parents route, it seems far less common in the media that I personally consume.
Another family trope I would like to bring up is one that most commonly appears in fiction revolving around superheroes. That trope is, of course, the potential hostage family. By all accounts, these families tend to be normal, loving and functional. They’re totally mundane, which would make them easy prey if a villain were to find out that their opposing hero were related to them. The dynamic here is essentially one where the focal character tries very hard to avoid the dead parents scenario. To be frank, this family archetype often seems like an afterthought more than anything else. The actual dynamic between the heroes and their families tends to be cut/paste generic and the idea of said families being put into peril either happens once or just doesn’t, there are a very limited number of scenarios that can come from this.
My answer to this would be simple enough; make more interesting dynamics between heroes and their families. So many stories just have them there to be used as potential bargaining chips while the real interesting parts of the plot happen elsewhere. Having the superhero try not to reveal their identity to those close to them is so unbelievably annoying with regards to this. What are they gonna do if they know, kidnap themselves? They’re barely a part of the plot for as long as they don’t know and erasing this trash trope would do wonders for families in superhero fiction. We need to care about these characters in the first place if we’re going to care whether they’re kidnapped or murdered.
Next, I want to go over the generic roles that specific family members commonly take, starting with father figures. It should come as no surprise that a good number of fathers in fiction fall into traditionally masculine stereotypes. Whether they’re good or bad, they tend to be stubborn and are always the parent who is trying to enforce some type of tradition on their child. ‘I raise you this way because this is how I was raised’ is an idea that summarises a lot of fictional fathers. They’re used as the representations of the generation before that of the focal character(s), giving us some insight into the story’s setting by acting as a product of their time. Good for worldbuilding but the presentation of these father characters feels very similar a lot of the time. Strict man who attempts to enforce his perceived correct way of life onto child, regardless of what that life is, until eventually realizing that child should have freedom to be their own person.
As antagonists, the perceived masculine trait of repressing emotions is the basis for a lot of fathers. Villain fathers tend to be distant so as not to expose any kind of weakness to the focal character(s) and their actions aren’t bound by morals. This lets them play to some sort of objective goal that isn’t restricted by thoughts of consequences. I’m personally not a fan of these types of villains because they tend to end up having very underdeveloped and/or boring personalities or get totally unjustified attempts at redemption. Father characters whose real emotions are hidden under this hard shell for the whole story up until the end aren’t very appealing to me, especially if they’ve done abhorrent things beforehand. A lot of stories attempt to redeem villains that shouldn’t be redeemed and father villains fall into this trope a lot thanks to the familial aspect of their character.
More openly loving and coddling fathers aren’t necessarily uncommon in stories but there’s exactly two scenarios where you’ll see that type of dad. The first is when they’re handling a baby and trying their best to be gentle and what have you. The second is if they have a daughter, who is their princess and gets everything they want. The loving and maybe overbearing father trope doesn’t seem to be used often with regards to sons, which I believe is another product of stereotyping. I wouldn’t be averse to seeing more emotionally open fathers in fiction and, honestly, more varied presentations of fathers in general. Within each trope, there’s so little variance in how these characters are actually utilized and I think we need to smash some stereotype barriers to help us get past that.
In fiction, mother figures live a dangerous existence as they are under a much greater threat of dying. If I were to imagine a generic fantasy fiction family, you’d have the focal character, the distant and imperfect father who has a weak bond with the focal character and the two-dimensional caring mother who has a strong bond with the focal character but dies. The primary traits of this mother is that they care about their child and that they die. Obviously, this is once again playing to stereotypes as women are seen as more emotional and empathetic and are traditionally the ones who raise their children while the father is out earning gold coins or whatever.
This summary assumes that the focal character is male but it’s by far the most common dynamic I’ve come across. The relationships between female characters and their mothers tend to be more complex if a lot more rare. Sometimes they’ll end up being passing on tradition plots except replacing father and son with mother and daughter but to my memory these dynamics are usually less cut and dry. Otherwise, mother characters tend to feel very shallow, following the same archetype because why develop the one you’re going to kill off?
If we’re looking at JRPG plots or anything inspired from one then there’s a good chance of a mother character actually being a powerful, ancient, super being. This can lead to one of two characters; the one who could not care for their child due to the nature of their being and regrets that fact or narcissistic antagonist who either doesn’t care about their offspring or will try and manipulate them to their side. The existence of these supernatural mothers pretty much just amounts to the shocking twist that their offspring aren’t human. The mothers themselves tend to not be very fleshed out, poster examples of what their race is meant to be at best. I think there’s potential in these types of special bloodline plots but most I’ve experienced do the bare minimum they have to. I’ll talk more about that a little further down.
There is one other type of antagonistic mother and that’s the batshit crazy archetype. The premise behind this trope is, again, that women are seen as more highly emotional than men, which means it’s theoretically more likely for those emotions to get out of hand. This isn’t necessarily limited to mothers, female characters in general suffer from this trope to various degrees, but being overbearing of their children to the point of insanity is a way I’ve seen it written many times. This doesn’t tend to make for very interesting or likeable characters and, seeing as they’re based off of a frankly sexist assumption, I don’t think the premise itself has much potential. Characters can be crazy but it has to be based on more than just ‘woman have many emotion’.
Having covered mothers and fathers, I’d say now’s a good time to touch on the subject of single parents real quick. An odd thing I’ve analyzed regarding the many plotlines where the mother dies and the father lives is how the child often goes on to be compared to the mother. This makes sense if the mother was around for a significant time during their developmental years but, if they leave the child’s life at a young age, they should be more influenced by the one who is left to raise them. In these fictional stories, however, they more often grow up to have the traits of the one who died somehow. This isn’t really a big deal but I think a lot of stories could do better to represent how the guardians who are actually around influence the characters they’re left to raise. Using myself as an example, I stopped seeing my biological father at a young age and was primarily raised by my mother, an aunt and a grandmother. To this day, thanks to that, I’m still a lot more comfortable around girls than boys. I’m just one case but I doubt my life experience is an outlier.
Speaking of aunts, it seems that a lot of aunts, uncles and cousins in fiction are weirdly antagonistic. Not in a dreadful or serious way but they’re unnecessarily standoffish toward the focal character(s). They can sometimes be more caring if they’ve taken in the focal character after they’ve lost their own parents but even in that specific scenario I’ve seen aunts, uncles and cousins take on a borderline abusive role. It’s like they exist as competition in some way, a worse version of the focal character/family for them to prove they’re better than. This isn’t a take I’m particularly fond of, in no small amount because it doesn’t line up with my own personal experiences at all.
A similar issue spills over to sibling characters, a subject I have no right talking about due to being a single child. It feels like siblings are almost always used as a bar, they exist as better or worse versions of the focal character literally just as a point of comparison. They so rarely get to be their own characters and only get to exist relative to each other. Even without having a sibling myself, I don’t think this is actually how siblings function at all. Relationships between them are complex as they’ve developed their own body language between each other throughout basically their whole lives. Even if they are close, it’s rare that two siblings are going to go down the exact same life paths. The dynamics between siblings can be so complex and yet that fact is barely utilized in fiction at all, at least from what I’ve experienced.
Siblings as antagonists suffer a similar level of genericism. I’ve mentioned a lot the plot point of parents dying, well if there’s a sibling involved then there’s a good chance they’re the one who killed them. The reasons why are usually stupid with the first coming to mind being just to coax the focal character. ‘I killed our parents! What’re you gonna do about it?’, pretty much. There are other ways to make siblings fight without such a drastic measure. There are also ways to make siblings fight without making them variations of the exact same character. Making them insistent on comparing themselves to each other is arguably the easiest way of sparking a conflict but there are better, more interesting and less employed ways of writing this.
Returning to the idea of special bloodlines, this is an idea you’re likely to be well acquainted with if you’ve watched precisely Naruto. I think that show presents some of the best examples of how having special bloodlines can effect a family’s community status as well as giving them unique and recognizable abilities. This approach of the bloodlines being pre-established and implemented into the world is a lot better than the twist approach used by other pieces of media. Waiting until whatever point in the story to be like ‘as it turns out, main character, you are not actually a normal human!’ only gives you less time to develop the bloodline for not really much gain. Usually, up until that point, the character in question has given little to no reason to believe that they aren’t effectively just a regular person. This gives the twist little impact unless it’s forced and the cost is potential worldbuilding using the special ancestry.
The clear way to supersede these negatives is to make others of the focal character’s bloodline prevalent before it’s revealed that they’re one of them. There also needs to be ample foreshadowing towards the eventual reveal because shock value alone won’t carry this type of twist. At latest, the reveal would have to happen midway into the story and I think it works best if some type of physical mutation comes of it. Think Terra from Final Fantasy VI and the reveal that she’s actually an esper, that’s the type of scenario and pacing I’m thinking. The build-up into a visual change gives the development a lot more impact than it would have otherwise and having an idea of what it might mean relative to the world that’s been built is important.
Moving on, I want to cover a subject that I personally feel is very important, which is chosen families. Biological and adoptive families are obviously key to one’s development as a person in early life. However, they aren’t the only family you’re ever going to know. Bonds of blood, bonds you didn’t choose, aren’t as important as the bonds you make naturally throughout your life. It’s more important that your mother and father be your friends than your family and, in turn, your friends can also be your family. You shouldn’t be inclined to like someone just because you share their genetics, your family should be the people you truly connect with.
This is a story that a lot of stories where the focal character loses their family end up telling. They lose their place in the world and become lost until eventually finding a new group that they belong with, their new family. This in itself ends up being the best part of a lot of stories simply because it’s a good message to send. Even people who feel they have nothing or that they’ve had everything taken from them can find a new family to belong to. The objective quality of these scenarios relies on the dynamics between the involved characters but having this idea in a story at all is always a good thing.
The last thing I was going to talk about is the idea of the focal characters having children of their own but that’s a difficult subject to cover. When your main character has a child, there’s this innate sense of the torch being passed. The automatic assumption, for me at least, is that the child will become the new focal character. In doing so, we end up with the dynamics we’ve already covered with the old focal character now being the mother/father. Before these children are old enough to take on the focal role, they’re basically just objects for their parents to interact with so we can see them in a parenting scenario. In the worst cases, children can become the cause of a story extending past where it should.
There isn’t really a conclusion to all of this, in essence this post is just thought sludge that I wrote out so I could think about fictional families. I may personally refer to this post to help myself avoid self-perceived generic scenarios but hopefully this has been interesting for others as well. This was all based off of the works that I’ve personally consumed so I’m sure there’s a lot that I’m missing given a limited viewpoint. My hope is that others find value in my perspective, that’s why I put this up as a blog post after all.