One of the fundamental aspects of writing a novel is developing a cast of characters to act out the story you want to tell. These characters will come from work/play relationships, hobby groups, proximity . . . and family.
Since family is the first and most significant set of characters we encounter in real life, we would expect family to be paramount in the development of a story. Cinderella’s step-mother starts the ball rolling in that fairy tale. A foolish mother, a gaggle of sisters, and a negligent father create the impetus for Pride and Prejudice, while Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights is a terrible dad in all respects.
Yet, despite the seminal role of family in real life, in fiction, especially romantic fiction, the family is often absent. Why? I have a few suggestions.
- A young woman without a family, is extra vulnerable. This vulnerability opens up many avenues for story. She may be victim, heroine, fighter, or survivor.
- The absent family may be the seed for a quest story. Our orphan sets out to discover her roots and perhaps some long-lost relatives.
- An orphan is a perfect foil for a misfit story. She may be adopted into a family that exploits her, or tries to shape her in their own image. Modern history is full of tales of Indigenous children taken into non-indigenous families. No matter how well treated, the orphan knows she is “different.” Of course, if she is treated badly, that is a whole other story.
- The orphan’s tale may be a story of self-discovery. Who am I? Did my mother abandon me? Where is my self-worth?
- A character without a family becomes a story of survival. How does she earn her bread? Where can she live? What obstacles must she overcome to achieve happiness and security?
My list is not exhaustive nor immutable. Clever writers take those tropes and turn them upside down all the time. I’m reading a Jennifer Crusie book where the heroine not only has a family and a best friend, she goes home to mother when her love-life falls apart. The results are hilarious.
“Barbie” has no progenitors yet the movie maker gave her a great life, a journey or self-discovery and a good ending.
Still, I’d bet most of us want to have a happy family, live in a comfortable home, and know where we came from. We want big family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and birthdays, and summers at the lake. We’d like “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Waltons” as the backdrop of our daily lives. That’s why “fiction” is fiction. Given a choice, most of us don’t want to go hungry, or fall prey to criminals, or be homeless, or . . . But fiction thrives on a host of calamities afflicting the main characters. At heart, readers are voyeurs. We peer in at the lives of others and thrill to their adventures, ache for their mistakes, long for them to find true love — all from the comfort of our armchairs.
To all my friends in Canada, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving with wonderful family gatherings.