It's that time of year again. Family fun. Laughter. Good times.
But is everyone as cheery as they seem? In real life, I sincerely hope so. If you're writing fiction, I sincerely hope not, or your readers are in for one yawn-inducing ride.
In Breathing Life Into Your Characters, psychoanalyst Rachel Ballon discusses the common sources of conflict within families, and encourages writers to draw on these to create believable relationships and intriguing characters that we can empathise and sympathise with.
- Dysfunctional Families: These can occur in any shape or size. Members may be extremely distant from each other or extremely attached. Both extremes may be emotionally damaging, especially to children. Dysfunction may occur when death or divorce traumatize members and emotional adjustment and balance is threatened. Members may feel insecure, guilt-ridden, angry, out-of-control, fearful, paranoid etc.
- Family Triangles: Family members assume the roles of persecutor (dad's being mean), rescuer (mom, dad's being mean) and victim (mom, dad's being mean to me).
- Oedipus Complex and Electra Complex: This is Freud's version of specific triangular relationships where the son wants to marry his mother and kill his father (Oedipus) or the daughter wants to marry the father and kill the mother (Electra).
- Family Secrets, Myths, and Lies: Many families will do and say anything to hide the truth should it threaten the family name. [I recently found out my uncle, one of twelve children in a Catholic family, impregnated a girl when he was a teenager. This was kept a family secret for fifty years!]
- Co-dependency: This is common in families of alcoholics and addicts, that is, one person lies or makes excuses to 'cover' the other person.
- Addictions: Irrational, criminal or violent behaviour may stem from an addiction and cause depression, fear, and low self-esteem within the family unit.
- Physical or Mental Abuse: Abusers may be suffering an addiction or be a victim of abuse themselves, and they often display unpredictable behaviour, e.g. abusive one day and overly loving the next.
- Sibling Rivalry: A child may feel that a parent favours a particular sibling and be driven to extreme behaviour in an attempt to win approval from parents, peers, or self.
- Family Rules and Beliefs: Beliefs about race, religion, politics etc. are often handed down through generations and may provoke extreme behaviour.
- Family Injunctions: These are messages that parents pass to children and which carry through to adulthood, such as 'You're too fat to be a dancer,' 'You're so lazy,' or 'Writing doesn't pay - study and get a real job.' These can result in low self-esteem, resentment, determination, recklessness etc.
- Family Values and Traditions: What would your characters die for? What values could you not tolerate in a life-partner or friend?
Family units and individuals react differently to family conflict. Some people scream and throw large heavy objects; some people sulk; some people scheme; some families deny everything; some families actually sit down and talk their problems through (boring!).
- Dysfunctional Romantic Relationships: Unrealistic expectations of a mate may result in role playing, lies, disappointment, confrontation, avoidance, resentment, infidelity or violence.
Do your characters experience conflict through realistic family dynamics?
Exercise 99. What family conflicts do you recall from childhood or have in your family? Do you lend them to your characters? Can you intensify them to heighten the suspense in your story?
Exercise 100. Bah to family conflict. Show your own family that you love them. Have a very, very, merry Christmas.