Giving Fictional Characters Goofy Relatives

Kinship refers to how we identify our relatives. The term encompasses culturally defined relationships between individuals who are commonly thought of as having family ties. How is this decided? Well now, that can get a bit sticky and this is a great way to conflict your fictional characters.  
All societies use kinship as a basis for forming social groups and for classifying people. There is great variability in kinship rules and patterns around the world so knowing what you’re talking about is useful in creating that spark of authenticity that characterizes good writing. 
Understanding how kinship structures function explains some of those mysterious social interactions, attitudes, and motivations we observe in other societies. Kinship is often one of the most important social organizing criterion along with gender and age. This can be demonstrated in something as simple as who is served first at dinner time or as critical as who inherits the crown when the ruler dies. Good fantasy authors chase down concepts like these with a stick. Good world building requires intensive detail.
There are two basic types of kinship bonds. You are a member of the kin group into which you’re born. That’s pretty simple. The other comes along when you get married or create some formal sort of alliance with another person/group/family. Most of the time you get a lot of new relatives when you get married, even if you’d rather not.
Occasionally, a third type of fictive kinship develops. In this case we assign gravity to relationships we treat as importantly as those with kinsmen, but they occur with people we are not related to in either of the usual ways. Think in terms of the childhood friends who become close as siblings during your lifetime or those people you called aunt and uncle even though you aren’t related (I’m not talking about your floozy aunt Josephine who brought home a new fiance every three months). 
So frickety what? Well think about how you can use this information. As writers we create characters. They have families. Unless your protagonist sprouted from an intergalactic crouton, relatives are great backstory to weave into the narrative. Think about the apples on your family tree. We all have those kinds of relatives, you know them…the ones you try to avoid at mandatory gatherings, the ones that never stop talking, or are only too happy to illustrate what’s wrong in your life. The ones who demand to know when you’re going to get married, have a baby, divorce the idiot, get a real job, plan for the future, visit more often, get a haircut, let your hair grow out, go back to school, etc.
Get the idea?
You may not need any help in this area. I don’t care. I like tracking kin relationships and this is another excuse to talk about lineage charts. If you haven’t done this sort of exercise, give it a shot. Draw out the relationships of your main character. Do they have siblings? Are the parents alive, separated, deceased, or absent? Is there a large extended family or a small number of surviving relatives. What are their origins? Where did they come from? Does that matter? How can it not?
You may never use most of this information but creating all those bits and pieces of a character is like knowing all that personal stuff about your best friend. You don’t mention the fact she was caught sneaking out her window at sixteen, you don’t dwell on the fact she hasn’t been to church in twelve years, but those details are why you understand her hatred of locked doors and someone peering over her shoulder. Those nuggets explain why she pushes the boundaries of social propriety and acts out in naughty ways.
If you’re looking for inspiration, check out the Shorpy Historical Photo Archive. I spend entirely too much time wandering around in there. The National Archives is another great resource. 
What sort of families have you gifted your characters with? Does your protagonist come from an impoverished background that made him strive for economic success? Does your antagonist have a chip on her shoulder from people assuming she had the perfect childhood in a wealthy household? I dunno…what are your examples?

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  1. #1 by Leslie on April 25, 2012 - 8:06 pm

    Thanks for the sunshine!

  1. Blackmail Material « Alica McKenna Johnson

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