Made in America

Show Don’t Tell: Family

This time of year, the holiday season, is all about togetherness, friendships, and family. Familial relationships can be a very interesting thing to explore in your writing, especially when a family is the focal point of your story. A family can not only shape and influence the person you are, but the different dynamics at play within a family can create an interesting layer in your manuscript. If your story involves your protagonist’s family as a key plot device, here are some tips on how to flesh out all of the different characters and their relationships.

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1) Build the Family

When you’re writing a story about a family, it’s important to create a detailed picture of that family. Is it the stereotypical Mom, Dad, son, and daughter picture? Is it a little boy being raised by his aunt and grandma? Is it twins who live with their adoptive parents, but are close with their adoptive aunt and uncle and visit them frequently? Everyone’s family looks different, think about how your protagonist’s family looks, who they consider their immediate vs. extended family, and why.

2) Personalities

After you’ve figured out what their family looks like, you’ll need to dive into each character’s personality. Does their Mom smother them with love or is she somewhat distant? Is their Dad a workaholic or does he have any strange hobbies like building ships in bottles? Is their sibling the type to shut themselves in their rooms or the type that is nosy, needing to know everyone’s business? Give each member of the family their own unique personality, idiosyncrasies, mannerisms, and interests.

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3) Relationships

Once you have an idea of each family member’s personality, it’s time to delve into each relationship on an individual level. Let’s take a family that has a mother, father, daughter, and son living at home. Perhaps the son and daughter don’t get along well and are constantly fighting one another for the bathroom or at the dinner table. Though they don’t get along with each other, maybe the son gets along well and confides in his mom and the daughter to her dad. And perhaps these confidences cause a strain in the relationship between the mom and dad as they disagree with who is at fault in arguments when they’re both getting different sides of the story. A lot of different relationship dynamics can be at play within a single household, as well as with extended family.

4) Conflict

Conflict is at the heart of storytelling, it’s how the plot will continue to progress. After you’ve got the basics of the relationship dynamics down, it’s time for you to create more specific situations with higher stakes. For example, let’s say the sister steals the brother’s donut so, to retaliate, the brother prank calls her crush. This is something that could affect her life at school, so the stakes are higher for her if he does some damage. And they aren’t simply high because he could embarrass her, but him doing this could further damage their relationship.

And conflict doesn’t always have to be so direct. It could be something like a husband using the bathroom and the wife asking if she can have it because she’s in a hurry. He says he’s almost done and she says OK and walks away. You can feel the tension here and you can feel her frustration, but it doesn’t lead to an outright fight it’s indirect.

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5) Settings

Conflict will continue to build among family members in your story, until either information comes out or there is a setting for the conflict to boil over into a fight. This setting could be at a familial gathering such as thanksgiving, but it could also be at mom’s work party, cousin’s wedding, on vacation, etc. It should be a setting where it simultaneously makes sense for information or conflict to arise, while also being an incredibly inopportune time for it to do so.

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