Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
Blood is Thicker Than Water
By Bryn Neuenschwander
2002, By Bryn Neuenschwander
one: three characters.
two: eight characters.
three: twenty characters.
made me think giving my main character a large family was a good idea?
naming the members of the family is easy. You have your main character
(MC), his father, his mother, and maybe an aunt or grandfather who is important
enough to merit a name. But now I'm thirty-one characters in and I haven't
even started to think about whether any of Saoran's siblings (she's my MC) and
cousins have had children yet. Probably. So they'll need names, and
so will the husbands and wives of all these people -- and that will just take
care of Saoran's family. After that, I get to think about the family she's
problems don't stop with the names, either. They're only the beginning.
Not all of these people will be major players in the story, of course, but
enough of them will need details beyond a name to make my task monumental.
There's the younger brother Saoran doesn't get along with, and the maternal
cousin who's trying to manipulate her, and the aunt widely believed to be crazy,
and the disaffected and ambitious half-sister . . . the list goes on and on, and
it's only getting longer.
on earth would I put myself through this torture?
who has read Orson Scott Card's novels Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and
Children of the Mind remembers the Ribeira family. It's hard to imagine
those books without Novinha's brilliant and unstable children. Yet in the
original draft of Speaker for the Dead, they were hardly characters at all; they
were cardboard cutouts, made because Novinha was Catholic and therefore should
have a family. When Card stopped and devoted some attention to them,
however, building them up into characters in their own right, they gave the
novel a depth and a resonance it had previously been lacking.
wasn't an easy task for him, either. Novinha has six children, but as Card
points out in the novel's introduction, six children are not just six more
characters. They're six more points in the web of relationships that makes
up the novel. When you have two characters of real importance, it's easy;
there's one relationship to think about. Three characters means three
relationships, plus the way all three of them interact together. Four,
then, means six two-person relationships, four three-person relationships, and
one of all four together.
is quickly getting out of hand.
can't even do the math to figure out how many relationships there would be in a
family of thirty-one people. It's not that many, of course; only one of
Saoran's grandparents is still alive (two haven't even been named), and an aunt
and an uncle are likewise dead. Not only can I whittle down the family
that way, I can also relegate many of the cousins and cousins' spouses and the
like to the sidelines as spear-carriers. Not all of them, though.
And those who remain are more than enough to keep me very busy.
is a reason, however, for me to do this. Card's Novinha was Catholic, and
therefore, for accuracy's sake, he had to either give her kids, explain why she
didn't have any, or change the way the Catholic church views contraception.
Rather than take the easy way out, he embraced that cultural detail, and the
result was a much richer novel.
richness is what I'm after. My character lives in a setting that is
comparable to the Renaissance-period -- i.e., well before reliable birth
control. Moreover, she's a princess. Royal families have long used
children as pawns in foreign relations, and this world is no different. In fact,
since the country is split into rival courts, intermarriage is a crucial part of
diplomacy. The ruling class is infested with people related to Saoran.
This is realistic, good for the novel, and a huge pain in the neck for me.
worth it, though. Which will hurt more: for Saoran to be betrayed by a
friend who is not her kin, or for her to be betrayed by a friend who is her
cousin? When it's her turn to be the one using people as pawns, will it be
harder for her to send someone into a loveless diplomatic marriage when that
someone is a relative she grew up with? Blood is thicker than water, and
it makes treachery all the more painful.
characters should logically be members of large families? Nearly all
characters in a pre-modern society will be part of a large family, unless you're
going all the way back to hunter-gatherers. Also, anyone who follows a
religion that either values family or prohibits interfering with it, or those
among a group of colonists or settlers. Characters who must have extensive
interaction with their community could benefit from having some kin there; if
the MC is off on a journey across the world or fighting for survival in the
wilderness, it's less useful, unless she's locked in a cabin in the middle of a
blizzard and her only company are her siblings.
in a contemporary novel, however, family can be a great way to differentiate
your character from all those only children populating other books. It
makes for richer backstory, even if inventing it drives you mad. It gives
your reader a feeling that there's a world beyond the boundaries of your story,
one you could tell other stories about if you were so inclined. Working
with a large family can be an enormous challenge, but the payoff is worth it, as
the intricate relationships play out and transform your novel from a simple tune
to a symphony.
for the Dead
Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
St. Martin's Press, Inc.
of the Mind
Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC