Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Blood is Thicker Than Water

By Bryn Neuenschwander

2002, By Bryn Neuenschwander

Generation one: three characters.

Generation two: eight characters.

Generation three: twenty characters.

What made me think giving my main character a large family was a good idea?

Generally 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 marrying into.

My 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.

Why on earth would I put myself through this torture?

Anyone 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.

It 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.

This is quickly getting out of hand.

I 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.

There 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.

That 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.

It's 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.

What 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.

Even 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.

Speaker for the Dead

ISBN: 0312937385

Publisher: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC

 Xenocide

ISBN: 0312861877

Publisher: St. Martin's Press, Inc.

 Children of the Mind

ISBN: 0812522397

Publisher: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC