Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
Where Have all the Families Gone
By Valerie Serdy
2002, Valerie Serdy
relationships are among the hardest to maintain, yet they form some of the
strongest bonds. Many families have
unspoken rules and protocols to rival an international dinner, spelling disaster
for the suitor who comes to take away Mamaís baby.
Our relationships with our parents are usually the first social
relationships we learn and therefore tend to define how we interact with others.
Our relationships with our siblings help define how we relate to our
peers. Having children ourselves
tends to completely redefine our relationship with our parents.
So why do so few protagonists in fantasy novels have a family?
fact, the only book Iíve read recently that had any family was Barbara
Hamblyís Stranger at the Wedding.
And even then Kyra has abandoned her family for various reasons.
Only as the novel unfolds and we see her return to her estranged family
do we begin to see familial involvement in Kyraís life and the novelís plot.
only one novel out of seven I looked at. Those
arenít good odds when you consider we all come from somewhere.
We have parents, grandparents, uncles, and sisters.
My cousin liked pulling and twisting my toes whenever we got in wrestling
matches. My aunt smokes like a
chimney, eats only macaroni and cheese, and is plump enough to hug comfortably
without straining to reach around her. My
mom likes watching birds and walking through cemeteries; my sister catalogs the
gifts she receives and how much those gifts cost to determine whether sheís
been slighted. I love them all.
I miss being near them, although some days, Iím very very glad
thereís half a continent between us.
a very complex and contradictory set of emotions I hold for my family.
If I didnít love them so much, I couldnít possibly get so mad at the
things they do or say. If I didnít love them so much, I couldnít possibly care
what they think of my life. And
Iím not alone in this. Most of my
friends have equally complex feelings about their own families.
So why are so many characters in fantasy novels orphans?
Why do so many other characters happily (and easily!) chuck it all for
because itís just hard to write believable relationships and additional family
characters. Letting those family
members mess with your carefully constructed plot is hard.
your main character has children. If
Mom and Dad must leave the village to go on quest, they must either arrange
childcare or take little Baby along with them.
If Mom arranges childcare, as she travels she will likely feel a barrage
of emotions: anger that she must leave, guilt that she left her child behind,
worry, homesickness, sadness. It
takes a skilled writer to interweave these emotions such that we know what Mom
is feeling and how those feelings affect her decisions and actions without
boring us to tears by belaboring the point.
imagine Mom decides to take Baby along on her quest. You as the writer must portray that child believably.
Children in fiction often come across as props that can serve the same
function as a family pet: cute and loved but without much intelligence.
One a meager step above pet status, some children are simply comic
relief. Aw, look at the cute thing
Baby said. Often, children become
mouthpieces for the writer. We all
know the ďinnocenceĒ of childhood. Writers
(and TV writers especially) have been known to throw their own words into the
innocent mouth of babes to make a point about the various ills of society.
it isnít just writing child characters realistically thatís hard.
Children are inherently chaotic and your plot will take twists and turns
because of that. If Mom decides to take Baby along on her quest, Mom still has
to teach Baby proper manners when begging for supplies, social mores when
talking to whores and thieves for more information, not to mention Babyís
ABCs. Children get sick, have
temper tantrums, run off on their own, and repeat your words at the most
inopportune times. They get scared
and have nightmares; they run into your arms for hugs.
This too, is part of writing child characters believably.
maybe you think this children stuff is too hard to write about or it doesnít
make sense for your 16-year-old protagonist to have children of her own.
Thatís all right. But remember each of us is a child.
We all started somewhere with a mother and father.
We may have never met them, we may not like them now, we may love them
with all our hearts. The
relationship between child and parent is demanding, complicated, heart-breaking,
and loving. We may not have resolved entirely how we feel about our
parents, and judging from some of the titles available on the self-help
bookshelves, it will take a long time for some of us to do so (Toxic Parents
and Divorcing Your Parents to name a couple).
Our feelings for our parents are often a bundle of contradictions.
At various times, Iíve thought of my parents as brilliant and abusive,
omnipotent and impotent, insightful and obtuse.
Even the kids I know who are adopted feel the same things for their
adopted parents that I feel for my biological parents.
But often, they also feel a sense of loss or not belonging because they
didnít know their biological parents.
relationships with our parents tend to color our entire outlook on life: they
are the first close relationships we ever make. We often avoid or embrace people based on how they remind us
of our parents. We sometimes vow to
do things differently than our parents. And
true to the contradictions that surround our feelings, we accept that the things
our parents have done are good and weíd like to be more like them.
We often involve them in our lives as we move through major life-changing
events, asking them to our weddings, calling them for advice when our first baby
screams through the night. We are
often defined by our parents and our relationship to them.
why do so few characters in fantasy fiction have parents (or at least parents
they interact with)? Perhaps, as
with characters having children, itís just too hard to write that relationship
believably. If I havenít resolved
my own feelings about my parents itís hard to know how my characters should
act. And then, too, my plot gets
complicated: if handled poorly, it could be boring or pedestrian for an
adventuring character to have bouts of homesickness and wish they could ask Mom
for some advice, or maybe just get a hot home-cooked meal.
thatís too bad, really. If most
genre writers continue to avoid writing family relationships, I feel weíre
failing. The old adage is to write
what you know. But if I refuse to
look closely at my own family relationships, I hide a part of me from my reader
(and myself). If I donít examine
these relationships closely, I may never understand why critiques come back
stating that the relationships Iíve depicted donít seem real.
order to improve our craft, we must reach for those challenges placed before us.
How can we expect to write realistic relationships if we avoid examining
the most important relationships in our lives?
If the job of a writer is to shine truths on various aspects of humanity,
how can we claim to do that if all our characters are orphans?
If we claim to write realistic worlds, our world-building is lacking when
our characters do not have a family to lean on when times get tough.
lest you think Iím all talk, my own current work-in-progress centers on my
main characterís desire to pull her estranged family back together.
Her life is convoluted by the presence of her father, three brothers, and
her eldest brotherís new wife. Itís
hard. Iíve had to face some of my
feelings about my own father while writing this.
Itís cathartic and maddening and a challenge Iím glad I took up.
family back to my work has given it a depth I never would have believed
possible. By working to reconnect
with and save her family, my main character has inner conflict helping to drive
the external conflict and bring it home on a more personal level.
Her quest matters not just to her, not just to the faceless people of her
village, but also to her family. By
exploring her familial relationships, I have more material to use when she falls
in love and rejects that love from fear. I
feel my story has an added level or realism and, perhaps, more honesty than some
of the other fantasy fiction Iíve read. And
if that honesty exists, if my themes reach out to an and later a reader who
willingly buys a copy, well, thatís all any writer can ask for.