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

Women, Men, Families and Fiction

By Kay House & Justin Stanchfield

2002, Kay House and Justin Stanchfield

Family background can add tremendous depth to your characters.  Minor children as active characters add poignancy to your theme.  Despite this, many writers make little reference to family, and children often appear only as props.  Why?

Children and family do not belong in every story, but the problem is broader than that.  Many writers hurt otherwise excellent stories by including poorly drawn children, which leads us to suspect that insufficient information and inadequate research play a part.  Still, more and more writers use fully realized minor children as characters in stories intended primarily for adults, creating complex, realistic family relationships to deepen their adult characters.  Here are a few examples.

I. Stories with Kids

Most of the examples of stories with minor children were written by women.  This probably reflects the fact that, even today, a woman is still statistically likelier than a man to be the primary caregiver for minor children.  It follows that more women than men will have extensive experience in childcare to draw on to reduce the amount of research required to write minor children effectively.  More and more fathers, however, are becoming deeply involved parents.  We expect this to reduce the research imbalance as time goes on. 

Many science fiction and fantasy novels are bildungsromans.[i]  Still, fully developed minor children abound in this genre.  In Mercedes Lackey's Arrows of the Queen, we meet Talia, the heroine, on her thirteenth birthday.[ii]  Arrows of the Queen also features Elspeth, a spoiled seven-year-old who is heir apparent to the throne of Valdemar.  Elspeth expects Talia to kneel because she is in the "Presence of the Heir to the Throne."[iii]  Instead, Talia turns the tables on Elspeth, and wins Queen Selenay's admiration.  Later scenes between Talia and Elspeth evoke the large family setting in which older children serve as auxiliary parents for their younger siblings.[iv]    

In Bones of the Past, by Holly Lisle, two-year-old Kirtha accompanies her mother on a quest.  One character objects that he doesn't want "a helpless mother and her tiny babe"[v] to come on the expedition.  Lisle's dialog for two-year-old Kirtha is especially well done. In one scene, Kirtha gives her shirt to another child.[vi]  Later, the action turns on a beautifully realized play sequence among children of differing ages.  At this point, the children and their motivations drive the plot.[vii]   

C. J. Cherryh's Cyteen[viii] and Anne Bishop's Daughter of the Blood[ix] both focus on exceptional girls as heroes.  Exceptional children represent a special challenge.  The temptation to write them as small adults is almost overwhelming.  Neither Cherryh nor Bishop succumbs, and the results are outstanding.  In Cyteen, Cherryh takes Ariane and her friends from toddler to teen with remarkable skill.  In fact, the body of Cherryh's work is replete with unusually well drawn teenagers. 

Susan Wittig Albert writes about an amateur detective, China Bayles.  China encounters family issues through Brian, the 11-year-old son of her lover, Mike McQuaid.  In Thyme of Death, China and McQuaid (a single dad) enjoy the luxury of a weekend while Brian stays with his grandparents.[x]  In a later book, Albert demonstrates her skill in writing middle-school children.  China learns more about Brian, but their exchanges are indirect, demonstrating the non-interactions that typify exchanges between adults and children in middle school.[xi]  In Rosemary Remembered,[xii] the way Brian and China interact builds her development as a character.  At one point, Brian drives the plot with his persistence in seeking a sci-fi character holo-card.   

Finally, in her Quinn Brothers Trilogy, Nora Roberts brings to life on the page two minor children who are critical to the success of the story   one a charming toddler, the other a rebellious, frightened adolescent boy.  Roberts demonstrates adult-toddler relations at their best in one short scene.  Ethan, the protagonist, finds that the neighbor who comes in to help with the cleaning has brought her daughter with her.  In Rising Tides, we find Aubrey, the toddler, in the front room with Ethan.

"Ouch!" She giggled, rubbed his face again.  "Beard."

Obliging, he skimmed his knuckles over her smooth cheek, then jerked his hand back.  "Ouch. You've got one, too."

"No! You."

"No." He pulled her close and planted noisy kisses on her cheeks while she screamed with delight.  "You."[xiii]

 

Roberts uses proto-sentences to convey the child's age more effectively than description.  Despite their tiny attention spans, toddlers can be as persistent as older children in pursuing an objective.  Roberts shows both children as characters whose motivations and actions help drive the plot.  In Rising Tides, the children are not passive victims.  They are characters through whom adult characters see their own dilemmas in a more compassionate light.

 Many horror writers use children as props.  Children are added as 'extras' to fill a scene, or worse, as victims to elicit the reader's sympathy.  However, writers such as Stephen King portray children with an honesty and realism seldom seen in other genres.  It is rare for King to write a novel without including at least one character who is a child.  Often even King's adult characters are motivated by events from their childhoods, a lesson lost on too many lesser storytellers.  Children in fiction, like their adult counterparts, should act with a healthy sense of [xiv] self-interest, sometimes selfishly doing whatever they think is best for themselves.  Selfishness is an all too human trait.  Good writers use it.  Great writers live and die by it. 

II. Stories with Family

Both sexes are well represented among writers who, like King, use family relationships to show the motivation of adult characters.  Dorothy L. Sayers' Peter Wimsey novels weave family relationships in and out of the series.  The family is functional, but has some relationships that work better than others.  Clouds of Witness,[xv] finds Lord Peter facing a mystery in which his older brother and younger sister are murder suspects.  Neither is willing to tell him the truth.  Peter finds comfort in a close relationship with his mother in Strong Poison,[xvi] in which he falls in love with a woman accused of murder.  Throughout the series, Sayers uses Peter's love for his family of origin and his desire for a family of his own as a way to "knock the sawdust out of "[xvii] Peter. That it no doubt "hurt like hell,"[xviii] was not important, because, as Peter concludes, "What would that matter if it made a good book?"[xix] David Weber's Honor Harrington also has a healthy family, which Weber cites[xx] as a reason for the strength of Harrington's character.  

Dick Francis' Straight focuses on the relationship of adult siblings.  Derek, the protagonist, deals with the death of a brother nineteen years his senior.  He finds himself regretting lost opportunities for deeper friendship with his brother.[xxi]  Francis' Sid Halley novels[xxii] show an unusual twist on family relationships.  He creates an in-law bond so strong that it survives the divorce.  Finally, in Nerve, Francis explores the effects of family expectations on career choice, health and achievement.[xxiii]  

S. L. Viehl, in her Stardoc novels, uses family dysfunction as a plot driver.  Scenes between father and daughter[xxiv] demonstrate an unhealthy relationship in which a parent wants to live the child's life as well as his or her own.  Cherijo's refusal to be owned and controlled drives the action at many decision points.  The plot of Roberta Gellis' Thrice Bound[xxv] is similarly driven by the protagonist's need to escape from an abusive father.  

More women than men write romance, a genre often criticized for concentrating too much on family.   This complaint seems unfair.  Family opposition is a classic source of conflict in romance.  An invitation to "meet the folks" signals that a relationship has commitment potential.  Romance writers sometimes build a series by basing book two on the romance of some friend or relative of the bride (or groom) in book one.  Cameo appearances by principal characters from previous books can be overdone, but readers want to know how their old friends are doing, and it would be inappropriate to deny them completely.

III. Stories for Kids

Children's writing was once a male-dominated genre. Frank L. Baum, E. B. White, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and dozens of other men wrote the bulk of children's fiction throughout the early decades of the twentieth century. Even writers such as Roald Dahl, who tried unsuccessfully for years to distance himself from children's novels - most of his stories were spy thrillers and occasionally erotica - is best remembered for the children's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.[xxvi]  

Starting in the 1960's women began writing children's and young adult novels in increasing numbers.  Simultaneously, especially in the young adult genre, the writing style became harder edged, grittier, more true to life.  Today, authors like Jane Yolen, Sherwood Smith, and Annette Curtis Krauss write with such brutal honesty and attention to detail that their characters absolutely breathe.  Fictional families behave like real families: brothers, sisters, and parents all wrapped around each other in the complex knots that bind any flesh and blood unit together.  Realism, even in science fiction, fantasy, or horror stories, has replaced the silly sweetness that once was de rigueur in children's literature.  

Sadly, we notice that the balance between the sexes has slipped too far.  Instead of becoming a genre in which the contributions of both sexes are well represented, women writers now dominate the field overwhelmingly.  We suspect that some men who would otherwise write for children and young adults share Roald Dahl's concern about being over-identified with the genre.  Or maybe some publishers feel that kid's writers should be either stay-at-home moms or single mothers trying to make ends meet.  Regardless of why, the imbalance is regrettable.  Children need to sample a wide range of viewpoints as they find their way into adulthood.  Despite the imbalance, the challenge of writing books for today's young people is exciting, and the field is very much in flux, a vital, evolving genre whose full potential has yet to be tapped by either sex.

IV. Humor

Many of the best observers of human nature are humorists. Whether men or women, humorists write about the warts and bumps of humanity and turn these flaws into something both funny and instantly recognizable.  This takes a keen eye.  From Mark Twain to Erma Bombeck to Patrick McManus, the art of being funny relies less on inventive plots or clever prose than on being able to see through the grimy facade of day-to-day living to the silver linings beneath. That isn't to say differences don't exist in the approach women and men take to humor.  Men will often laugh at situations many women consider crude.  Still, the work of a good writer transcends differences, not just between the sexes but between cultures as well. Good humor is more than a simple set-up and punch line. The best humor is a fun-house mirror that strips away pretension and prejudice to let us laugh at ourselves and with each other.  

Well-drawn families and children contribute immensely to stories intended for any market, but a badly written child can only detract from your work.  To portray children well means serious research even if you happen to know a child of the age in question.  In the end, the question of who writes better families, women or men, is probably a matter of taste, where verisimilitude, like beauty, truly is in the eye of the beholder.

 

[i] A bildungsroman centers on the development of an individual's character.  The hero begins a journey of self-discovery as a result of some loss (such as being orphaned) or conflict.  Because the journey involves leaving home, interactions with the hero's family of origin are not featured, and minor children seldom play an important part.  The story ends when the hero has found a way of being him or herself in society. 

[ii] Mercedes Lackey, Arrows of the Queen, ISBN 0-88677-189-7 (New York, 19) pp. 13-18.

[iii] Ibid., pp. 64 & 65.

[iv] Ibid., pp. 225-238.

[v] Holly Lisle, Bones of the Past, ISBN 0-671-72160-7 (New York, 1993), p. 178.

[vi] Ibid. p. 130.

[vii] Ibid. p. 271-280. 

[viii] C. J. Cherryh, Cyteen, ISBN 0-446-67127-4 (New York, 1988).

[ix] Bishop, Anne, Daughter of the Blood, ISBN 0-451-45671-8 (New York, 1998).

[x] Susan Wittig Albert, Thyme of Death, ISBN 0-684-19522-4 (New York, 1992).

[xi] Susan Wittig Albert, Witches Bane, ISBN 0-864-19636-0 (New York, 1993) pages 98-105.

[xii] Susan Wittig Albert, Rosemary Remembered, ISBN 0-425-14937-4 (New York, 1993) pages 198,202, 239-243, 263-275.

[xiii] Nora Roberts, Rising Tides, ISBN 0-515-12317-X (New York, 1998) p. 18.

[xv] Dorothy L. Sayers, Clouds of Witness, ISBN 0-06-104353-2  (New York, 1927).

[xvi] Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison, ISBN 0-553-06503-3 (New York, 1930).

[xvii] Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night, ISBN 0-06-080824-1 (New York, 1936) p.  303.

[xviii] Ibid., p. 302.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] David Weber, The Short Victorious War, ISBN 0-671-887596-5 (New York, 1994) p. 43.

[xxi] Dick Francis, Straight, ISBN 0-449-21720-5 (New York, 1989) pages 44, 117.

[xxii] Dick Francis, Whip Hand, ISBN 0-671-41903-X (New York, 1979) and Odds Against, SBN 671-78967-8 (New York, 1966).

[xxiii] Dick Francis, Nerve, ISBN 0- 71-82933-5 (New York, 1964).

[xxiv] S. L. Viehl, Stardoc, ISBN 0-451-45773-0 (New York, 2000), Beyond Varallan, ISBN 0-451-45793-5(New York, 2000), Shockball, ISBN 0-451-45855-9 (New York, 2001),

[xxv] Gellis, Roberta, Thrice Bound, ISBN 0-671-31834-9 (New York, 2001).

[xxvi] Roald Dahl, Charley and the Chocolate Factory, ISBN 0-375-91526-5 (New York, 1964).