At the heart of so much fiction is family. After all, family shapes us from a very young age and continues to do so the older we get. Families also make regular appearances in our fiction, and writing realistic family drama is not without its challenges.
I learned so much of how to create realistic characters in acting class. Studying a character so I could bring them to life on the stage isn’t that different than learning to bring a character to life on the page. You want to know what makes a person tick—why they make the choices they do. These are aspects of a character’s personality that you find in their backstory, and the more you know about that, the more realistic a character will be.
Family dynamics are all about backstory, so the best way a writer can make sure their characters are realistic within those dynamics is to uncover the family relationships going back as far as they possibly can, and then it’s important to dig in to each individual relationship.
Writing family conflict is really no different than writing any other kind of conflict, and that means there are some key factors to take into consideration when you set out to develop your story.
Give each character excellent motivation.
After all, nobody fights for something they don’t believe in. Ask any two people on the opposite side of an argument to defend their position, and they’ll likely have strong convictions to back up their choices. This is critical in writing realistic family drama. If the motivation behind a character’s action is weak or non-existent, the reader won’t buy it, no matter how angst-ridden the scene is on the page.
Those motivations can stem from something that happened in the past to cause them to react a certain way, or something that’s happening in that moment, or both.
Observe how people interact.
As you create the characters, you can decide how they interact with each other, and a great way to do that is by observing real life families, including your own.
Observation is a critical element to writing. Watching the way people interact is important to nail down the nuanced relationships you find within a family. For instance, one person may act a certain way with their sister and then act a completely different way with their mother. The relationship contributes to the action. Birth order might change how a character is viewed. Closer siblings may be more inclined to defend each other. And no two families are the same. One family may be loud and say everything they think while another may choose to bottle their feelings in an effort to keep the peace.
Once you determine the dynamics of the family, the drama becomes more realistic.
Don’t make it too over the top.
Drama for drama’s sake isn’t effective. And it’s crucial to remember that throwing in every dramatic scenario isn’t realistic or even interesting for a reader. Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where literally nothing good happened? At some point, it’s tiresome. You have to give your characters a win every now and then, and if you add conflict just to have conflict, readers are going to feel the inauthenticity in that.
Remember that all relationships ebb and flow. It’s rare that someone is always good or always bad. Showing those ups and downs is going to go a long way in making your characters and their relationships feel more genuine.
What are your favorite family dramas?
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A Special Thanks to Courtney Walsh and Tyndale House for the insightful article.