The dynamics of a family always make for a good story. You probably think your own family is not very interesting and that you’re just like any other. But it’s the small idiosyncrasies of each family member and the relationships between them that never cease to pique people’s interest – and makes for excellent reading.
In this On Writing post, the Sunday Times bestselling author Annie Murray talks about writing family dynamics. As a prolific and successful author of over 20 sagas, she knows how to write a great drama and tells us why it’s always interesting to keep it in the family.
How do you do justice to the complexities of family dynamics in fiction?
That’s quite a question. While it’s true that very often people feel typecast in their family – she’s the clever one, or the one who’s always in a mess and so on – this is fatal in fiction if that’s as far as it goes. It’s important to be able to identify characters and not get them muddle because they are too similar, so of course they need defining characteristics. But I think the main thing is to introduce characters in a way so that you can recognize them readily, but to add layers, contradictions, cross-currents – above all in the main characters. If a character is always an ‘angel’ and sickly sweet, never thinks or does anything anyone could disapprove of or dislike, they are unbelievable and in the end, how can anyone else identify with someone like that?
I often write books in which there are large families. If the book covers a long period, there may be a child born near the beginning who, until they have grown up a bit, I have no idea what their personality is or their role in the novel, but a role for them arrives later – like watching a ‘real’ person develop. And in being born into that particular family, they have found a place in something that is like a constellation. Family members occupy a space that makes a unique pattern for that particular family. That pattern is held in place by the ebb and flow of the way personalities interact and how people forge their identity differently from each other. All this gives energy to the family as a distinct shape, which may shift over time – people leave or take on a different role – but the characters need to be held distinct in it. I’m not sure if that makes sense!
Novels often depict families – how do you take a fresh angle?
I think any family is a fresh angle of itself because the dynamics of each are unique. When I’m planning a novel I don’t look for ‘issues’– I like to write books about life in the round which necessarily includes quite a variety of events and moods and often covers quite a long period of time. What makes any family interesting is its very particular character, which, as Tolstoy pointed out, makes it ‘unhappy in its own way.’
Do you have a clear idea in your head who each character will be and what their role in the family/novel will be?
No – hardly ever. I find it’s a matter of focus and time. Once you start thinking about a novel, characters seem to present themselves as the figures you are going to spend time with. Something comes through, a kind of energy that says, I’m the one this time. They are not in any way fully formed – that has to be worked on, and thought out consciously as well as intuited. Sometimes I have to do a Q & A with a character, often asking them really basic questions. It always helps to know where they have come from and something of their birth family’s dynamics – even if that is not in the story itself.
I have tried many times to plot and plan everything because it seems like a way of alleviating anxiety in writing the novel, but it only ever works up to a certain point. I find that the only way to know characters is to write them. It’s very like getting to know a person you have newly met. As the number of encounters you have grows, as you talk more and see that person forced up against challenges, you get a feeling of what motivates them. You work out what it is they want, what their underlying emotional complexities are. The more major the character is in the novel, the more time you spend with them. Once I’ve reached the end of the first draft I usually feel, aha, I’m really beginning to see who you are now. But it takes re-writes to get that better in place. A bit like turning the colour up in a black and white photograph.
Do you use story circles or any other kind of story-boarding device to help you fine tune your ideas?
I really don’t. Obviously I make notes but it’s more about doing the writing and thinking in between, asking yourself, ‘who is this person?’ What are the things that have marked them, what drives them, what do they fear and long for?
Why do you think that stories about ‘the family’ continue to be popular and interesting?
‘Home is where we start from’ as Donald Winnicott said. That’s one of the things that make orphans so fascinating and touching – because home in that way is missing for them. But in general, it’s an experience everyone has in common – in an endless variety of ways. And the more we learn about the impact of early years experiences on infants, the more true it becomes that family is absolutely the cauldron of who we become. I sometimes think the ‘saga’ genre should be called the ‘Family Album’ genre as there’s going to be something in these stories that nearly everyone can relate to.
What other authors, in your opinion, have nailed family drama and why?
There are so many. One that springs to mind in terms of what I’ve been saying, is in a book most people have read; the way Jane Austen differentiates the characters of the Bennett daughters in Pride and Prejudice and shows the family dynamics at work through them. It’s even harder when all siblings are the same gender (Barbara Kingsolver does something amazing with this in The Poisonwood Bible with all the main voices being female.) Writers of regional/family sagas also have to do a lot of it as we often write about large families!