Around the holidays one’s thoughts often turn to family, and this year my NaNoWriMo project (I have 4 chapters left to go but wrote 70,000 words during November) had a strong focus on family. It was based on Sami mythology (northern Scandinavian) and my four protagonists included two brothers, their mother and the woman one of the brothers loved (at least, he does by the point I’m at in the story.) The brothers’ dead father even makes an appearance during the tale. I discuss my NaNo project, The Trading of Skin and my other attempts at using family as a central theme in my Adventures in NaNo-land segment of my Word Blurb blog.
Considering the book is based on legends from a hunter-gatherer culture, it’s not that surprising that family plays an important role in the plot, but that’s not always the case in fantasy. In fact, unless you are writing an epic fantasy that spans generations (Game of Thrones comes to mind), or a story that includes some element of sibling or parent-child bonding or rivalry, family can sometimes actually get in the way of the plot.
Case in point is the notion I explored in another blog post about younger adventurers and their parents – or lack thereof. If a writer wants to place a younger character in a dangerous situation, a good parent becomes an obstacle. Any sane, loving parent would object to the venture, or do their best to go after the child in question, to shield them or retrieve them. Not exactly the best start to a proper adventure.
I do have my share of siblings involved in stories, because it’s a more practical family dynamic to build into a story than that of parent-child. The need to nurture and/or protect isn’t quite as strong with brothers and sisters. Conflict between siblings certainly isn’t unheard of (Dragonlance is a good example of some pretty fierce sibling rivalry) and can make the story more interesting. I’ve even developed entire plots around sibling disagreements or the realization that they’ll find their greatest success through cooperation, although none of these stories have been published to date (but they are complete and in the works, in some instances as part of an existing series.)
Better yet, fantasy lends itself well to exploring non-traditional concepts of family. I’ve seen it and done it many times over. One of my characters in my Snowy Barren trilogy is known as “the boy with three mothers” because of his unusual upbringing. Dee Aaronsod, one of my protagonists in my Masters & Renegades series comes from a family where her parents died young, leaving four children behind to fend for themselves. The eldest plays mother and marries a man who can help support the family, but who proves to be quite destructive. Forced out of that situation, Dee briefly comes into the fold of the family that is the Renegade Academy, joined by common goals and magic rather than by blood, and eventually becomes part of the military sisterhood of the Templars of Oron. The notion of family is there in both cases, despite the lack of shared DNA, and these “families” offer her a more positive experience than the one she has come from.
My Fervor series goes several steps further with the whole idea of “non-traditional.” The house-families on the island are organized based on a variety of deciding factors, blood relationship not being one of them. The need for talent diversity and select characteristics are key to the families’ assembly. But I don’t discount blood ties completely. There are rather unusual biological familial connections between some of the Bigs and Littles on island that defy any normal family definition. It makes trying to describe their relationship all the more challenging.
So the next time you finish a fantasy book, take a moment to consider the family relationships it contains and how they complement the story. The unusual dynamics may prove to be as imaginative as the magic therein.